SMITH COLUMN: The history of Georgia and Tennessee

Published 3:02 pm Thursday, November 16, 2023

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Although Georgia and Tennessee competed in football in the early 1900s, the two teams did not play each other from 1937 to 1968. Over the years I have been asked about that but don’t know exactly why there was no competition between the two schools.

In those pre-World War II days, coaches often scheduled games with their friends or scheduled games where travel was more budget-compatible.  For example, Georgia played LSU in the forties and fifties when the Tiger coach was Bernie Moore, and the Bulldogs head coach was Wallace Butts. Butts played for Moore when the latter was the head coach at Mercer.  

When Butts coached Male High in Louisville, Kentucky in the late thirties, he got to know the Kentucky athletic staff in Lexington. 

When he then became Georgia’s head coach in 1939, he began scheduling games with the Wildcats. Georgia had never played Kentucky prior to that. In those years, the schedule was made, for the most part, on a year-to-year basis.

While I have never heard of Gen. Robert Neyland (Tennessee’s long-time coach) being “unfriendly,” the fact that Butts was a pass-oriented advocate and Neyland preferred to run off tackle with his single wing offense, they had nothing in common when it came to offensive philosophy.

My sense has always been that they had no relationship so they never “got up a game.”

There have been some classic games over the years between the two schools, nonetheless. I wrote for a football program several years ago the following which truly boggles the mind.

“Throughout Georgia’s illustrious football history there have been many great and wonderful fans, but few could top the university’s longtime President, Dr. S. V. Sanford, who appreciated not only a Georgia boy’s quest for a college degree but also his heroics on the football field.

“Dr. Sanford was an accomplished raconteur, and one of his favorite stories had to do with the time Georgia was engaged in a heated battle with Tennessee in Knoxville. The game took place in 1908, and the Bulldogs, coached by Branch Bocock, were marching “goalward.” When a back swept end but came up a yard short of a touchdown, the partisan crowd was urging the Volunteers ‘to hold that line.’ Dr. Sanford, a young professor at Georgia at the time and already an avid football fan, saw players unpile after the play, and suddenly the spectators swarmed the playing field.

“According to Dr. Sanford’s story, a mountaineer in a long-frocked coat and a four gallon hat suddenly pointed a .38 revolver in the face of Georgia quarterback Johnny Northcutt. “The first man that crosses the line will get a bullet in his carcass,” the mountaineer drawled.  But on the next play order and peace prevailed as Georgia fumbled and Tennessee recovered. Tennessee won 10-0, and this incident has become known as the day Tennessee stopped Georgia with a .38.”

Another Tennessee story I have always enjoyed involved the aforementioned General Neyland.

Neyland literally despised free substitution and got the rules changed in the fifties. During the war years, free substitution came about for schools because of the shortage of personnel.

When the General became chairman of the rules committee in the mid-fifties (he remained chairman until his death in 1962), he was able to influence the committee to institute one platoon football which lasted for almost 15 years.

Most coaches preferred free substitution, but the General would not be moved. When the rules committee met, the President of the American Football Coaches Association was invited as a guest. However, he did not have a vote.

I got the following from Davey Nelson, coach at Delaware who served as secretary of the rules committee during the Neyland years on the committee.  

Nelson said that after the final session was winding down one year, the General was doing the perfunctory routine of any “old business” and “new business,” when Ray Elliott, the head coach at Illinois and President of the AFCA spoke up.

“General, I come here, representing the 5,000 members of the American Football Coaches Association who overwhelmingly support unlimited substitution and you are not going to put the topic on the agenda?”

With that the General, said, “All in favor raise their hands.” Nelson recalled that two or three hands went up, somewhat sheepishly. As the General then said, “all opposed,” he reached over, grabbed Davey Nelson’s hand, raised it defiantly and said: “I can see there is not sufficient interest in discussing chicken (expletive) football. This meeting is adjourned.”