No decade better symbolizes the ups and downs inherent in college football than Tennessee's seasons from 1950 through 1959.
In 2007, Sports Illustrated named Tennessee the 1950s' "Team of the Decade" as the Vols compiled a 72-31-4 record overall, 38-20-4 in the SEC, and earned a consensus national title in 1951, two SEC titles (1951 and 1956), and two Heisman runners-up (Hank Lauricella in 1951 and John Majors in 1956).
The Vols were 7-1-2 against Alabama during that time frame, shutting out the Tide five times in 10 years.
That was balanced against losses to Auburn (the Vols failed to make a first down), Chattanooga, and Florida State in 1958 and not-so-hot seasons in 1953 and 1954, after Gen. Neyland stepped down as head coach.
Neyland's final three years brought brought a 29-4-1 record, with three bowl games. The 1955 season brought the return of a Tennessee folk hero -1938 Vol captain Bowden Wyatt - as head coach.
The final season of the decade was the hardest to figure.
In 1959, Tennessee was coming off a 4-6 mark that made Vol partisans uneasy about the prospects for the coming years.
What lay ahead in 1959 was a season marked by two "highs" - victories over the previous national champions (Auburn and LSU) - and three "lows," consecutive losses to conclude the season and the decade.
In September, the Vols, still smarting from that 13-0 loss to Auburn a year earlier, won 3-0 on Shields-Watkins Field on Cotton Letner's 20-yard field goal in the second period. It was a second chance for the junior from Ten Mile, who had missed one earlier in the quarter.
Bill Majors, a marvel in the secondary, picked off two passes, while Neyle Sollee added a third that thwarted the final Auburn scoring drive.
On a hot and muggy afternoon, Vol defenders held the Tigers to two trips across the 50.
When LSU came to town for Homecoming on Nov. 7, Vol fans in the know were convinced, perhaps instinctively, that the Vols would win.
There were signs around campus that read, "LSU, who are you? You won't be first when the Vols get through."
LSU led 7-0 at intermission, with the Tigers boasting a streak of 40 quarters since the LSU goal line had been crossed.
Going into the third quarter, that lead looked rock-sold until Tiger quarterback Warren Rabb tossed a pass in the flat toward Johnny Robinson that Vol linebacker Jim Cartwright intercepted and returned 59 yards for a touchdown.
Newspaper reports indicated that Cartright's theft woke up the "tomb-like stadium."
When the Vols recovered a fumble, and Sollee ran 14 yards for a score to make the count 14-7, Vol fans were back in the game in a big way.
After a punt took a big bounce and hit Majors on the shoulder, LSU recovered and scored to close the gap to 14-13 early in the fourth quarter. Head coach Paul Dietzel decided to go for two and the lead, probably the win, even though there was an eternity of time remaining.
Former LSU head coach Charley McClendon, an assistant that day, said later there was no doubt Billy Cannon would get the ball on the two-point play. "We'd have been run out of the state of Louisiana had we not given the ball to Cannon. Can you imagine what would've happened had we given the ball to someone else and not made it?"
Cannon, the 1959 Heisman trophy winner, got the pigskin on a sweep. The play had been diagrammed earlier in the week in a Knoxville newspaper, and it appeared Cannon could walk into the north end zone.
Nothing comes easily against the Vols, then or now, on Shields-Watkins Field. Cannon got the ball and Wayne Grubb of Athens, Majors of Sewanee, and Charley Severance of Knoxville, were there on a play known historically as "The Stop," maybe most famous defensive play in Tennessee history.
Legend has it that this play decided the game. LSU actually had three legitimate shots to win afterwards, but were stymied each time. Jack Kile recovered a fumble and Cartwright had another pick, as Vol defenders simply refused to yield.
Those were the high water marks for the 1959 team.
The end of the season was not what the doctor ordered for the Vol program. After a close first half at Crump Stadium in Memphis, Ole Miss knocked off Tennessee 37-7. Kentucky won 20-0 at Stoll Field, and Vanderbilt won its first game in Knoxville in 22 years with a 14-0 triumph.
A 5-1-1 season thus turned into a 5-4-1 campaign just like that.
There was a 6-2-2 record in 1960, a 6-4 record in 1961, and 4-6 in 1962. The winds of change were swirling around the program.
That change would happen in December 1963 with the hiring of Doug Dickey.
The single-wing would be out, and the "T" formation in. The rest is, as they say, history.
Knoxville freelance journalist Tom Mattingly wrote "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), a work now available in second edition (2009) at fine bookstores everywhere. He also penned "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998), the Archie Manning-authorized Peyton collegiate biography. He writes a daily Knoxville News Sentinel blog under the name "The Vol Historian" and is a regular contributor to the "Tony Basilio Show" on Knoxville's ESPN 1180. Send comments to email@example.com.