By Tom Mattingly
No Vol fan woke up in a good humor the morning of Sunday, Sept. 28, 1958, after the season opener at Legion Field in Birmingham, AL.
The day before, Sept. 27, will long live-in infamy in the history of Tennessee football. The Vols are likely to be in the record books forever on this one.
It wasn’t because the score was No. 3 Auburn 13, Tennessee 0.
It wasn’t because Auburn scored all its points in the fourth quarter to break open a tenacious defensive struggle.
One statistic tells the story.
First downs: Auburn 11, Tennessee 0.
You read that one right, in a full 60 minutes of football, the Vols didn’t make a single first down, not by rushing, not by passing, not even by penalty.
It hasn’t happened since in the annals of major college football and rarely before that.
Lindsey Nelson and Red Grange were in the broadcast booth for NBC. Nelson knew this drill well. He had been on the air for the Tennessee-Alabama game on NBC in 1953, also in Birmingham, with Mel Allen. That day, Tennessee and Alabama fought to a scoreless tie, in a game that didn’t exactly advance the cause of televised college football. Neither did this one.
Bowden Wyatt had compiled a 24-7-1 record in his first three years as head coach, with the SEC title being a big prize two years earlier. As always, Tennessee fans were looking for big things from their team. As it turned out, the Vols were playing with a short stick.
Russ Bebb wrote that “there was a glaring weakness, and it was at the worst possible position, the sensitive tailback post.” There was no shortage of candidates, notably Carroll Young, the No. 3 tailback who had seen little action a year earlier, George Wright, and three sophomores, Bill Majors, Gene Etter, and Bob Finley. Those names did not, however, strike fear in the hearts of Vol opponents.
The Vols ended up with a minus-49 yards rushing and 19 passing. Wyatt searched for the right words to explain how things transpired.
“The only thing we can do now is start from scratch and try to get an offense going,” he said. “The ball carriers didn’t have a chance. The blocking wasn’t there. As everybody could see, we simply couldn’t move the ball. So, we had to kick and scratch, and that’s what we did.”
Sportswriters had a field day in the Sunday newspapers.
One writer opined that an Auburn lineman “almost intercepted a center snap to the quarterback. It looked at times like UT center Ray Brann was snapping the ball with one hand – and an Auburn guard with the other.”
Then came this classic: “Several beautiful broken-field runs enabled Tennessee tailbacks to get back to within two or three yards of the line of scrimmage.”
The game was played in the early days of television timeouts, something that was so new that it occasionally got in the way of the flow of the game. Much as it does these days.
In the “Auburn Football Vault,” David Housel reported that Auburn center Jackie Burkett was stopped from snapping the ball because the game was in a commercial break. He was not happy about this turn of events.
“Listen here, mister,” Burkett said. “We came here to beat Tennessee. Ain’t no dad-blamed TV commercial is going to stop us.”
It was part of an up-and-down season. The Vols defeated No. 11 Mississippi State at Crump Stadium in Memphis, 13-8. Murray Armstrong scored both Vol touchdowns, one on an interception return, the other on a 15-yard TD pass from Majors, the game-winner with only 61 seconds to go.
The Vols lost to Georgia Tech and defeated unranked Alabama, in Bear Bryant’s debut on the Alabama bench on the west side of Shields-Watkins Field. Then came losses to Florida State, a real downer, No. 17 North Carolina, and, of all people, Chattanooga. That led to a major fracas on the field after the game.
The Vols were 2-5 with powerful Ole Miss, ranked No. 7, coming to town for Homecoming. A crowd of 27,100 showed up and saw a major upset. Tennessee was a 14-point underdog, yet somehow won 18-16. The season ended 4-6 with a loss to Kentucky and a win over No. 15 Vanderbilt.
In the bright light of recollection, however, the Auburn game will probably be the grist for bar bets and other reasoned discussions of Vol football.
When was the last time Tennessee didn’t make a first down?
Sept. 27, 1959, on Legion Field, in Birmingham, Ala.