If you lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, it required steel scruples just to keep from dialing up the Downtown Athletic Club and asking the boys to bring the Heisman Trophy on down and give it to His Boliness, Auburn's Bo Jackson, a few teensy-weensy weeks early. After all, Ohio State's Keith Byars was injured, TCU's Kenneth Davis was jumping to the NFL—even if it did mean a pay cut—and BYU's Robbie Bosco hadn't even thrown for a church record yet. So whaddya say? Give the Heisman to Bo now and save the price of the tuxes.
This was the AP and UPI No. 1 team, Auburn, and this was Super Bo—the running back so Bo-dacious that one Atlanta paper dressed him in a Superman outfit and ran the photo full-color, full-page. This was the Bo for whom Auburn had changed its entire offense. Out went the wishbone. In came the I-formation, just so Bo and the ball could get better acquainted, say, 20 or more times a game. After two games in which he averaged 248 yards a game, Jackson was ready to go and everybody was in Knoxville, Tenn. to see him, including 60% of ABC's television audience.
By the way, who was Bo playing?
"Some of the guys got to talking," Tennessee wide receiver Tim McGee had said two days before the game, "and we got to wondering, 'With the TV coming to see Bo and all, do you think they might show us ?' Then we said, 'Nah.' "
October 6, 1985
Trouble was, somebody had a lousy idea: Play the game. They shouldn't oughta have done that. Yo, Bo: Here's mud in your I.
Tennessee River mud, to be exact, which isn't far from where the Vols danced the Tennessee Waltz on Auburn's nose, scratching the paint on the souped-up, custom-built Bo O and knocking the S off Superman. Here's nobody's No. 1, Tennessee, tweaking the Tigers 38-20 in front of most everybody with a Heisman vote and a television, and leaving Jackson with only 80 yards on 17 carries. Whoaaaa, Bo. You even took yourself out of the game in the third quarter with a bruised knee and spent the rest of the afternoon on the bench. That was strictly Bo-rrrrring.
Definitely not boring was Vol Ball, that high-wire act performed without a net by a quarterback built along the lines of a tent pole and by a collection of receivers who could make a bundle working wallets in Bogotà. Together, they like to change about 65% of the plays called from the booth and throw it long instead, and darned if they don't hit half of them. Then, all of a sudden, you're trying to call plays in the fourth quarter while maniacs with orange faces and blue breath are bringing down the goalposts on your very heels. Ah, what's the use? You weren't using 'em anyway.
"Man, just think about it," said McGee, who got in some serious tube time, catching six passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. "We had nothing to lose. This is Auburn, the No. 1 team with the No. 1 Heisman guy. We could've lost 50 to nothing and everybody would have said, 'Typical Tennessee team.' Now, we've got Tennessee back on the map."
Auburn coach Pat Dye had tried to tell us. Dye had insisted that the Tigers were not No. 1 (they were ranked seventh by SI), but even Dye was in for a letdown. 'T hope we're not as bad as we looked today," he said afterward. He might also hope that Tennessee isn't as good as it looked, for if it is, Tennessee could make off with the Southeastern Conference title. Yes, America, the Vols, who last won the SEC in 1969, who hadn't beaten a No. 1 team since 1959 (LSU), and who almost turned this game into one of the great fiascoes in polling history. Consider that Tennessee was ahead 24-0 at the half despite having botched two drives in Auburn territory, one at the 10.
And...uh-oh, Bo. The Vols' quarterback, senior Tony Robinson, could start splitting up the Heisman voting block in the South. A dazzling talent, Robinson is now an official TV ratings hit, having thrown for 387 yards in an opening 26-26 tie with UCLA on ABC and 259 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn. Dye calls Robinson "a great player, but we knew that coming in." Tennessee coach Johnny Majors says Robinson is "the most dynamic college quarterback in the game since Joe Namath...with the best natural touch on the ball I've ever seen."
O.K., O.K., so Majors was a little tipsy with the intoxication of the moment, but Robinson is still the biggest thing in Tennessee since Dolly Parton left Pigeon Forge. "He can throw and he can scramble," says the Dallas Cowboys' top talent hunter, Gil Brandt, who came to see Bo, but wound up enraptured with the odd and dancing vision of Robinson, a 6'3", 187-pound whippet—Jimmie Walker in cleats. Says Majors, "I mean no disrespect, but when you see him running, he looks like a crane. But does he move !"
So fishing-line thin is Robinson that when people recognize him on campus, "They think I'm a basketball player," says Robinson. "They'll stop me and say, 'Hey, nice game last night.' And I'll say, 'You sure?' And they'll say, 'Yeah, you're [Volunteer center] Rob Jones, right?' And I'll say, 'Uh, yeah. Thanks.' "
Truth is, Tennessee is lucky to have Robinson hanging around campus at all. Stuck behind quarterback Alan Cockrell his first two years, Robinson mostly moped his freshman and sophomore seasons. He went home once, considered going another time and almost took his old job back at a hardware store in Tallahassee, Fla. after that. "Tony just didn't have his heart in it," says Vols quarterback coach Walt Harris. To make matters worse, Robinson, who is mostly skin wrapped around pride, was so sure he should start that he refused to redstart. When Cockrell signed a baseball contract with the Giants in June 1984, Robinson was handed the ball and instantly blossomed. From his first game, in which he completed 13 of 16 passes against Washington State to open '84, to the Auburn upset, Robinson may have been the best quarterback you never heard of.
Most unacquainted with Robinson, it seemed, were the Auburn players, who confused him with somebody slow and chicken. "He's not much of a scrambler," said Tiger cornerback Jimmie Warren in The Knoxville Journal. "He's always doing that hook slide. He looks like a quarterback who's either not very good at running or afraid to take a lick.... But I don't think it'll be a problem. It's hard to throw on your back."
The Tennessee band had barely returned to its seats after playing the national anthem when Robinson had Auburn munching modifiers. Wearing his trademark orange wristbands around his ankles (that's how skinny he is), Robinson loped away from the Tiger rush on a third-and-five, cut up the middle and dashed 39 yards, sans hook slide. Five plays later, tailback Charles Wilson scored from the three to finish a 76-yard drive. One way or another, Robinson accounted for 72 of those yards. Six minutes later Auburn's sophomore quarterback, Jeff Burger, gave the ball back to the Vols on a bad pitch, and on the next play Robinson threw a 37-yard touchdown strike to McGee to make the score 14-0.
By now the 94,358 fans at Neyland Stadium had made it ear-splittingly clear that this was not Bo's Show, but Robinson's. And, like Mae West, even when Robinson was bad, he was good. Halfway through the second quarter, Robinson, falling backward in a near sack, heaved the ball vaguely in the direction of split end Vince Carter, who not only was not open but also could hardly see Robinson because of the two defensive backs hindering his view. But Carter came up with the ball and a 21-0 lead. In the fourth quarter, when the Vols needed one more score to help them forget UCLA's 16-point, 11th-hour comeback to tie on Sept. 14, split end Eric Swan-son mugged Auburn safety Arthur Johnson, presto-changing an interception into a 30-yard, let's-get-the-goalposts-now-Joe-Bob touchdown and a 38-12 Tennessee advantage.
Meanwhile, woe befell Bo. While Jackson had 181 yards in the first quarter of his goosebumpy opener against Southwestern Louisiana, he had just 29 at the same juncture against Tennessee. The Vols' defense, playing somewhere on the outskirts of consciousness, bid Bo hello at every hole, turning Auburn's offense into an I sore. No matter where Bo went on this crisp fall day, he got to see the colors change: green to orange, green to orange.
And who better to put Bo in low than Tennessee's 60-year-old defensive whiz. Ken Donahue, wearer of a double-billed Sherlock Holmes hat and bearer of a nose so perfectly flat that his glasses are always askew and never anywhere near the neighborhood of his eyes. This game was for Donahue's peace of mind. Bear Bryant's defensive assistant at Alabama for 19 years, Donahue for the last four years has had to wear the title of the Man Who Lost Bo Jackson at Alabama. As the story goes, Donahue let it slip to Bo during a recruiting visit that Bo wouldn't start at Alabama for two seasons. Jackson signed with Dye.
Bad enough Donahue had to live with that, but Jackson made for an ill reminder by averaging 163 yards against Donahue at Alabama. In his first season back at his alma mater since 1960 (Donahue coached Majors when Majors played in Knoxville), the wise old dean of defense finally put a stop to Bo. Said Donahue, "I was glad to see Bo go to the sideline, and I will be even gladder to see him graduate."
When Donahue wasn't stopping Auburn, Auburn's three quarterbacks were doing the job. The Tiger troika—Burger, freshman Bobby Walden and senior Pat Washington—completed only 10 of 26 throws for 100 yards, with three interceptions, two lost fumbles, countless bumbled plays and a low-light reel of overthrown receivers. So bad was Auburn's passing game that even with the Tigers trailing 24-0 in the third quarter, Dye kept running the ball, using up 7 l/2 minutes but getting no points. "Obviously," said Dye, "we're not settled there."
Still, the Bo Show will be back, and Dye looked almost relieved that the cursed No. 1 was no longer painted on his back. "It was premature and I knew it," Dye said. "We brought everything we had with us, and it just didn't work."
Vol Ball, meanwhile, is just hitting the pop charts. "Hey," says Robinson, "nobody heard of Miami two years ago, either." Be careful. It's a Rocky Top, Tennessee.