Given his history with both schools, Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart's favorite installment of the Third Saturday in October rivalry is fitting.
It ended in a tie.
The year was 1965 and Hart was just a high school student. The score was knotted, 7-7, at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., the Crimson Tide had the ball and was driving late in the fourth quarter. Sophomore quarterback Ken Stabler had just scrambled for a big third-down gain, but was short of the sticks. Unaware of the down and
focused exclusively on stopping the clock, Stabler threw his fourth-down pass out of bounds on purpose. UT took over possession and the game was over.
"Anytime games are decided late," Hart said, "they stick in your mind."
But it wasn't the wacky play that sticks with Hart. It was the lasting image of a downtrodden Stabler walking off the field with legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who had his arm over his quarterback's shoulder.
"It's one of those (rivalries) that literally gives you chill bumps," said Hart, a former Alabama basketball player and administrator. "Anyone who's familiar with the Southeastern Conference can recite to you plays from you-name-the-year, plays that made a difference, great runs, great defensive plays, players who made a difference and went on to great careers in the NFL.
"Just the tradition, and history and passion that exists in that rivalry is the reason I think it's critically important that we do all we can to maintain that."
That the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry — which will be renewed Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 7:15 p.m.) at Bryant-Denny Stadium — currently carries an uncertain status is just the latest example of the ever-changing landscape of college football.
According to various national reports, Missouri is on the cusp of leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, joining Texas A&M as a new member of a 14-team conference.
From a geography standpoint, it would make sense for Missouri and Texas A&M to settle in the West Division while Auburn, which is already farther east than Vanderbilt, would switch to the East. Unless the SEC adopted a nine-game conference schedule — which is common throughout college football, but a tough sell nonetheless — or places Missouri in the East, that scenario would make it virtually impossible for UT (3-3, 0-3 SEC) and Alabama (7-0, 4-0) to play every year.
With six divisional games, teams would only have room for one permanent cross-divisional opponent and one that rotates. Because Alabama's in-state rivalry with Auburn would likely take precedence over its series with UT, the Vols would be forced to find another permanent partner from the West.
From UT's standpoint, that won't happen until every possible option is exercised.
"We have to do all we possibly can to keep that rivalry in place," Hart said. "Looking back at my time as an athlete in this league, you immediately learn and appreciate and have great respect for that rivalry. The intensity, compassion that exists in that rivalry, there aren't too many other football-playing rivalries and schools who can rise up to the level of the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry."
When Hart served on the Atlantic Coast Conference expansion committee in the early 2000s, the potential loss of rivalries was one of a number of factors considered, he said. And for the most part, they remained intact after the conference added Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.) and Boston College and split into two divisions.
Other major rivalries in college football, though, haven't been so lucky.
Texas A&M said goodbye to its heated rivalry with Texas when it joined the SEC. Pittsburgh's departure from the Big East to the ACC has put its annual "Backyard Brawl" grudge match with West Virginia on unstable footing.
The Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry that was at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s lost its luster when the teams were placed in separate divisions upon the Big 8 expanding to the Big 12. It was unofficially extinguished when the Cornhuskers joined the Big 10 in 2011.
UT's rivalry with Auburn was diminished when the teams were split into different divisions when the SEC added South Carolina and Arkansas in 1991.
"You reach a point where you can't maybe save them all, so you have to make some choices," Hart said. "Really, where you start with that assessment is the history and the tradition that exists in some of the rivalries we enjoy.
"Everybody has rivalries here or there, but when you're talking about the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry, you're talking about one of the greatest rivalries in college sports."
With Alabama reaching new heights under Nick Saban and UT falling on hard times because of multiple coaching changes, the rivalry has, perhaps, slipped off the national radar at the worst possible time. Alabama has won the last four meetings and all but one — the 2009, 12-10 thriller in Tuscaloosa — were decided by 20 or more points.
Hart said he's "absolutely" confident that the presidents, chancellors and athletic directors entrusted with determining the SEC's future have a firm grasp on the series' historical importance.
UT's players and coaches certainly do.
"It's an important game to both programs," said defensive line coach Lance Thompson, who was on the other side of the rivalry in 2007 and 2008 as a Saban assistant. "Both programs are special and this game is special."
After he exchanges pleasantries with former players at alumni gatherings, senior linebacker Austin Johnson said one of the first questions he fields centers on whether he's "beaten 'Bama yet." At reunions, Johnson said he's seen former players who were on teams that defeated the Crimson Tide asked to stand and be recognized.
Defensive tackle Daniel Hood grew up a die-hard Vols fan, but admitted that he fell into the seemingly ever-expanding group that considers Florida to be the school's top rival. He quickly changed his mind after he and the rest of the team watched the documentary "The Color Orange" with former Vols quarterback Condredge Holloway.
"He talked to us about never beating Alabama and how much that meant to him," Hood said. "I'd hate to see that just go away."
Before he launched into a tirade that included the use of an expletive, Saban said Monday he's "very hopeful" that the SEC's traditions and rivalries are maintained. He admitted, though, that he "didn't really know much about that stuff," echoing what a number of coaches, players and fans have said ever since the future of UT's series with Alabama suddenly became unclear.
"I don't care about conference expansion," Thompson said. "I do care about Tennessee and Alabama. And I doubt that Tennessee and Alabama will ever go away because of conference expansion."