'Big Kahuna' was a big deal as Vols' TE

Austin Denney scores the first touchdown in the 1966 Alabama game.

Photo by UT Sports Information

Austin Denney scores the first touchdown in the 1966 Alabama game.

Tight end Austin Denney was known more for actions than words during his playing career at Tennessee, but former Vols quarterback Dewey Warren could always count on hearing the same phrase from Denney before each snap.

"We'd call a play, didn't matter if it was called for him or not, but when we'd break the huddle he'd always run by me and say, 'I'll be open,' " Warren said. "And you know what? Nine times out of 10, he was.

"Yep, big number 84; We called him the Big Kahuna.''

Denney earned All-American honors at Tennessee in 1966 with Warren as his quarterback before going on to a five-year NFL career with the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills. He'll be honored posthumously with his induction into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame on Aug. 5 at the Knoxville Convention Center.

Denney, a Nashville native, passed away last year at the age of 65 after a brief illness.

"Austin was a steady player and the epitome of a tight end,'' said Doug Dickey, who served as Tennessee's head football coach the last three years of Denney's collegiate career. "He had the size and the strength and great soft hands for catching the ball.

"He wasn't the fastest guy, but he had a knack to get open. He was a clutch player for us around the goal line.''

Warren remembers the touchdown pass he threw to Denney just before halftime of the Vols' 18-12 Gator Bowl win over Syracuse on Dec. 31, 1966.

"We were gonna try a fake field goal, and Austin said, 'just throw it to the end zone, I'll get it,' " Warren recalls. "So I raised up and just threw it toward the corner of the end zone, and he went up between two guys and made the catch for a touchdown.''

The 24-yard TD catch proved pivotal in Tennessee's win over a Syracuse team that featured future NFL Hall of Fame running backs Larry Csonka and Floyd Little.

Warren, who went on to coach at BYU with Cougars legend LaVell Edwards, said Denney's success at UT was such that it influenced his input in the development of the West Coast offense.

"I used the tight end a lot because I remembered what we had with Austin,'' Warren said. "A tight end like him just created so many mismatches. He was bigger (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) than any lineman we had, and they couldn't cover him with a linebacker or a little 175-pound safety.

"He was the real deal. He was a basketball player in high school, so he could also jump up and make those catches.''

Denney began his career with the Vols as a fullback, but his hands and size led the coaches to move him to tight end where he became a team captain and All-SEC performer in addition to his All-American honors.

Denney's seven receiving touchdowns in 1966 still stand as a single-season TD mark for Tennessee tight ends.

Denney finished his five-year NFL career with 71 catches for 764 yards and three touchdowns in 49 career games. His best season was with the Bears in 1968, when he caught 23 passes for 247 yards and two TDs.

Denney is survived by his wife of 44 years, the former Margaret Petty, who was Miss Tennessee in 1962.

"Austin was married his senior year,'' Warren said. "But we'd make him stay in the dorms with us on Friday nights before the games. We'd always tease him about that.''

Former Vols quarterback Bobby Scott, a freshman Denney's senior year, had a different take on the team captain's presence.

"Austin was a team captain, and they'd come around and do bed checks at 11 p.m.,'' Scott said. "So there he'd be, a big broad-shouldered guy standing in the door, and you couldn't get by him if you had to.

"We all had a lot of respect for him, probably with a little fear mixed in. But we got to know him and he was a good guy that anyone of us could sit down and talk to. I'm just proud I got to be around him.''

Former UT coach Bill Battle, who coached receivers under Dickey in 1966, said Denney made his job easy.

"He was a great player who combined excellent size, speed and physical ability with a positive attitude and leadership,'' Battle said. "He was truly a pleasure to coach.''

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Comments » 18

bluetick writes:

Good story you dug up there. I never heard of this guy til now.

jack_2222#231746 writes:

21 catches for 7 TD's.

jsmithnga#207674 writes:

That Gator bowl was the 1st bowl game I ever attended-what a great game and we were big underdogs (just shows what the media knows). Talked to Dewey a couple of weeks ago and he thinks that the NCAA prohibiting athletic dorms is most of the cause of the athetes getting into trouble now because the coaches and team leaders can't monitor them because they are so scattered. He said they did the same things on Cumberland that todays kids do (not the stick ups, etc.), but they knew to be in well before curfew or suffer the consequences. He also said if someone caused any trouble, Frank Emanuel would grab them by the throat and threaten to whip their butt--end of trouble. I had forgotten that he played that long ago--man does time fly.

theoldbear writes:

I was a student at UT for all of "Big Red"'s varsity seasons. He got the Big Kahuna nickname by playing a surfer one summer, complete with bleached blonde hair, in a WKGN promotion.

He also went in at defensive tackle on the goal line defense, and had a stop on Csonka in that bowl game, I think on a two point conversion play.

With the Bills, he became one of the first H backs, and often lined up in his old high school position to block for a fellow named Simpson that ran the ball back then.

He was a man among boys on the Hill, and a man among men the rest of his life. The loss of a son by drowning many years ago marred his happiness, but he was a Vol through and through.

No one could be more worthy of a Hall of Fame spot.

flatrock writes:

Played on a rec league basketball team with Austin and he was a great teammate
there, too. He did not say much, but we
knew he'd be at his best if we had to
face any of his football teammates on
other teams. As I recall, he did not
play HS football until his junior year
at Donelson High because he was a tuba
player in the band!

boogimn3 writes:

in response to jsmithnga#207674:

That Gator bowl was the 1st bowl game I ever attended-what a great game and we were big underdogs (just shows what the media knows). Talked to Dewey a couple of weeks ago and he thinks that the NCAA prohibiting athletic dorms is most of the cause of the athetes getting into trouble now because the coaches and team leaders can't monitor them because they are so scattered. He said they did the same things on Cumberland that todays kids do (not the stick ups, etc.), but they knew to be in well before curfew or suffer the consequences. He also said if someone caused any trouble, Frank Emanuel would grab them by the throat and threaten to whip their butt--end of trouble. I had forgotten that he played that long ago--man does time fly.

Absolutely agree about the dorms...On the one hand, people defend these thugs as being "kids", and , you know, boys will be boys, and on the other hand the same people defend their right to live anywhere they want, because they are "young men"...So,..which is it?
If dorm life was good enough for Johnny Majors and Frank Emanuel, why not for these guys..They get a free diploma, they need to submit to the rules of the University...

forkball writes:

Unlike some of the players of that era who could be too small or a step slow to compete against today's athletes, Austin Denney would be an All American in the present day game. One tough Donelson Don. RIP Mr. Denney.

rbull23#216019 writes:

I was living in Florida at the time and met my parents in Jacksonville and saw the Gator Bowl game and he was the star. After the game he immediately left to sign with Dallas Cowboys who then traded him to the Bears. I also saw him play sports as a young kid at Donelson High School and he was good at that time. I lived about a half of mile from him when we were growing up in Donelson.

lahvolman2 writes:

in response to jsmithnga#207674:

That Gator bowl was the 1st bowl game I ever attended-what a great game and we were big underdogs (just shows what the media knows). Talked to Dewey a couple of weeks ago and he thinks that the NCAA prohibiting athletic dorms is most of the cause of the athetes getting into trouble now because the coaches and team leaders can't monitor them because they are so scattered. He said they did the same things on Cumberland that todays kids do (not the stick ups, etc.), but they knew to be in well before curfew or suffer the consequences. He also said if someone caused any trouble, Frank Emanuel would grab them by the throat and threaten to whip their butt--end of trouble. I had forgotten that he played that long ago--man does time fly.

WOW!!!! Time really does fly.... I was sitting in the south end zone when Denny caught that pass... rained like hell that day... we still lost to Bama that day....

TXVol76 writes:

in response to jsmithnga#207674:

That Gator bowl was the 1st bowl game I ever attended-what a great game and we were big underdogs (just shows what the media knows). Talked to Dewey a couple of weeks ago and he thinks that the NCAA prohibiting athletic dorms is most of the cause of the athetes getting into trouble now because the coaches and team leaders can't monitor them because they are so scattered. He said they did the same things on Cumberland that todays kids do (not the stick ups, etc.), but they knew to be in well before curfew or suffer the consequences. He also said if someone caused any trouble, Frank Emanuel would grab them by the throat and threaten to whip their butt--end of trouble. I had forgotten that he played that long ago--man does time fly.

I agree with the Swamp Rat!

EMBuckles writes:

Talking about the athletic dorm situation, a few years ago, the University of Chicago put out a study which said that the brains of human beings, under optimal circumstances, do not fully mature until around age 23. Our nation made a BIG MISTAKE in lowering the age of majority to age 18. The age of majority needs to be raised to at least age 21 and young people given the time and nurturing - as well as being watched over by adults - they need to mature. And colleges and universities need to go back to having athletics residence halls with discipline.

Skullz_VOL writes:

I am named after him and the SwampRat

AlpharettaVol writes:

I grew up in Donelson and my best friend lived next door to Austin. The Denneys had the only basketball hoop in the neighborhood and when he was still in junior high we used to go over to his house to play basketball and not let him play because he was a couple of years younger. Once he got to high school things changed and he ended up much bigger (and stronger) than any of us. I dated his wife Margaret in high school before they became a couple. Two first-class individuals who made a great man and wife. I'm proud that he went to UT. He always represented our school the way it should be represented.

gbeejr#1354500 writes:

in response to AlpharettaVol:

I grew up in Donelson and my best friend lived next door to Austin. The Denneys had the only basketball hoop in the neighborhood and when he was still in junior high we used to go over to his house to play basketball and not let him play because he was a couple of years younger. Once he got to high school things changed and he ended up much bigger (and stronger) than any of us. I dated his wife Margaret in high school before they became a couple. Two first-class individuals who made a great man and wife. I'm proud that he went to UT. He always represented our school the way it should be represented.

Denney was a great Vol and even a greater Donelson Don. Back in the early to mid 60's the Dons dominated the Nashville scene with lots of great athletes and Denney was perhaps the best. Not particuarly great in anything, but very, very good in everything.

AlpharettaVol writes:

in response to gbeejr#1354500:

Denney was a great Vol and even a greater Donelson Don. Back in the early to mid 60's the Dons dominated the Nashville scene with lots of great athletes and Denney was perhaps the best. Not particuarly great in anything, but very, very good in everything.

I believe our Donelson Dons may have won the state championship in basketball his senior year. It's a little fuzzy over the years. If not, I'm pretty sure they were in the Final Four. The school no longer exists but I still keep up with a number of classmates and fellow students I went to school with. Many of them still live in the area.

ect1983 writes:

I was a high school sophomore in 1966....Austin Denney was my idol. There are two things I will NEVER forget about Denney. In the '66 Bama game, the infamous 11-10 loss that headlined the NYT's sports page the next day, The SwampRat tossed the ball to Charlie Fulton who then tossed it downfield to Austin Denney; it looked like he would go all the way, when Bama's all-american, Bobby Johns, all 165 lbs of him, tackled Denney in the open field,ultimately saving the game for the Tide (not counting the ref calling the field goal no good).
the second was the catch in the Gator Bowl against Syracuse; next to Larry Seivers catch against Clemson, the greatest catch I ever personally witnessed. In the north end of the GatorBowl between 3 guys. SportsIllustrated called it the best catch of the bowl season.
That team was the best 7-3 team in the world.....lost by 1 to Ole Miss, 1 point to Bama(allegedly), and by 3 to Ga Tech.
I am pretty sure MrDenney and his wife lost an infant daughter in a horrible tragedy when she was young.

Thanks for the great memories, Austin Denney !! And cogratulations to your family.

hueypilot writes:

in response to AlpharettaVol:

I believe our Donelson Dons may have won the state championship in basketball his senior year. It's a little fuzzy over the years. If not, I'm pretty sure they were in the Final Four. The school no longer exists but I still keep up with a number of classmates and fellow students I went to school with. Many of them still live in the area.

I'm a Nashville native and seems I remember that team of Denney, W. A Wright, Jimbo Bevans and maybe Pot Graves. Good basketball team that I think won it all in maybe 62. Denney moved on but I think the others got beaten by eventual Champ Bradley County with Steve Sloan the next year. A lot of good ballplayers on the Dons tean back them.

gbeejr#1354500 writes:

in response to AlpharettaVol:

I believe our Donelson Dons may have won the state championship in basketball his senior year. It's a little fuzzy over the years. If not, I'm pretty sure they were in the Final Four. The school no longer exists but I still keep up with a number of classmates and fellow students I went to school with. Many of them still live in the area.

I believe your Dons won the state in the 63-64 school year. I don't recall if Denney had already graduated or not. The Dons didn't do it pretty, but dominated teams with their strength, toughness and fundamentals. Denney played basketball liked he played football and was a monster in the paint. His teammates (starters) all made their mark in athletics.

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