Tom Mattingly: Today's controversies become tomorrow's history

The inexorable passage of time has a way of defusing nearly any controversy. Fans often look back at "hot button" athletic issues of the past, wondering what all the fuss was about.

But at the time these controversies arose, they were "white-hot" issues that engendered considerable debate.

Consider, for example, that it wasn't too long ago, in the late-1980s, actually, that Alabama and Auburn were squabbling over the venue of the "Iron Bowl."

Finally, Auburn drew a line in the sand. Auburn would play its "home games" in Auburn, a seemingly reasonable request in some circles, an unreasonable one in others.

Alabama threatened all kinds of repercussions, including canceling the series, and supported keeping the game at Birmingham's Legion Field, a venue seemingly ordained by higher powers.

The "Iron Bowl" couldn't be played anywhere else, could it? That was the spin put out by Alabama and Birmingham civic and community leaders.

The games now are played on each campus at stadiums much larger than Legion Field, and the rivalry hasn't suffered one iota. Alabama partisans had once said "Never" to playing at Auburn, but the Tide now heads eastward to Lee County every other year.

The rivalry may be more competitive and intense than ever, if that's possible.

Alabama did get in one last shot at the Auburn folks before the 1989 game, predicting a Tide win in the first game between the two rivals at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Their comment, expressed in bumper stickers and other media, was to the point: "You're a-- on your grass."

That didn't happen. Auburn won, but this is the stuff of which great rivalries are made.

The game site controversy seems well in the past, particularly when one team wins on the other's home field. That happened as recently as last November. You remember, no doubt, that Alabama once led 24-0, but lost 28-27. Alabama has won at Jordan-Hare Stadium, as recently as 2009, coming back from a 14-0 deficit to win in the final minutes.

There were those across Big Orange Country who expressed concern and trepidation relative to trips to Auburn, Ala., Starkville and Oxford, Miss., and Athens, Ga., instead of Birmingham and Memphis, or in Georgia's case, not playing the Bulldogs at all between 1938 and 1967.

It took the Vols until 1974 to play in Auburn. They've been there to stay since 1980. Tennessee returned to Starkville in 1987 and Oxford in 1988 after a game at each venue in the early 1950s. Tennessee never played in Oxford before 1951 and had played in Starkville only three times (1910, 1920, and 1926).

It always seemed more convenient to go to Memphis to play Mississippi State or Ole Miss instead of Starkville or Oxford. Even the Bulldogs and Rebels thought it was a good idea.

All three teams have strong fan bases in Memphis and West Tennessee, but there's always been something strange about Tennessee being the visiting team against a Mississippi school in Memphis.

Community honchos in the Bluff City tried to get as many games in Crump Stadium as they could over the years, with games featuring Tennessee, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas, among others. Whatever Memphis city leaders did must have worked.

There was one trip to Starkville that was a comedy of errors. The year was 1950. To begin with, the team plane landed at the wrong airport, one that sported grass growing through the cracks in the concrete. Former Vol center Bob Davis remembered that facet of the trip well. Then the Vols, who finished 11-1 on the year, lost to State 7-0.

After the game, another Bob, this time Bob Neyland, reportedly told players their only friends were the people on the plane with them.

The series with Georgia was resumed in 1968, and with the advent of divisional play, the series between the two neighboring states is as hot and heavy as any series Tennessee has played in recent years.

The first two games were doozies. Tennessee stole a 17-17 tie on Sept. 14, 1968, when Bubba Wyche tossed a TD pass to Gary Kreis and a two-point conversion pass to Ken DeLong after the clock had hit double zeroes.

Georgia folks thought they had Tennessee right where they wanted them on a rainy day in Athens on Nov. 1, 1969. In a game played between the legendary hedges, the Vols won 17-3.

Vol fans also worried about playing Memphis State, now known as Memphis, in one of those "nothing to gain, everything to lose" games.

That series began in 1968, after some indelicate political wrangling. The Vols have won 22 of the 23 games played, but the 1996 game - which Memphis won 21-17 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium - still rankles otherwise sensible Vol fans.

What does all this prove? Merely, that time heals all wounds.

Some day, whatever might have been controversial across the expanse of the SEC today will be safely consigned to history, and new controversies will arise.

Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.

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Comments » 2

BoulderCoVol writes:

No amount of time will heal the wound of that game in Memphis - the Vols should not, and will not again, lose to the Tigers. Anyone who says otherwise knows not of what they speak. No disrespect intended, but there are certain inevitable laws of nature - the Orange does not lose to the Blue.

EMBuckles writes:

In a magazine about southern life, a number of years ago, there was an ad for a certain whiskey which said, "this whiskey was put in the barrel the last time Vanderbilt beat Tennesee in Knoxville!" WOW, that was OLD booze! However, some years later, Vanderbilt did win. Sometimes I have felt that Tennessee should play games only against the most powerful teams, however, an SEC schedule is hard enough as it is and the Vols need some breaks at homecoming and other times. And games against the Vols help bring in a lot of money to the Memphis and Vanderbilt athletics programs helping them survive. And, now and again, the "Vandy Commode Doors" and "Tiger High" may win a few. Keeps the Vols on their toes, if nothing else. ;>

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