Talk about mood swings. one year ago, Tennessee fans were out shopping for tar, feathers and a rail on which to ride coach Johnny Majors out of town. Last Saturday the same bunch, delirious and drenched by a steady downpour, stormed the field in Knoxville's Neyland Stadium in a joyous celebration of the Volunteers' 21-14 upset of Auburn. The only ride they might have wanted to give Majors was on their shoulders.
September 1988 was one of the ugliest months in the history of Volunteers football—during those 30 days, Tennessee dropped its first four games of the season by a combined score of 131-58—and on Oct. 1, Washington State thrashed the Vols 52-24. Five in a row. Feeling the hot breath of the mob, Majors knew he had to make some difficult decisions.
He relieved his friend and one-time mentor, defensive coordinator Ken Donahue, of his duties. He demoted starters. "We moved people around, we simplified the defense," says Majors. "We had almost a mini-spring practice and got ready for Alabama." Not ready enough, as it turned out. The Tide handed Tennessee loss number six, 28-20, giving the 1988 Vols the distinction of being the first Tennessee team ever to lose its first six games. On the Knoxville campus, conversation died when football players entered rooms. "We were our only friends," says tailback Reggie Cobb.
These days they have plenty of friends. On Oct. 22, 1988, the Vols defeated Memphis State 38-25 to break their losing streak; they then added four more wins in a row to finish out the season. This fall Tennessee, playing with most of the same bodies who were responsible for last year's horrific start, has won its first four games.
October 8, 1989
What accounts for this sudden change in fortune? For one thing, the Volunteers' linemen are no longer the weakest in the SEC, as they admit they were last season. And their defense is thinking less and reacting more, or, as cornerback Preston Warren says, "chasing the ball and punishing people." What's more, Majors was willing to reinstate Cobb this fall after suspending him from the team last February.
A glance at Saturday's final score might lead one to deduce that Tennessee won by scoring three touchdowns to Auburn's two. Two Tigers, in particular, wish that had been the case. Ron Burchfield and Travis Galloway called attention to themselves the only way deep snappers can—by messing up. Late in the first quarter, Burchfield's 20-plus yard parabola over punter Chris Dickinson's head rolled out of the end zone, giving the Vols a 2-0 lead. Six minutes later, Galloway launched a 37-yarder that Dickinson retrieved behind his own goal line. It was that kind of day for the visitors.
Auburn coach Pat Dye had an uneasy feeling going into the game. The Tigers had won only once in three games at Neyland Stadium since 1983, despite being favored each time they visited, and his 2-0 team had yet to be truly challenged. Still, Dye felt confident of one thing: His defensive line would dominate. No question. Since 1981, when Wayne Hall became defensive line coach, all but one of his starters have been all-SEC. Nine of Hall's products are in the NFL, and this season's three new starters seemed assured of long careers studded with postseason honors.
But something went awry, beginning with Tennessee's second possession, when the Volunteers' offensive linemen—most notably right guard Eric Still—began driving the Tigers off the ball. Tailbacks Cobb and Chuck Webb were biting off huge chunks of yardage right up the gut of Auburn's defense. The Vols rushed for 66 yards on that possession, which ended with a shanked 37-yard field goal attempt. But a statement had been made.
"We're not the same team they beat 38-6 a year ago," said Cobb after Saturday's game. "They made some remarks during the week, saying I wasn't going to be a factor in the game." Cobb's 225 yards on 22 carries turned out to be the best rushing day anyone has had against an Auburn defense in 38 years.
That's not to say the Tigers were doing all the jawing in the days before the game. Majors raked up some muck by stating that Dye "must have a good relationship with his registrar"—a reference to the 15 Proposition 48 athletes on Auburn's roster. "Our school doesn't permit us to take that many," said Majors.
Dye didn't shoot off a return volley, but he could have. Tennessee could be a bit more selective. In 1986, former Vols fullback Kenneth Cooper was convicted of selling cocaine to an undercover policeman. Ex-quarterback Tony Robinson was sentenced in November '86 to serve 90 days for cocaine trafficking and was recently imprisoned again for violating his parole. Two weeks ago, Tennessee's top recruit, defensive back Derric Evans, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated robbery. Cobb's suspension was reportedly for failing three drug tests, and Webb was arrested last spring for stealing a check from a teammate and attempting to cash it. He pleaded guilty and is performing community service.
"People make mistakes," says Majors. "They work it out or they have to leave." Apparently, both Cobb and Webb demonstrated sufficient contrition to be reinstated in time for this season's fall camp, which didn't hurt Vols football. Through four games, Cobb has rushed for 510 yards, Webb for 310. Together they have accounted for 56% of Tennessee's offensive yardage and eight of its 11 touchdowns.
On Saturday, with the score 2-0 early in the second quarter, Cobb stepped right, then took a handoff and cut back off left guard. The misdirection worked—a huge hole appeared in the Auburn line. Instantly, Cobb was in the secondary. He cut right and high-stepped up the right sideline for a 79-yard score. How big was the play for Tennessee? "As big as big can be," answered a giddy Majors after the game.
Cobb's run also featured the hit of the day: Vols left tackle Charles McRae nearly put linebacker Darrel Crawford into orbit. "He'll get an intimidation for that," said guard Tom Myslinski. Say what? "An intimidation. It's all part of our 76 competition." Huh? "Seventy-six was Harry Galbreath's number—he finished up here two years ago. Harry was the best at intimidating people, putting them on their backs." To honor Galbreath, offensive line coach Phil Fulmer awards an "intimidation" when an offensive lineman pancakes someone.
Intimidations are on the rise in Knoxville. That's due in large part to Majors's decision to overhaul Tennessee's weight training during the off-season, with a much greater emphasis on bench presses and squats. Despite their having a strength coach named Bruno, only two Tennessee players bench-pressed better than 400 pounds last year. To put that in perspective, Auburn has two players who bench more than 500. Now every Vols starting offensive lineman can bench press 400 or more.
Tennessee nursed its 14-3 lead through the third period. But three minutes and 45 seconds into the fourth quarter. Auburn quarterback Reggie Slack's 83-yard touchdown bomb to wideout Alexander Wright, plus a successful two-point conversion, brought the Tigers to within a field goal. On the next Auburn series, Slack was intercepted, and Webb scored on an eight-yard run five plays later. Tennessee 21, Auburn 11. Auburn's Win Lyle kicked his second field goal of the game, a 41-yarder, with 2:45 remaining and, as Vols fans looked on in mute horror, the Tigers recovered their ensuing onside kick.
On the sixth play of Auburn's final drive, Slack took the snap on third-and-five at the Tennessee 31 and encountered an old nemesis: Volunteers defensive end Marion Hobby. All afternoon, Hobby had played the way Auburn's defensive linemen are supposed to, knocking down four of Slack's passes and making two tackles for losses. As Slack rolled out, he released the ball, and—smack!—Hobby swatted. The ball splashed forlornly to the turf. Slack underthrew Wright on fourth down, and Tennessee had won.
"It's timing, I guess. I play a lot of basketball," Hobby said afterward. "It's no big deal." Outside, crazed Tennesseans were whooping and wondering what to do with their goalposts, now that they had torn them down. They would have disagreed with Hobby. To them, it was a big deal. As big as big could be.