Pat Dye had it all figured out and said it was up to me to arrange it. “Pat, I ain’t getting involved inthis,” I laughed but Dye was intense. “You and Johnny are close friends and he’ll listen to you … I know what I am talking about! All Johnny’s got to do is go with (Andy) Kelly at quarterback … The Alabama coaches are scared to death of Kelly …” I countered, “Pat, that’s absurd. No football coach I know would sit Sterling (Henton) right now. He’s the bell cow! Tennessee has won five straight and they are rolling … Johnny’s boys are the No. 6 team in the country!”
“Then let’s just call it for what it is; the only way Tennessee can beat Alabama is with the pass.
Henton throws soft and slow! Andy’s got an arm. You tell Johnny that and, guess what? He knows it and you do, too. Call me back and let me know what he says. But get word to him quick so he can get more passing into his scheme,” Dye said with excitement.
Earlier that year, Pat’s Tigers were ranked fourth in the country when they played No. 11 Tennessee in the Knoxville rain and heretofore no team in the country could have mastered his fierce linebackers. Auburn was the defending SEC champion and on the Friday before the game, I had predicted Auburn would win “by a bunch.” But the Vols were playing hot and with a near-genius game plan, not to mention 225 yards rushing by Reggie Cobb and another 129 from Chuck Webb that turned those linebackers into soft butter, Johnny Majors pulled off a sensational 21-14 win that was anything but an upset. Tennessee owned Auburn in a thriller where the Neyland Stadium goal posts came down before the final horn.
I remember it all so well. When I got a call yesterday that informed me that my dear, dear friend Pat Dye had died that morning, a flood of funny memories came right on cue. I could write a book on Pat, but the 1989 Alabama-Tennessee caper gets more hysterical to me with every new year.
I remember the September slugfest between Auburn and Tennessee well. I’d driven to Knoxville that Friday and when I got there my wife Anne had called several times to say I was getting threats from “a bunch” of Vol fans who told her they were going to burn our house down. I’ve gotten threats all my life from zany characters who want to whip my tail and my usual reply is something like, “Well, I’ve got to leave here in about an hour … can you hurry?” I did call the police chief to keep an eye out for anybody who looked like a coward in the neighborhood – just because it made Anne feel better.
Dye had fumed about the Tennessee loss every day since it happened and a week before the Vols played Alabama in Birmingham, Pat found a solution where Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn could share the SEC title (which eventually happened). He was convinced if Tennessee could beat Alabama, Auburn could stay in the post-season hunt and he was also certain Tennessee had the team to do it, even without Cobb who Majors had just fired for repeated drug use.
The Tuesday before Saturday’s Tennessee game, I went to Tuscaloosa where Bill Curry had ‘Bama on a roll. Bill and I had a few minutes alone and I asked him what if Tennessee started Kelly. “Don’t even say that,” he rolled his eyes before he stage-whispered, “They aren’t going to do that, are they?” I told him I didn’t think so, since Henton had done so well in five starts, adding, “but you’re going to air it out, aren’t you?” and Bill smiled like a Cheshire cat.
Pat kept calling. I told him I would be in Knoxville Thursday and I’d mention it to John but, again, it wasn’t any of my business. “It’s none of your business to help out a friend? Well, don’t ever not tell me how I can win. I want all the help I can get,” and he rambled on.
During Thursday’s practice Johnny called me on the field, where he sometimes did out of earshot of other writers and wanted to know what I saw in Tuscaloosa. I was always ultra-careful not to share any coach’s confidence, especially on the week of a game between my friends, and the fact Cobb was gone had everybody a little edgy. But after a few minutes I told Johnny I’d talked with Pat and he wanted me to pass along a tip. “Dye believes your chances will be better in Birmingham with Kelly’s arm.”
And, oh, that set Majors awhirl. “You tell Pat that if he’ll mind his business, I’ll mind mine and I’ll beat him 21-14 just any ole time. Andy has really practiced well, and we will use him if we have to, but Sterling is undefeated and so is Tennessee. You tell him that! … I like where we are right now better than I did a year ago when we were 0-5, I’ll tell you that,” he grinned over his 10 straight wins. “I knew we were better than we showed early last year but the fact we hung in there is what got us where we are today … and Pat Dye didn’t have a thing to do with it.” I just laughed and said “At least you got the message…”
Dye called twice before I got home and when we connected I told him, “Johnny’s answer was ‘21-14’ and Dye had a fit, calling Johnny ‘pig headed’ and ‘stupid’ and lots of other more colorful names. I couldn’t resist a little fiction. “He said your linebackers need more work … “ and Dye’s voice grew still before he answered, “You tell him he’s gonna’ need every one of mine on Saturday.”
Of course, Sterling Henton started for UT and a swarming Crimson Tide made him a spectacle. The Alabama defensive ends sacked Henton three times in the first quarter, he didn’t complete a pass and Alabama had a 10-0 lead going into the second quarter when Andy was subbed for Henton. Kelly was everything that Dye had predicted and more. He generated 30 points, passed for over 280 yards, and Sterling Henton would never start again.
In fairness, when Kelly got in the game, Alabama had already marked its territory. Gary Hollingsworth was picking the Vols’ defense apart, setting a single game record for completions with 32 strikes in 46 attempts for his 379 yards. This broke the mark of Scott Hunter at a school where Joe Namath, Steve Sloan, Bart Starr and Kenny Stabler were once quarterbacks. Kelly would start every game for the next 2½ years.
Later that year, Pat Dye would led the Tigers to a 30-20 victory in the most memorable game in my life, the first Iron Bowl game in a glittering history against Alabama to be played in Auburn, and Tennessee would have an heroic 11-1 season, capped by a Cotton Bowl win over Arkansas. In the final polls, Tennessee was No. 5.
Auburn was No. 6 in the final poll, a late-season loss against Florida State, the only other blemish. Alabama ended up 10-2, a 35-22 loss to Miami in the Sugar Bowl making the Hurricanes the national champions. One week later, Bill Curry resigned at Alabama to become Kentucky’s new coach in one of college sports’ greatest travesties.
Pat Dye was an integral part in what I believe were college football’s greatest days, and that was because my great buddy was huge in making them that way.