The question of whether a good football game can be played on your living room carpet was answered pretty much to everyone's satisfaction last week down on a rim of the Smokies in the old South. The University of Tennessee won the sport's interior-decorating award for 1968 with its new synthetic turf, and then the Volunteers somehow managed to tie Georgia, 17 to 17, after an absolutely hellacious opening to the college football season.
There at the end, with Tennessee Quarterback Bubba Wyche throwing a touchdown pass and then a two-point conversion after the clock had run out, everything was sagging, especially heartbeats, but not the gleaming nylon playing field. It was still a rich green and as spotless as it was when the game began three hours earlier. And this was after a truck-load of Tennessee cheerleaders had driven on it, after a Tennessee walking horse had pranced around it, after a Georgia bulldog had gnawed at it and after a Georgia coach had flicked ashes from his pipe on it. It was even after a Negro had played on it, which hasn't happened every day in the Southeastern Conference. The verdict so far has to be that the turf is glorious. God blew it when he gave us grass.
The fact that these two splendid teams played such a stirring, explosive game on the synthetic surface is testimony enough to its usefulness. But there were other things to be noted about the rug, which literally leaped up at you in glowing emerald under the cloudless Knoxville sky. With the game over, you still couldn't see a soiled spot on any of the uniforms. This leads to the assumption that a school can save $10,000 a year in cleaning bills alone if it installs Tartan Turf, which is what the stuff is called. The footing was good. Nobody skidded or tripped like a lot of us do when we move across our dens to switch channels. And the cost of maintenance is going to be low unless a school is hit by fire, earthquake, flood or moths that can digest nylon, since Tennessee and Georgia's hard-driving linemen didn't take a single divot. In fact, this lack of damage to the nonturf, plus the unsoiled jerseys, gave the game an unreal quality; the unspeckled field and the clean suits made the last play look like the first.
The manufacturers of the field, who also have installed one at the University of Wisconsin, did not claim for an instant that it would provide such startling deeds as a 40-yard field goal, a 90-yard punt return, an 80-yard off-tackle smash, a 53-yard field-goal try that hit the crossbar and a 21-yard scoring pass on the last play of the 60 minutes, all of which the Vols and Bulldogs furnished. What the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. did claim was that Tartan Turf ought to eliminate upkeep and cut down on injuries because football cleats have a habit of digging into the roots of conventional fields and causing knee troubles.
The Tennessee field is quite a bit different from AstroTurf, which the Monsanto company makes, although you have to walk around on the two to tell the difference. AstroTurf, which is in Houston's dome, sits up higher and bristles. It makes a noise when you step on it. Skrench, maybe. Like stepping on a million toothbrushes. Tartan Turf is more compact, tighter woven in a sense. Both surfaces give, like plush carpet. A fairly good debate—and probably a multimillion-dollar one—is going on now in the exciting world of synthetic athletic fields as to which is the better. Whoever wins, the stuff is here to stay, and how do you like your front lawn lately?
The big winner of the Georgia-Tennessee tie was Minnesota Mining, which is best known for making all of that Scotch Tape that your kids use up around the house. The 3M Company got into the sports business eight years ago after William McKnight, the chairman of the board who also owns Tartan Stable, asked his trainer, Johnny Nerud, what 3M could do to help racing. Nerud told McKnight, "Invent a track that's never muddy and doesn't have chuck holes or high spots—something with a uniform surface."
McKnight went to his staff of chemists and suggested they try it. Chairmen of boards generally have a way of getting listened to, so the chemists went to work. The result has been not only synthetic horse-racing tracks, but basketball floors, running tracks and now football fields.
Meanwhile another forward-looking man, Tennessee Athletic Director Bob Woodruff, had been pushing for several years for an updated physical layout in Knoxville. He wanted new field houses, swimming pools, tracks and winning football teams again. Two years ago Woodruff had a Tartan basketball court installed. A Tartan running track is already down, and the stadium is going up around it for next spring's NCAA track and field championship in Knoxville. When Woodruff finally ordered the Tartan football field, there were those who figured Tennessee might as well change its colors from orange to plaid.
The rug was bought in June, at a cost of $200,000, and required about two months to install. There are several steps involved, which may be of interest to those who own unreliable power mowers. First, you dig up everything and lay a foot of compacted soil. On top of that you put six inches of gravel or four inches of crushed rock. You then lay 1½ inches of asphaltic concrete binder and then another inch of fine-texture asphalt. Finally, you put down the inch-thick Tartan, the bottom half inch being rubber and plastic and the top half grasslike nylon fibers. It is smooth, sticky, holds the heat and will burn your feet if you try to run barefoot through sprinklers on it, but a lot of people think grass hurts, too.
Georgia did not want to play on the carpet and protested to the Southeastern Conference about a breach of contract and such things. A mild furor rose and subsided, but not the jokes. Where were the ash trays? Coach Vince Dooley of Georgia wanted to know when he walked in and looked at the field on Friday afternoon. A Knoxville motel had a sign on its marquee that said, "We have Tartan carpets for all our Georgia guests." And a banner hung from the Georgia side of the field during the game that read, "Come to Bulldog country—the home of real sho' nuff grass."
As it turned out, the game would have been a classic if it had been played on a barge moving down the Tennessee River, which almost washes against the end zone of the Vols' stadium.
It started out very much like one of those old-fashioned SEC games. A lot of defense, punting, fumbles and missed field goals. As a matter of fact, Tennessee recovered an implausible seven fumbles in the first half, four of Georgia's and three of its own, the ball always bouncing right on the Vols' Tartan surface. It was one of those Georgia fumbles that led to Tennessee's seven-point lead. A bad hand-off gave the Vols the ball at the Georgia 17. Five plays later Tennessee Tailback Mike Jones dived high over a pyramid of players for the touchdown, proving among other things that a fellow can probably jump higher on phony grass.
By the middle of the third quarter Georgia had managed to get a 40-yard field goal by Jim McCullough and the Tennessee lead had been narrowed, but the game was still under control. And then Tennessee's Herman Weaver booted one of his 13 punts (he averaged a remarkable 45 yards) some 57 yards through the clear air. The ball drifted around up there with the Goodyear blimp for a while and then came down into the arms of Georgia Safety Jake Scott, who can run.
Scott did a little dart to his left, and another to his right, and he drifted back some to let a teammate, Lee Daniel, lay a crunching block on Tennessee's fine end, Ken DeLong. Then he was going down the sideline, right past his own bench, jumping over a Georgia helmet that had spilled out onto the rug, and finally he was long gone—90 yards to a touchdown. "I thought somebody was chasing me," he said later. "But I looked back and saw he was ours."
In the middle of the fourth quarter, after Tennessee Linebacker Steve Kiner had trapped Georgia Quarterback Donnie Hampton trying to pass from his one-inch line for a safety that narrowed the score to 10-9, Georgia Fullback Bruce Kemp got away on a journey that almost matched Scott's. It was an ordinary off-tackle play, except it was executed perfectly, which rarely happens. Starting at his own 20, Kemp broke a tackle just beyond the line and went 80 yards. Now it was 17-9, and Georgia had slowly begun to look like the better team. The Bulldogs had two ferocious linemen, Tackle Bill Stanfill and End Billy Payne, who had shut off Tennessee's running game and had kept Bubba Wyche's passes from moving the Vols.
There were just two and a half minutes left when Tennessee found itself on its 20-yard line with, really, only one last chance to tie the game. But now Wyche proved he was no ordinary quarterback. At this point he had hit only nine of 26 passes and ought to have been discouraged, but he had to keep passing. He managed two short completions—and then found Lester McClain, a tall sophomore from Nashville who is Tennessee's first Negro varsity player, with a big 14-yarder when it was fourth and three. The roar from the stands rivaled that during halftime when the band formed a Confederate flag.
Wyche, looking like a pro quarterback on a desperation march, completed three more passes down to the Georgia four-yard line. But then Tennessee started going in reverse. Two impassioned defensive plays by Stanfill and Payne pushed Wyche back to the 21 with just four seconds showing on the clock. Wyche called for a post-pattern pass and then turned to End Gary Kreis in the huddle and said, "Do or die. You better get it, Gary."
Kreis, who had dropped three passes earlier, crossed over the middle and Wyche threw to the goal line. Kreis grabbed the ball at the one-yard line, felt it slipping sickeningly from his grasp as he fell into the end zone on his back and then had it again when he hit the Tartan. It was two seconds after the zeros had flashed on the clock.
But Tennessee still had to come up with a two-point play to get the tie. Wyche spread out his flankers again and fired over the middle again, this time hitting Ken DeLong right in the belly at the one. DeLong was falling as he turned into the end zone, and before he could get up the whole state of Tennessee was swarming after him, stomping around and hollering on that synthetic turf about an ending to a game that was not synthetic at all.