Mattingly: Turbulent times for Vols? Try the 1950s

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 tjmshm@comcast.net.

Get Copyright Permissions © 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!

© 2010 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 13

TKO writes:

Nice story. Stopping Cannon for two is priceless.

Mansonlamps writes:

Left unsaid in this article was the cow-tipping scandal of '55 and the stealing of the Alcoa Highway sign by freshman with ducktail haircuts. And then there were the secret togo parties in East Stadium where they drank red-flavored pga and listened to Jerry Lee Lewis albums. Too bad Bowden Wyatt couldn't change the rotten culture at UT.

flatrock writes:

in response to 02champs#209256:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Get a life...

boogimn3 writes:

in response to TKO:

Nice story. Stopping Cannon for two is priceless.

I was there...

In those days you could, with a little effort, get on the sidelines. I was behind the end zone when Billy Cannon came rumbling around, lowered his head, and charged the line. I heard the players calling "here he comes," and there was smacking of leather and helments, and a pile went down with Cannon underneath. The crowd exploded, and I lost my mind, jumping and screaming and hugging strangers. I was 14 and it was the biggest thrill of my young life. I was awestruck to be so close.

Another game I was on the westsideline on maybe the 35 when Glenn Glass did one of those tailback jump passes and the ball spiraled about 40 yards accross the field. I swear I could have caught it, but just as I seriously thought I would, a UT receiver jumped in front of me and took the pass into the end zone. I was so excited I almost shat myself. jumping and hugging strangers again.

Man, I miss those days...

OrangePride writes:

I sat next to a guy who was a long time HS coach in Tennessee and he recounted that when Dietzel was asked if he would have kicked the point had he had it to do over, his response was, "We came here to beat Tennessee, not tie Tennessee. I have the best back in the country and a national champion team! I'd do it the same way every time!" That was one day that it was great to be..a Tennessee Vol!

Bigger_Al writes:

Classic.

dk writes:

This game was my first ever live game in Knoxville. I was a senior in high school and my uncles took me to see that game. What a game. One of my uncles said on the way to Knoxville, that LSU would lose this game. Very exciting as I remember, especially the try for 2 points that failed by LSwho.

easleychuck writes:

in response to 02champs#209256:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Then move your arse along, best I can tell nobody is holding you down and forcing you to read Mr.Mattingly's articles. Jeeze, you are beyond lame.

easleychuck writes:

in response to 02champs#209256:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Again, what is the point of your dribble. You post a remark that makes absolute no sense. Goodness, an ignore poster button would be priceless.

richvol writes:

I vividly remember being at that 3-0 win over Auburn. I was just a boy and it was pretty boring to watch. I explored every inch of the stadium that day.

You guys that criticize Mattingly are ridiculous. Why are you so bitter? He tells the stories of UT history so that the new generations of UT fans that never had the opportunity to see these great events take place can learn our history...and he does a great job at it.

Get a life...I feel sorry for you.

hueypilot writes:

Gotta wonder why Dietzel left LSU. As the youngest major college coach in the country, with a national championship and a Heisman Trophy winner already in his quiver, he went to West Point, and while that seems strange today Army was a part of the national discussion, with Pete Dawkins winning the Heisman along about that time and Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach winning the award on top ten teams at Navy in the early 60's. The service acadamies have never returned to those glory days, and Dietzel's dreams of reincarnating Red Blaik's dynasty were dashed.

rgross1194#417871 writes:

As a long suffering UK fan, (I know, 25 and counting, yada, yada, yada), it would be great to bring back the 50's. 1951-1960 UK won 6, lost 2, and tied 2 against the Big Orange. And before all of you Tennessee rednecks start yelling that the decade of the 50's started in 1950, please be advised that there was no year labeled 0000 A.D. For you, the great unwashed Big Orange nation who are wondering what the he## A.D. stands for, it is a Latin abbreviation for Anno Domini, (English translation, "in the Year of our Lord"). See, you orange pukes learned something today, or maybe you didn't. Anyway, I could care less.

posivol writes:

in response to rgross1194#417871:

As a long suffering UK fan, (I know, 25 and counting, yada, yada, yada), it would be great to bring back the 50's. 1951-1960 UK won 6, lost 2, and tied 2 against the Big Orange. And before all of you Tennessee rednecks start yelling that the decade of the 50's started in 1950, please be advised that there was no year labeled 0000 A.D. For you, the great unwashed Big Orange nation who are wondering what the he## A.D. stands for, it is a Latin abbreviation for Anno Domini, (English translation, "in the Year of our Lord"). See, you orange pukes learned something today, or maybe you didn't. Anyway, I could care less.

keep living in the past brother because in the present,yall still suck my big orange :)

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.

Features