It's a phrase thrown around too much these days, "Team X is having themselves a roller-coaster season." While it is a good metaphor, there are few teams that have had as many highs and lows as the 1965 Tennessee Volunteers.
One week they were at the top of the mountain. The next were at the very bottom, but by season's end, they were back on top.
Not much was expected of Tennessee when the 1965 season began. It was the second year for head coach Doug Dickey. In his first season, the Vols went 4-5-1. Tennessee had not had more than six wins in a season since 1957, and they were picked to finish ninth in the 10-team SEC at the start of the season.
Among the players on the 1965 team were Austin Denney, Frank Emanuel, Walter Chadwick, captain Hal Wantland, Charlie Fulton, acrobatic receiver Johnny Mills, Paul Naumoff, and Dewey Warren.
Tennessee started the season alright. They thumped Army (coached then by ex-LSU hero Paul Dietzel) 21-0, tied Auburn, and beat South Carolina. So Tennessee was 2-0-1 as the the third Saturday in October rolled around and the Vols headed down to Birmingham to meet eventual national champions Alabama, who had blown out the Vols the previous four seasons.
The game itself was a war. The Tide ran the ball all over Tennessee, but the Vols defense only allowed the Red Elephants into the end zone once. The game was tied 7-7 with less than ten seconds to go, when one of the weirdest plays in this storied rivalry occurred.
A young sophomore quarterback named Ken Stabler had replaced injured Tide QB Steve Sloan three snaps earlier and had just scrambled 14 yards on 3rd-and-long to pick up a first down—or so he thought.
With the clock winding down and Tide kicker David Ray sprinting on the field to try for a winning field goal, Stabler took the snap and quickly threw the ball out of bounds. Unfortunately for Stabler, it was fourth down. Yes, "The Snake" got the clock stopped, but he was all out of downs and the game ended a 7-7 tie.
It is a play that would be shown repeatedly on ESPN had it happened more recently. Today it is more of a footnote in football history and not really talked about as one of the biggest faux pas in college football.
Tennessee was ecstatic following the game, and were ready to take on Houston the next week when tragedy struck.
The Monday following the game, Tennessee assistant coaches, Bob Jones, Bill Majors (brother of legendary Tennessee player and coach Johnny Majors), and Charles Rash were carpooling to work, when their car was broadsided by a train.
Immediately, Jones and Majors were killed, while Rash was able to hang on until the week's end before dying.
News of the crash spread quickly through Knoxville. Tennsessee President Andy Holt and Head Coach Doug Dickey, along with other coaches had the somber job of telling the three wives what happened, and telling the combined seven young boys that their dads were not coming home.
In less than 48 hours, the Tennessee family had gone from the euphoria of the tie with Alabama, to the pit of despair after losing three coaches. However, the players voted to continue the season.
Outfitted with black crosses over the orange "T" on their helmets, the Vols played Houston that Saturday and beat them 17-8 in a game where any win would be just fine.
The next week Tennessee upset seventh-ranked Georgia Tech 21-7, but then the following week lost to Ole Miss in Memphis and lost their starting quarterback Charlie Fulton, which gave way for the debut of Dewey "Swamp Rat" Warren under center.
Tennessee finished the SEC schedule beating Kentucky and Vanderbilt easily, but still had one game left on the regular season schedule, a date with fourth-ranked UCLA in Memphis at Liberty Bowl stadium.
The Bruins were led by future Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban, running back Mel Farr, and coached by Memphis native Tommy Prothro.
Tennessee was headed to the Astro Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, and the Bruins had a Rose Bowl date waiting. It was dubbed the "Rosebonnet Bowl" by Tennessee radio announcer George Mooney. It turned out to be better than any bowl game.
Tennessee fumbled the opening kickoff and UCLA took advantage and scored eight plays later. Tennessee did not fold as Warren rallied the Vols to take a 20-7 lead at halftime.
The two teams traded the lead in the second half and then the Bruins got a late score to take the lead 34-29.
Warren then led Tennessee down the field, throwing key passes to Johnny Mills to get Tennessee down to the one yard line.
On 4th-and-goal, Warren took the snap on a pass play, saw that no one was open and decided to take matters into his own hands. Warren ran left, and with much determination squeezed the ball across the goal line for the go-ahead score.
Warren's teammates were terrified when they saw him try to run it in. Knowing he was slow, they thought it may take him about 15 minutes to get to the goal line.
Tennessee then got a two-point conversion to make the score 37-34. However, the Vols still had to kick off and give the Bruins one last shot.
UCLA got to midfield and Beban heaved one last pass that was intercepted by Tennessee's Bob Patrella. Here it got ugly as Patrella, caught up in the moment did not hear the final gun go off and started running the ball back. He happened to be running down the wrong side of the field, and UCLA player Paul Horgan stormed off the UCLA bench and sucker-punched Patrella. He was knocked cold, and had several lacerations that required twelve stitches.
The Bruins' behavior got even worse. Prothro spent his time complaining about poor officiating and clock management. He stated after the contest, "For the first time in my life, I am ashamed to be a Southerner."
Of course the Tennessee spirits were at an all time high as thousands of fans waited in the cold for the team to return to Knoxville. Tennessee went on to defeat Tulsa 27-6 in the Bluebonnet Bowl to finish the season 8-1-2 and ranked seventh in the nation.
The 1965 season will be remembered on Rocky Top for the highs of the tie with Alabama and the thrilling win against UCLA, but it will also be remembered for the lows following the loss of three coaches.
One thing was certain—this season brought Tennessee back to the national stage, where during the next six seasons the Vols would win three SEC Championships.