Nearly 50 years ago, the University of Tennessee football program was in a situation not much different from 2013.
The once-proud Vols had been around a .500 ball club five out of six years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and no signs of a certain turnaround were apparent.
But a young coach, Doug Dickey, soon brought winning back to Knoxville. First, he helped the team overcome mediocrity, then the tragedy of three assistant coaches dying in a car-train collision in 1965, and finally by beating rival Alabama for the first time in seven years in 1967.
As a result, his Vols went on to win Southeastern Conference championships in 1967 and 1969, and he compiled a respectable 46-15-4 record before he left to return to his alma mater, Florida.
He was also known for innovating as much as winning, as at least three traditions he started have become defining symbols and images of the program. These include the power T’s on the helmets, the checkerboard end zones and the pregame ritual of having the players run through the human “T” formed by the Pride of the Southland Band.
As the now-80-year-old coach Dickey looked back on his coaching career over the phone recently from his home in Jacksonville, Fla., he admitted that he still follows the Vol program closely and is watching the Butch Jones hire with much interest.
“I hope that Tennessee has made a good decision and that the program becomes more competitive,” he said. “They’ve lost an edge.”
As a coach and later athletic director at Tennessee from 1985 to 2002, Mr. Dickey was known for not losing his competitive edge.
Born in South Dakota, he grew up in Gainesville, Fla., where his father was a speech professor at the University of Florida. Originally a walk-on with the Gators, the future coach went on to become a starting quarterback under coach Bob Woodruff.
He had been known as a smart tactician on the field, and coach Woodruff, who later became athletic director at Tennessee, offered the U.S. Army veteran and Arkansas assistant Mr. Dickey the job as head coach of the Vols after the 5-5 season in 1963 under one-year coach Jim McDonald.
Mr. Dickey, who was 31 when he was hired, said he enjoyed trying to resurrect the program.
“Tennessee has a lot of rich tradition,” he said. “So it was up to whichever coach it was to try to re-establish the competitive edge in the SEC and nationally.”
Besides working on the execution level on the field, coach Dickey thought the entire Tennessee program – including Neyland Stadium -- needed some sprucing up, and this is how the unusual traditions evolved.
“We just needed to dress up the place a little, so we did,” he said. “We put a lot more color in place and dressed up the place. For example, we painted orange and white steps on the stadium.”
Of course, the orange and white painting most people remember were the checkerboards in the end zones beginning with the 16-14 win over Boston College on Oct. 10, 1964.
Mr. Dickey said that he could not recall exactly what prompted the idea for the checkerboards, saying all of the innovations were done with collective input. But a 2007 story from ESPN.GO quotes him as saying he may have seen the design in a magazine or magazine ad.
Birmingham’s Legion Field, where Alabama formerly played most of its home games, also had checkerboard end zones before Tennessee did, so that may have been in the back of his mind.
A legend has always existed that the checkerboards were inspired by the checkerboard brick patterns in the tower of UT’s iconic Ayres Hall, but Mr. Dickey said he does not remember that being the case.
A Knoxville newspaper story after the Boston College game attended by 28,000 fans praised the checkerboard design.
“It was a colorful crowd of fans in gay fall outfits which watched the teams battle on a Shields-Watkins Field, which, itself, has a colorful new look,” the article said. “Much was the praise for the orange-and-white-checkerboard end zones, prepared with paint that is expected to withstand the punishment of players’ cleats for many games to come.”
The checkerboards lasted until artificial turf was installed in 1968. When a new turf was put in for the 1989 season, the checkerboards were brought back. They also continued after the Vols went back to natural grass in 1994, although UT painters under Johnny Payne began leaving a line of green around the edge.
Longtime former Tennessee sports information director Bud Ford said the checkerboards have added a lot to UT’s tradition and mystique.
“The orange and white colors make the field jump out, so to speak,” he said. “Other teams have copied it, but I think their school colors don’t look quite as good as Tennessee’s.”
Three games earlier than the checkerboard tradition, the Vols started another longtime tradition – wearing T’s on the sides of the helmets. And unlike with the checkerboards, this tradition has continued uninterrupted.
Former News Sentinel sports editor Marvin West made note of them when he wrote after the opening day of practice in 1964, “Press Day at UT was a rousing success. About 50 writers and photographers, the biggest crowd ever, reviewed the Vol dress parade, complete with new/old jerseys (solid orange with white numerals). Headgears have an orange ‘T’ on the side and numbers behind.”
The T was originally thinner but was made thicker during the subsequent Bill Battle era. It took its current look after Johnny Majors came in 1977, Mr. Ford said.
Whether Mr. Dickey or some graphics person came up with the original style of T does not appear to be documented anywhere, and coach Dickey did not recall.
The change was during a time when a number of colleges were beginning to use school logos on helmets rather than numbers or having blank helmets. Tennessee had used numbers in 1962 and 1963.
But it was another kind of T that was actually on the minds of Vol fans more in 1964. After years of running the single-wing offense dating back to Gen. Robert Neyland, the Vols under coach Dickey were switching to the slot or wing T. Much more attention appears to be given this change in the 1964 newspapers than the ones remembered today.
An article after the Vols’ first game against the Chattanooga Mocs that year also mentions some other new changes for 1964 – three-month-old Smokey III made his debut, a prayer was to be held before each game, and Shields-Watkins Field was marked in one-yard intervals rather than every five yards.
Also, Smokey now had some company, as a Tennessee walking horse started appearing at games. Wingo, a black stallion, was ridden by UT sophomore Rodger Kesley, the son of Knoxville City Councilman Howard Kesley.
Another change was that coach Dickey in his first year moved the team from the east sideline during games to the west – where the Vols have also been since 2010. The thinking was that the sun would not be in the players’ and coaches’ eyes as much as the sun went down in the days before the end zones were double decked.
However, because the Vol locker room was then located behind the east sideline before the current one behind the north end zone started being used, another tradition evolved somewhat more by necessity. So that the Vols would not have to go past an opposing team already gathered on the east sideline, coach Dickey worked with band director J. Julian to have the musicians form a T that the players could run through and opposing teams would know not to come to the east sideline early.
That tradition debuted in the 1965 game against Auburn, and was met with glowing reviews.
“Particularly impressive was the big open ‘T’ formed by the Pride Band, through which Volunteer players raced to the sidelines before the game began,” said an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel the next day.
Coach Dickey is admittedly proud that it and the two other traditions remain.
“I’m not necessarily surprised,” he said. “I’m pleased that a number of things have stuck and have had a lot of tradition and meaning to people for a long time.
“There may have been six or eight other traditions that didn’t stick.”
Perhaps the most important tradition he brought back, however, was winning. After a 4-5-1 rebuilding year in 1964, the Vols showed signs of improvement in 1965 with an inspiring tie against Alabama in the fourth game.
However, two days later, assistant coaches Bill Majors (younger brother of Johnny Majors), Charlie Rash and Bob Jones were killed after their car was struck by an eastbound train at Westland and Cessna drives in West Knoxville.
“You have three people killed in a train wreck,” Mr. Dickey recalled, adding that they left behind widows and young children. “It was a very, very difficult time for a lot of people. There are a lot of tough memories, even today.”
That team, which began wearing black crosses on their helmets, later upset UCLA in Memphis in a memorable game and finished 8-1-2. The program was headed in the right direction, and Dickey would win at least eight games in each of his final four years.
Two other innovations also came later during his tenure. The Vol varsity team was first integrated with end Lester McClain in 1968, which was also the year Tennessee became the first stadium in the Deep South outside of the Houston Astrodome to install artificial turf.
Mr. Ford said the turf idea was Woodruff’s, but coach Dickey accepted it, in part to allow the Vols a wet-weather practice field before they had any indoor training facilities.
After the 1969 season, coach Dickey left for Florida, causing a little Lane Kiffin-like disdain among the Vol faithful, at least initially. He was not quite as successful there, losing key games to rival Georgia late in both 1975 and 1976 that prevented possible SEC championships. He ended up being replaced after 1978 and a 53-48-2 overall record heading the Gators.
Mr. Dickey, who admits to doing “as little as possible” in his retirement, said he follows the yearly football game between Florida and Tennessee these days closely, but with mixed emotions due to his past connections to both schools.
“I do a whole lot of cheering,” he said wryly. “I watch the teams and hope the best team wins.”
But what he does not have mixed emotions about is his time at Tennessee.
“Tennessee was very good to me and my family,” he said. “I had a wonderful time as coach and athletic director. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity I had.”