Haywood Harris, Tennessee's sports information director, is superstitious. He regularly notes all sorts of occurrences and believes them to be evil omens for his undefeated Volunteer football team. A real bad one turned up last week. One of the two engines of the Martin 404 Southern Airways charter that was to carry the Volunteer defense to Athens for the critical game with Georgia lost power on its trip down the runway, and the plane had to return to the shop. The delay caused the defensive unit to miss practice. A more obvious omen was the fact that Georgia had not lost at home in 16 games, and the Bulldogs were ranked ninth nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 86 yards a game. The spirit of the Georgia fans wasn't a comfort to Harris either. A huge crowd appeared at the Thursday night pep rally, and two days later 400 standing-room-only tickets were sold for the bridge overlooking the west end zone of Sanford Stadium, despite a forecast of rain. The student paper termed it "the game of the decade," and an Athens radio station interrupted programming with the yell, "Go, you hairy Dogs."
None of this particularly bothered the Tennessee team, however. The Vols have been too busy enjoying football this season, and too confident of their own ability, to even consider the possibility of defeat. Steve Kiner, the All-America linebacker, said, "Sure, we'll beat Georgia, although I can't say by how much because I've never played them down there in Athens." Kiner's predictions are usually accurate. Before the season he told Southeastern Conference writers that LSU would have a great team and Florida a strong one but that Tennessee would win the conference. The writers preferred Ole Miss as the favorite, and a representative from a Mississippi paper pressed Kiner on the subject of the Rebels. "I don't think they're that tough," the linebacker replied. "But they have a lot of horses down there," the writer insisted. Kiner shot back, "A lot of people go down on the farm and can't tell the difference between a horse and a mule."
Similar comments directed at other SEC schools have caused Kiner to receive a stack of poison-pen letters. One arrived last week from a woman in San Francisco who claimed to have been an avid Vol fan for 30 years. "But your mouth is changing my opinion," she wrote. "I hope an opponent shuts it up."
There were a few moments on Saturday when it looked as if Georgia might do it. Midway through the first quarter the Bulldogs took advantage of a Tennessee fumble to open the scoring. Curt Watson, the Vols' gifted sophomore fullback, lost the ball, and Georgia recovered on the Tennessee five-yard line. But three plays gained only one yard—a sign of things to come—and Jim McCullough kicked a 21-yard field goal. For the first time this year Tennessee was behind.
November 10, 1969
By the second period Tennessee's big, strong offensive line had adjusted to the slippery field—sure enough, it did rain—and the speed of the Georgia defense. The Bulldog line is tiny—the largest member weighs just 205 pounds—but in previous games it had compensated with quickness. Right Guard Steve Greer is the heaviest and most talented. "When a center snaps the ball Greer moves like there's a string tied from the ball to his face guard," Tennessee Guard Don Denbo said. Denbo and the rest of the Vol line didn't commit themselves. They kept their feet spread apart and blocked high, preventing Georgia from dashing through, and then simply pushed the small, struggling defenders out of reach of the ballcarrier.
The Vol line began to open gaping holes in the second quarter, and when that happened Georgia's chance for an upset was eliminated. "I'd never seen so much daylight," Tennessee's Quarterback Bobby Scott said. "I just couldn't believe those big holes in the Georgia line."
In one five-minute burst Tailback Don McLeary completed a 56-yard drive with a touchdown leap from the one, the Vols intercepted a Mike Cavan pass at Georgia's 27-yard line and four plays later Watson scored from the three. That was it. Tennessee added a third-period field goal to make the final score 17-3. Watson—already considered one of the great Vol backs—ended the day with 197 yards, the most ever by a Tennessee ballcarrier. McLeary didn't do badly, either. When he wasn't throwing blocks for Watson he ran for a 100-yard total.
The high-powered Tennessee offense owes much to its line, an interesting collection of characters. Take Don Denbo. Denbo is forever devising variations on the fundamental block. In practice he will listen to his line coach, Ray Trail, explain an assignment and then will tell him four other methods of eliminating the opponent. Trail has been known to shout, "Oh, Denbo, shut up," but usually he just shakes his head and continues the lesson. Denbo is the team's intellectual. He has had an untitled poem published in Poetry Magazine and is working on a series entitled The Great American Pastime. The subject, surprise, is football, and he has completed 15 poems. His room in the athletic dorm contains a bookcase six feet long and 4½ feet high, and it is filled with 200 paperbacks. He calls it "my reference library," and his favorite volumes are those of T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Leon Uris and Mark Twain. "Books are my major hang-up. Some people can't walk by a clothing store without going in. I can't walk by a bookstore."
Denbo's counterpart, Right Guard Chip Kell, can't resist the weight room. Kell has been known to enter the locker room after a strenuous practice, examine his 6', 245-pound frame and exclaim, "I'm getting too skinny," then walk to the weights. An hour and a half later he'll emerge, smiling, content and breathing deeply.
Tennessee's defense has its share of characters, too. There is, of course, the outspoken Kiner at linebacker. Working alongside him is Jack Reynolds, or, as he is known to his teammates, Crazy Jack. Reynolds spends Sundays after a game driving a teammate's Willys jeep into the trees beyond Knoxville's Chapman Highway. Smack into the trees. "After the Alabama game he wedged it between two trees," Kiner said, "and when he got back to the dorm all he could say was, 'I put it into first and then flipped it into second.' It was the high point of his week."
On the wall of Reynolds' room is a large jeep poster. Piled neatly on the floor under the poster are stacks of soap. After last season's Vanderbilt game Reynolds and Denbo removed a box of Dial soap from the locker room and carried it home to Knoxville. Soap collecting has now become a ritual to Reynolds. After every practice he collects up to 40 bars of Safeguard and, using tape, puts them in a neat bundle and deposits it in his room. "I'm saving them for the winter," Reynolds explains.
Reynolds is ribbed constantly about the soap and the jeep, Denbo about his intellect, Kiner his predictions, Kell his passion for weights and Tight End Ken DeLong his dislike for practice. DeLong appears in the trainer's room on Sundays with untraceable ailments that, more times than not, keep him from heavy practice. "I'll be working in pads hitting people," says Kiner. "I'll look over and see him standing there on the sideline smiling at me. But no one minds because he plays so well on Saturdays."
In this age of frequent disharmony between players and coach Tennessee is a definite exception. Doug Dickey is a popular man with his players. "Coach Dickey is an aware person," Kiner explains. "He can communicate. He allowed us to have sideburns this year, for example. He and his assistants trust us. We know when our hair is too long, and when it is we cut it. We are treated like adults."
"We work hard, but not unusually hard," Dickey says. "There is a certain amount of drudgery in football because of its repetition and conditioning. We try to make the game fun to play. We all seem to enjoy each other."
"I'm having more fun playing this year," Kiner attests, "and it's not just because we're winning. We were winners last year, too. But now I know there are 10 other guys on our defense who are busting their tails as hard as I am. Last year I couldn't say that, and sometimes I got depressed."
Tennessee had no cause for depression in the locker room. Word arrived that the SEC's two other undefeated teams, Florida and LSU, had been beaten, putting Tennessee alone at the top of the conference standings. In the eyes of Vol rooters it had been No. 1 all along—not just in the SEC but in the nation. Happiest, perhaps, was Reynolds. Lon Herzbrun, the linebacker coach, had offered to help him find a jeep of his own. Even PR man Haywood Harris was smiling. The scene had been friendly, despite omens to the contrary, and he expected the skies to clear so the Martin 404 could whisk the team safely home to Knoxville.