Tom Mattingly: Beating Auburn sunshine on rainy day

Over the course of recorded Tennessee football history, was there ever a better afternoon to be a Vol fan than Sept. 29, 1973?

That subject is open to considerable debate among Vol fans.

That was the "Last Saturday in September," although that name has never "stuck" in the public's mind to describe the series.

It was traditional in those days for Tennessee and Auburn to square off that day, in a game that often separated the "contender" from the "pretender."

This game marked the Silver Anniversary of the series between the Vols and Tigers, one that started in 1900 in Birmingham (Auburn 23, Tennessee 0, Nov. 10) and had been played every year since 1956, home and home in Knoxville and Birmingham. Before 1956, the last game between the two teams had been in 1939. The odd-numbered years were played in Knoxville.

Both teams were undefeated, each compiling a 2-0 record. Tennessee had victories over Duke and Army, while Auburn had triumphs over Oregon State and UT-Chattanooga.

The Associated Press ranked Tennessee No. 9, Auburn No. 11.

(Alas, the Vols finished 8-4, ranked No. 20, while Auburn finished 6-6.)

The Vols had lost three straight to the Tigers, four of the last seven, and fans all across Big Orange Country hoped things would turn out better this day.

It rained most of the second half. And that's putting it mildly.

The memory is still fresh of the storm coming from the north end, as the heavens opened up over Ayres Hall, and "liquid sunshine," as they say in the state of Florida, moved quickly southward.

Just when the fans in the south end were laughing about their compatriots in the north end getting drenched, here came the wind and rain toward the Tennessee River, and everybody was drenched.

"I had never played in a game when it rained that hard," linebacker Hank Walter, now a Knoxville attorney, said this week. "It was the hardest rain I can remember."

When the final horn sounded, Tennessee won 21-0, as barefoot placekicker Ricky Townsend kicked two field goals, and Emmon Love caught a TD pass from Condredge Holloway.

Walter capped his day with an interception that he returned 38 yards for a score.

He had 12 tackles, eight assists, and a fumble recovery.

Not since Steve Kiner put up similar numbers in the 1969 Alabama game (11 tackles, three assists, an interception, five tackles for loss, a caused fumble, and four hurried passes) had a Vol linebacker been so dominant. The Associated Press named Walter national lineman of the week for his efforts.

When asked about the award, Walter said he never received any tangible evidence of the honor, no plaque, no trophy, nothing. He did, however, quickly recall the game's biggest play. Auburn was headed to the south end zone, trailing 13-0, as the rain pelted the Shields-Watkins Field artificial turf.

"I was going out to cover one of their receivers," Walter said. "Their quarterback didn't throw a very good pass. I was able to intercept it and had a wide-open path to the end zone.

"I didn't realize I had played as well as I had. I didn't realize why the reporters were talking with me until I saw the stat sheet. It boosted my confidence."

Tennessee coach Bill Battle sent out Neil Clabo repeatedly to keep the Tigers at bay, and he did so in fine fashion.

One punt ended up going 71 yards to the Tiger 5.

Auburn folks did not take kindly to Tennessee's little kicking exhibition. Auburn used the recollection of Tennessee punting, many times on first down, to inspire the troops for the game the following season, as if the Tigers needed further motivation.

Tennessee did finally play at Auburn the next season after lengthy discussions between the two schools, and Auburn won, 21-0, this time under considerably better weather conditions.

Tennessee came to Auburn to stay in 1980, a 42-0 Volunteer win.

Battle did have the line of the day as he dried his face with a towel in a noisy Vol dressing room under the east stands.

Asked about the inclement weather, Battle could only say, "Rain, what rain? I didn't see anything but sunshine out there."

Somehow, the win didn't impress the pollsters, given that the Vols were still No. 9 heading into the next week's game against Kansas. But it did get the attention of Vol fans in a big way.

No one cared about being soaked to the bone. The final score made the afternoon quite worthwhile. Even though the Vols faded badly down the stretch run of the 1973 season, this game makes the short list, probably in the Top 20, of games that fans remember fondly many years later.

For those callers on talk radio who might have opined that Tennessee has never played well in the rain, this was one case in which they really did.

Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.

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Comments » 8

Caspian writes:

I was at the game. West side upper deck. Punting on first down - the crowd loved it. Yeah, it was raining *that* hard. A first down punt was the most effective offense available. With the artificial turf, a man could be at serious risk of drowning after sliding face down and ending up at the bottom of a pile. I remember one slightly inebriated fan, with arms upraised in the 4th quarter, screaming "21 to nothing baby!". You had to be there.

volbike writes:

I was there as well and I believe the Kansas game which I listened to on the radio was the one that a QB named David Jaynes completed about 17 passes in a row and we somehow came back and won narrowly. How many games in those days were won simply because we had Condrege Holloway on the team.
We all thought that at the 1980 Auburn game that Majors might finally have turned the corner but alas that was not to happen until Fulmer got there and improved the recruiting.

chuckfromwoodbury writes:

I was there. I was a coke boy that day. I remember selling out a tray and just sitting and watching the game in the rain. I felt like Coach Battle at the time. Rain, what rain? It was a great day to be a Vol.

markandfranmcdonald#347949 writes:

This was the first game I attended at UT as a freshman. I waited in line for 5 hours for tickets and missed 2 classes. The part I remember most vividly was that the rain started when the Auburn band took the field at halftime, but then the sun came out briefly as the UT band started their halftime performance. Priceless!

orangecountyvols writes:


Yes, I too was there and can vividly remember Clabo's punts hitting the wet turf and stopping, like a wedge shot that didn't move after contact with the ground. They recalled in the Sunday KNS that the cloud was basically over Neyland Stadium that day
and it never rained in Knoxville a few miles away from the game. Yes, Auburn commented it was poor sportsmanship to punt on first down as Tennessee did. It was a fact that Auburn got the rained. When the Vols got it, the sun reappeared.

Ah yes..........1973. The same year Georgia came to town and ended my little 15 game winning streak with Tennessee. I had begun to think we'd never lose a game until that fake punt by Battle in the UGA game. Along the way, we had beaten Florida, Alabama, Penn State ( twice ) TCU, Auburn ( twice )
UCLA ( twice ) Ole name a few. Miss those days.........

jack_2222#231746 writes:

Thanks for the memories- it was a great day, the punting on first down was kind of a facial.

That fake punt against the dogs was the beginning of the end for Billy.

mercuryvol writes:

Was there a quick kick by Steve Chancey in that game that Auburn's David Langer (the hero of AU's 1972 win over Ala) muffed?

orangecountyvols writes:

in response to jack_2222#231746:

Thanks for the memories- it was a great day, the punting on first down was kind of a facial.

That fake punt against the dogs was the beginning of the end for Billy.


It sure was wasn't it? Worst part of it was Tennessee had the lead 31-28, around 2 minutes left, had an All American punter ( Clabo ) and it was 4th and 2 on about the 25.

Dawgs to that point had only attempted 4 passes and completed 1..........but U T could not stop the run. Battle didn't want to give them the ball........but that's exactly what they did. In a matter of a few plays, Georgia waltzed into the endzone.

With Clabo punting, the Dogs more than likely would have been forced to throw it,
probably starting from their 25 or worse,
dealing with the clock.

The rest is history...........moving van, for sale signs etc.

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