For over 50 years I have heard the line, “There are two things you must never do on ‘The Third Saturday of October.’ You mustn’t ever marry and try not to die because, in either case, the preacher won’t show up.” He’ll be watching “The Game.” Ever since Oct 18, 1901, Tennessee and Alabama have been going at it and that inaugural game set the tone as well as the standard for all the rest.
That first time the two teams fought and scratched to a maddening 6-6 tie and, at the final gun, over 2,000 fans stormed the field in Birmingham for the wildest wide-open brawl since the Civil War. Really. There was no way the police could handle the crowd or the emotion, and the only way it finally stopped was when, in the Southern tongue, “every last one was tuckered and give out.”
In my lifetime, this has been my favorite game and no other human can match my view. My luck was that I had such great friends at both schools that I could wiggle in where others couldn’t. I’ve been in both locker rooms before the game and afterwards, too. You can’t cut the pregame tension with the sharpest knife. I once saw a Tennessee player cry before an Alabama game … yes, this was before the very first lick, because he was wound so tight.
I also know that today is historically the worst practice day of the year in Tuscaloosa. Everybody bleeds. Back in the day the players sensed to get ready a little early and right after two o’clock “The Old Man” would walk through the dressing room. Usually a boisterous place, on Tuesday of Tennessee Week it would be quieter than a tomb.
Coach Bryant would be whistling “Love Lifted Me,” low and quiet like he would every year, and in the next three hours every player had to earn the right to wear a Crimson jersey against Tennessee. I know from being inside the practice gate. I’ve seen it.
For years the Alabama players who were recruited from out-of-state would tell you that in their eyes Tennessee was the Tide’s biggest game of the year. The instate guys, of course, had it in for Auburn since before kindergarten – they were raised that way – but if you were to ask Nick Saban today, he’ll tell you Tennessee is Alabama’s biggest rivalry. In Knoxville there has never been any doubt, every Vol lived to beat Alabama and “Lord, if it be Thy will, please help us beat ‘em bad.”
Some always claimed General Neyland triggered the intensity because Coach Bryant could never beat him. Others claimed the fact both UT and Alabama had such star-studded pedigrees, each with so many All-Americans who played their guts out every year, was why it was such a joy. There is so much history and so many stories in this one game alone.
In 1935 when Coach Bryant was a player for the Tide, he broke his leg the week before the Tennessee game while playing Mississippi State. Unbelievably, Bryant played the whole way against Tennessee with his leg broken and Atlanta Constitution sports editor Ralph McGill was so skeptical of the story, he actually drove to Tuscaloosa and demanded to see the X-rays.
He then sought out Bryant to apologize and the Alabama legend-in-the-making told McGill, “It was just one little bone." McGill, of course, wrote a story about it and that next week, when the Tide was preparing to play in Athens, the Georgia fans cheered Bryant's toughness. Years later Coach Bryant recalled, “There was no way I wasn’t going to play against Tennessee.”
It took some long years for me to learn what Auburn coach Pat Dye, who was an assistant under Coach Bryant, would very succinctly affirm over lunch one day.
“The reason the game is always a classic is because no two teams in the Southern Conference are more alike. Tennessee and Alabama play the same way and that’s to beat the hell out of whoever they play. General Neyland and Coach Bryant demanded toughness. I’m talking jaw-to-jaw and all muscle,” said Dye, who also was in that category. Pat could see it because he knew it. “When they tangle, it’s the toughest two kids on the playground and you best just get out of the way,” he added. “It’s for keeps.”
This year’s game, in Knoxville at 3:30, heavily favors Alabama. The other day a Vegas oddsmaker said Alabama would be a double-digit favorite over any other college team in the country and that may be modest. The Vols football stock has suffered – to be brutally honest -- due to bad leadership by the university so last week’s upset win over Auburn was a Godsend. (And, yes, it was an upset … Jeremy needs time to recruit as Auburn has but he has promise.)
Some years back one of my very best friends in the flock of sports writers I ran with around the country was Al Browning. He was the sports editor for The Tuscaloosa News and later the Knoxville News-Sentinel. We must have shared a thousand press boxes together but better, we could make each other laugh so hard our sides split.
I don’t want to get into a lot of it but we were Mutt and Jeff back in the day and you name it – Masters, Kentucky Derby, every football stadium in the South … lordy me, we were universal. He wrote a great book entitled “The Third Saturday in October” that chronicled the Alabama-Tennessee games and, golly gee, I often told him it was too small to include the game’s full glory. He agreed it was.
In 2002 Al was sick with cancer and failing fast. One night I was talking to him, alternating between tears and bawdy jokes, when I asked what I could do for him, where should I go, who should I see to tell them he loved them. I mean, name it. Whatever.
“Ex, if I could have one wish, anything in the world, it would be us standing in Neyland (Stadium) one last time, behind the Tennessee bench, and listening to the roar on the opening kickoff of ‘The Third Saturday In October.’”
I like to think the Lord obliged that last wish because it proves anew how glorious this Saturday has been for so many years in my life.
Click here for a 2017 SEC feature video.