The Memorable Tennessee-Georgia Game 40 Years Ago

  • Tuesday, September 16, 2008
  • John Shearer

This Sept. 14 marks the 40th anniversary of a memorable college football game between Tennessee and Georgia at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

The late afternoon game was significant for several reasons.

First, it was the first college football game played in the Deep South on an artificial playing surface.

Also, Tennessee end Lester McClain of Nashville was making his debut as the first African-American to play for either school.

The 1968 game was also the first time the two schools had played each other in 31 years, even though 2008 finds them bitter SEC East rivals.

Lastly, in front of a national television audience, the two teams played a memorable football game that ended in a tie in pre-overtime days.

The game, which was the 1968 opener for both teams in the days when the first game usually was not played until mid-September, had taken on its unusual flavor back in the summer, when Georgia surprisingly learned that Tennessee was installing an artificial Tartan surface.

Although the Bulldogs had played on the similar “AstroTurf” the season before in a loss to Houston in the Astrodome, Georgia athletic director Joel Eaves was reportedly quite upset at the change that came without warning.

As the game drew closer, the focus switched from the different playing surfaces to the two bright young coaches. Tennessee’s Doug Dickey had led Tennessee to its first SEC championship in 11 years in 1967, and Vince Dooley’s Dawgs shared the SEC title in 1966.

Plenty of other similarities between the two coaches existed. They were both 36 years old, both had started as head coaches at the schools in 1964, both had very similar records, and the first names of all their children started with D.

When game day arrived, numerous fans took time to check out up close the new Tartan playing surface. Sandboxes were placed along the field to let fans extinguish their cigarettes in those lax smoking days and not cause burn marks on the playing surface.

Also drawing some attention were such well-known politicians as Gov. Buford Ellington, U.S. Sen Albert Gore Sr., U.S. Rep. Bill Brock from Chattanooga and other congressmen.

They were seated in UT President Dr. Andy Holt’s or Chancellor Charles Weaver’s boxes in the press box, across the field from the new 6,000-seat upper deck on the East stands.

Also with them was Goodyear chairman Russ De Young, who could see the Goodyear Blimp overhead.

When the teams were warming up, tragedy struck when 85-year-old W.E. Luttrell of Knoxville died after being stricken with an apparent heart attack while sitting in the stands with his son, former Tennessee player W.W. Luttrell.

Once the late afternoon game began, Tennessee – a slight favorite -- went ahead 7-0 in the second quarter, when Mike Jones scored following a fumble recovery by captain Dick Williams deep in Georgia territory.

At halftime, the number of television spectators watching on ABC quickly grew, as Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Denny McLain had just won his amazing 30th game on NBC.

Fans attending the Tennessee-Georgia game in person were treated at halftime to the political songs of the three presidential candidates – Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. The UT Pride of the Southland Band’s rendition of Wallace’s theme song received the loudest applause, the newspaper said.

In the third quarter, Georgia finally scored, when Jim McCullough kicked a 40-yard field goal after a fourth-down penalty against Tennessee put the Bulldogs within kicking range.

Allthough still close, the game was showing no sign that it would become a classic.

That was about to change. Later in the third quarter, Georgia safety Jake Scott caught a Herman Weaver punt at the Georgia 10-yard line, eluded three Vol tacklers and sprinted down the sideline for a 90-yard touchdown to put Georgia up 10-7.

Scott was an all-American on a stout Georgia defense that also featured future Miami Dolphin teammate Bill Stanfill,

Other defensive players for Georgia that year included Baylor School graduate Happy Dicks and Billy Payne, who went on to secure and head the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and is now chairman of Augusta National Golf Club.

Also on the Tennessee team was sophomore defensive back and future Vol radio network commentator Tim Priest. Future coach Phillip Fulmer was a member of the freshmen team.

After the sensational return by Scott, the Volunteers did not let the punt return phase them, as they drove the ball down the field, only to lose a fumble on the Georgia1-yard line.

However, famed Tennessee linebacker Steve Kiner quickly tackled Georgia quarterback Donnie Hampton in the endzone to give the Vols a safety late in the third quarter. The score was now 10-9 in favor of Georgia.

Hampton, the late father of former UTC quarterback Brian Hampton, was sharing time that day with sophomore Mike Cavan. Cavan’s father, Jim, had played for Georgia in 1937, when the Vols and Coach Robert Neyland won 32-0 in Knoxville in what was the last game between the two schools until 1968.

In the fourth quarter, Georgia again appeared as if it would be the winning team. Running back Bruce Kemp went through the line, shook off a Vol tackler and sprinted 80 yards for a Georgia touchdown.

The score was now 17-9 in favor of Georgia. After Tennessee was forced to punt after three downs, the Bulldogs were able to eat up precious time before having to punt.

Tennessee went to work in its own territory. Only 2:41 remained in the game and Tennessee quarterback Bubba Wyche had completed only seven of 22 passes. The outlook seemed bleak for the Big Orange.

Slowly, however, Wyche – whose brother, Sam, coached Cincinnati into the 1989 Super Bowl -- began moving the Vols down the field. With the help of a 14-yard pass to the pioneering McClain, Tennessee had the ball on the Georgia 9.

The game was getting very late. Two Georgia sacks in three plays put the ball back at the 21. Time existed for only one more play, which was a fourth down anyway.

Georgia radio announcer Larry Munson and John Ward of UT, who were both early in their stints, were likely getting quite excited.

The odds of Tennessee scoring a touchdown and a two-point attempt seemed long.

Nevertheless, great tension filled the then-60,000-seat stadium as the Vols came to the line. What would happen?

For Tennessee, two miracles took place. Gary Kreis caught the touchdown pass from Wyche as time expired, and then Wyche hit Ken DeLong for the successful two-point conversion.

The stadium of mostly Vol fans went delirious.

Ties often brought wide ranges of emotions for teams and fans. For Tennessee, the final deadlock definitely felt like a victory, and for Georgia a loss.

I cannot say I watched much of the game, but I still remember it vividly. I was a 9-year-old Georgia fan who was out in the Valleybrook Road front yard of my buddy, Kurt Schmissrauter, playing a game of football with him and some other neighborhood youngsters.

I remember we took a brief break to go in and check out the game, and I witnessed Jake Scott’s punt return for a touchdown.

We then went back outside and began playing some more, and I vividly recall Kurt’s oldest sister, Hilda, opening the front door a few minutes later and yelling to us, “Tennessee tied Georgia!” I remember that she was noticeably excited.

I recall that I was quietly disappointed, while several of the other youngsters were very happy.

Georgia would actually go on to enjoy the greater rewards in 1968, as it won the Southeastern Conference with an 8-0-2 regular season record. I still remember listening to Larry Munson broadcast the victorious road win over Auburn to clinch the conference championship. I also have never forgotten the score – 17-3.

One of my early football heroes – besides Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers – was Georgia sophomore quarterback Mike Cavan.

Tennessee would go on to enjoy a good year in 1968 as well, with a loss to Auburn its only blemish during the regular season.

Both Georgia and Tennessee enjoyed New Year’s Day bowl games. Georgia was to play Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, while Tennessee was to face Texas in the Cotton Bowl, which was then one of the four major bowls and was played at the exact time as the Sugar Bowl in the early afternoon.

I remember that my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, who had gone to Georgia but also pulled for Tennessee, brought our small black-and-white television set and put it next to the larger color one in the den. The color set was on the Georgia game in those pre-remote control days, while the black-and-white one was on the Tennessee game.

Whatever color they were, both games ended up painting very gloomy scenes. Tennessee was not used to defending the new wishbone offense unveiled by Texas and was trounced 36-13.

Georgia, I believe, was extremely flat for its bowl game and lost to Arkansas, 16-2 – another score I have not forgotten. I can also still recall the names of the two Arkansas players – quarterback Bill Montgomery and receiver Chuck Dicus – who were key reasons the Razorbacks won.

While Tennessee and Georgia fans were disappointed on the first day of the New Year, they both could take pride in the memorable game that had occurred on the first day of the season.

It was truly a game for the ages.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

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