Talk about a gauntlet.
Whoever worked up the 1962 football schedule didn’t do Tennessee coach Bowden Wyatt any favors. Not in the least.
The schedule featured three consecutive road games to start the season: Auburn at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.; on Sept. 29, Mississippi State at Crump Stadium in Memphis; and Georgia Tech at Grant Field in Atlanta.
The fourth game, the home opener, was on Oct. 20 against the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
There were five more home games after Alabama, before the season finale at Vanderbilt.
Wyatt, who was captain of 1938 team that went 11-0, one of the legends of Tennessee football, and possessed movie star good looks, was on the proverbial “hot seat” anyway, given that the four-year record since 1958 was a mere 21-16-3, with no bowl game since 1957.
There was great controversy in the community about Wyatt’s single-minded reliance on the single-wing, when nearly everybody else was in some version of the “T” formation.
Recruiting to the single-wing was a problem. For example, Steve Sloan of Cleveland and Steve Spurrier of Johnson City, Tennessee prep stars of that era who played quarterback, would end up at Alabama and Florida, respectively. Ray Mears tried to intercede on Spurrier’s behalf, but Wyatt rebuffed him.
Alabama was “back,” a year removed from a national championship under Bear Bryant. John Howard Vaught at Ole Miss had the Rebel program in high gear. Ralph “Shug” Jordan likewise had it going at Auburn.
However you look at it, this was not the way to start this or any other season. Only twice before, in 1892 and more recently in 1958, had the Vols played three consecutive games on the road to kick off a season. There wasn’t a “directional school” in sight.
The Vols lost a couple of close ones, 22-21 to Auburn and 7-6 against Mississippi State, to begin the year. Former Vols Ken Donahue and John Majors were on the State staff, and their charges implemented the game plan to a “T,” if that’s the proper word.
(Ole Miss and Mississippi State played their “home games” against the Vols in the Bluff City in those days. Tennessee and Auburn also played Auburn’s “home game” in Birmingham in those years.)
Under the leadership of head coach and former Vol Bobby Dodd, Georgia Tech added to the misery with a 17-0 win.
Along the way, there also were injuries to such key performers as Jack Kile, J. W. Carter, L.T. Helton, Bert Ackermann, and George Shuford that helped complicate matters.
The home opener marked the day the new west upper deck and press box were opened and the stadium renamed in Gen. Neyland’s honor and memory. More than $10,000 was raised for the Neyland Scholarship Fund, an academic scholarship for non-athletes that was the General’s dream.
Neyland, a dominant figure in intercollegiate athletics from the 1920s on, had died in New Orleans on March 28, 1962, a month past his 70th birthday. The field inside the stadium retained the names of benefactors Col. William A. Shields and his wife, Alice Watkins Shields.
Bryant had never won in Knoxville, but Alabama broke that troublesome little streak, as the Tide intercepted four passes and Joe Namath completed 9 of 13 passes for 148 yards.
Once Bryant got the first triumph in Knoxville, though, his teams won again in 1964, 1966, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1978, and 1980.
The Vols won four of the next six games against the likes of Chattanooga, Wake Forest, Tulane, and Vanderbilt, while losing to Ole Miss and Kentucky.
The demise of the Wyatt years, which had started off so well in 1955-57, was a mystery to all who knew him.
“His inability to remain at the heights he had attained in his earlier coaching career,” Russ Bebb wrote, “continues to this day as a source of mystery and sadness to his many admirers.”
He was never again a head coach after leaving Tennessee, but, with Bryant’s help, became an assistant at Oklahoma State for two years.
His June 1963 departure from Tennessee is regarded as the passing of the torch from the Neyland Era to future generations.
One sportswriter suggested that a little part of Wyatt might have died when Neyland passed away.
“It is likely that they buried the coaching spirits of Neyland and Wyatt in the single grave at Knoxville’s National Cemetery,” wrote the Knoxville Journal’s Ed Harris.
Wyatt’s playing career earned him College Football Hall of Fame honors in 1972, followed by his induction as a head coach in 1997. He won conference titles at Wyoming, Arkansas, and Tennessee, ending up 99-56-5 overall.
Wyatt died Jan. 21, 1969, at age 51.
Marvin West put the impact of the Wyatt years into proper perspective
“His passing stirred deep discussions of what might have been.”
Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.