Tennessee's stirring come-from-behind 23-22 triumph Sunday over the highly regarded Iowa Hawkeyes in the Kick-off Classic at Giants Stadium was fashioned by the unlikeliest of heroes. One was Phil Reich, whose 20-yard field goal with three seconds left, his third of the day, secured the win. Phil Reich? Even Vols coach Johnny Majors had trouble remembering his name. Reich walked on last year, place-kicked in one game, kicked off in several others and was eventually called on to rest his leg for the rest of the season so as not to embarrass the school. And as of game time Sunday, he knew only that the coaches were "looking into" putting him on scholarship.
But Reich was no more improbable a hero than quarterback Jeff Francis, who contrived to keep the Vols in the game before leading them on a 69-yard drive that set up Reich's winning kick. Francis was recruited out of Mount Prospect, Ill., only by Miami of Ohio, which was not enormously depressed when he decided to take his talents to Knoxville. After all, he had just led his high school team to a 2-7 year, which even now causes him to reflect on his ability thusly: "I had my doubts."
Certainly Reich's credentials going into the Iowa game were more doubtful than those of the Hawkeyes' 6'8" quarterback, sophomore Dan McGwire, whose older brother Mark is the rookie homer-hitting sensation of the Oakland Athletics. Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry had spent most of the last five months bragging, crowing, hyperbolizing, lauding and chortling over McGwire's gifts—"He's got the strongest throwing arm I've ever seen, pro or otherwise," Fry said—but last week he seemed to come down with a case of remorse over his mouthiness: "Gosh, how's he gonna play?" the coach fretted. "Can he take a snap from center without falling down? The ol' coach is mighty worried."
So what happens to the superstar coveted by every major football-playing school in the land? He plays a little more than a quarter, hitting on half of his routine passes. He fails to light up the scoreboard and is not called on to lead again. Groused McGwire, "I was just building up my confidence when he [Fry] pulled me out." So put The Dan McGwire Story—book, paperback, TV rights, poster, national tour and movie—on hold for the time being.
September 6, 1987
The spirited Vols reached a turning point midway through the second quarter after Francis was banged down hard and fumbled. Iowa recovered—on the Tennessee two. Four plays later, quarterback Chuck Hartlieb, in for McGwire, ran an option right from the one. He was hit by walk-on defensive tackle David Johnson, playing only because of injuries to others. Another unlikely hero. Hartlieb tried to pitch to his running back, Rick Bayless, but Vols linebacker Darrin Miller intercepted.
And off he goes. Not fast. But going. The shadows in the stadium are moving faster than Miller. But he picks up brilliant blocking from cornerback Terry McDaniel. And keeps chugging along, stopping once for water and a second time for air, and finally he dives into the end zone, a 96-yard trip. Gasped Miller two hours later, "I didn't hear or see nothin'. I just kept lookin' at the end zone." Miller had never scored a touchdown in his entire football career.
That play gave Tennessee—whose defense was outweighed by the Iowa offense 25 pounds per man—an enormous lift. But the Hawkeyes rebounded, and when Rob Houghtlin made his third field goal of the day—a 42-yarder to extend Iowa's lead to 22-17 with nine minutes remaining—it appeared all would be well. Then along came Francis, who completed only 11 of 23 passes for 151 yards for the day but somehow kept the offense moving in the right direction. A little extra effort here. A sidearm completion there. A little cajoling. And a lot of handing off to freshman Reggie Cobb. You might call Cobb an unlikely hero since he's basically a third-teamer: nevertheless, his rock-hard running damaged the Hawks with 138 yards on 25 carries.
After Houghtlin's field goal, Francis, Cobb & Co. got the Vols to the Iowa seven, where they stalled. In came Reich, who kicked a 25-yard field goal with 5:14 left. Iowa was unable to move the ball, and that's when Francis engineered that climactic 69-yard drive until, with six seconds left and Tennessee on the Hawkeye two, Reich was called upon again. The ball lay too close to the goalpost and at an unfavorable angle on the left hash—Reich much prefers the right middle. But he calmly booted it through. "I like pressure," said Reich later. "T wanted to kick it." Effective immediately, he's on scholarship.
And suddenly Francis—who has for the past three summers worked as a gofer at a funeral home in Mount Prospect—is the toast of Knoxville. But is he now a star? "Gosh, no," he exclaimed, horrified at the question. "I just get out there, and my teammates make me look better than I am."