Third Saturday in October: Alabama-Tennessee Rivalry

 

 

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The Third Saturday in October can only mean one thing: the University of Alabama Crimson Tide (Tide) and the University of Tennessee Volunteers (Vols) are about to strap on the helmets extra tight in anticipation of another physical, blood-letting battle on the football field. One of the fiercest rivalries in the Deep South used to take place on the third Saturday in October but when the Southeastern Conference split the league into two divisions in 1992, the game began to gravitate among dates somewhere between the middle to late October. For decades Alabama and Tennessee fans have had a saying: Don’t get married on the third Saturday in October. Sports journalist Beano Cook added, “Don’t die on the third Saturday in October, since the preacher may not show up.”

Alabama officially leads the series 53-38-7. The National Collegiate Athletic Association NCAA) forced Alabama to forfeit the 1993 game, a 17-17 tie, and vacate the 2005 game, a 6-3 Alabama win, because of rules violations. The series has been marked by winning streaks on both sides, and generally, those were directly correlated to the side that had the College Football Hall of Fame coach at the time.  The first game in 1901 between the two schools ended in a 6-6 tie in Birmingham. From 1903 through 1913, Alabama forged an 8-1 record against Tennessee while holding the Vols scoreless. The series took a hiatus until 1928.

Alabama Hall of Fame coach Wallace Wade led the Tide to three national championships from 1925-1930 while Hall of Fame coach Robert Neyland, known as the General, began his tenure at Tennessee in 1926. The coaches became friends and agreed to re-start the series in 1928, a 15-13 University of Tennessee (UT) win. Neyland’s Vols won a tight 6-0 victory over Wade’s Tide in 1929 but Wade gained a measure of revenge with an 18-6 triumph on the way to the 1930 national championship. Wade left for Duke University after that memorable 1930 season and the series pendulum swung in Neyland’s and Tennessee’s favor. Neyland coached at Tennessee from 1926-1952, with the exceptions of 1935 and 1941-1945. His record against Alabama was 12-5-2.

Alabama won the 1935 game, 25-0. In that game, senior end Paul “Bear” Bryant played the entire contest with a broken leg. After the game, Bryant shrugged it off stating, “It was one little bone.”

Such toughness inspired the University of Kentucky to hire Bryant as its head coach in 1946. Kentucky played Neyland’s Volunteers seven times during Bryant’s period as coach, but the General outflanked the Bear winning five times, with no losses, and two ties. In his book Third Saturday in October, Al Browning stated that those losses to Neyland fueled Bryant’s intense desire to defeat Tennessee while serving as Alabama’s head coach.

Bryant took over the reins at Alabama in 1958 and coached there until his retirement after the 1982 season. The Hall of Fame coach swung the series pendulum back to Alabama. Bryant’s teams struggled against Tennessee from 1958-1960 as the Volunteers tallied a 2-0-1 record against the Bear. However, the Tide broke through in 1961 with a resounding 34-3 victory. After that game, Alabama trainer Jim Goostree, a UT graduate, started a tradition that continues today. Goostree dispensed cigars to the players and coaches to celebrate the victory. After every game since then, the winning team has broken out the cigars. The NCAA considers this practice a violation of its rules, so the winning team immediately reports itself afterwards.

Under Bryant, Alabama dominated the series with 16 wins, seven losses, and two ties and won 11 in a row from 1971 to 1981. The Bear used the games against Tennessee as a barometer for his teams. According to Browning, the Bear once declared, “You found out what kind of person you were when you played against Tennessee.”

From 1983 through 1991, Alabama won six of the nine games. Tennessee coach Johnny Majors beat the Bear in 1982 but proceeded to lose six out of the next eight, which directly led to his termination. The pendulum swung back to Tennessee when Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer took over as coach in 1992.

Fulmer compiled an 11-5 record against the Tide, including the forfeited 1993 tie and the 2005 vacated Alabama win. During Fulmer’s tenure, the Vols won nine of 10 versus Alabama from 1995-2004. Arguably, his most memorable game facing the Tide came in 2003 when the Vols beat the Tide in five overtimes, 51-43. Fulmer had great respect for the rivalry, “It’s important for our players to realize that the guys on both sides that have worn the orange and white or the crimson and white forever look at this third Saturday of October as being special.”

When future Hall of Fame coach Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, the pendulum swung hard back to the Tide. Saban has led the Tide to ten consecutive victories over the Volunteers by an average score of 35-12.

The games played on or close to the Third Saturday of October have seen Hall of Fame coaches strolling both sidelines, gutty performances on the field, and an intensity only a few rivalries in any sport can claim. This rivalry symbolizes everything that people love about college football. So whether you are a fan of Alabama or Tennessee or some other school, light up a victory cigar to celebrate all those people who have given their all or who will give their all on the Third Saturday of October!

 

 

Teddy Roosevelt’s Role in the Creation of the NCAA

 

College football has seen its share of scandals, cheating, and lack of institutional control in the last twenty years. Within the last few  years, we’ve witnessed unprecedented sanctions against Penn State, major problems involving Miami, and multiple rules violations at Oklahoma State as reported in Sports Illustrated. It seems as if almost every school has received the dreaded notice from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) rules enforcement group that an investigation into improprieties is imminent. However, the sport has not only survived but flourished with mega-million dollar television contracts, unprecedented game attendance, and a culture, at least in the South, that has developed around football Saturdays. Such is the present state of college football. However, college football came excruciatingly close to being abolished at many universities in the early 1900s. If not for the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, the game would most certainly not have evolved into what it is today.

College football started at many schools in the 1890s. The powers of the time were eastern schools such as Harvard, Yale, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Union, Swarthmore, and Princeton. Football, even then, was big business. Games produced thousands of dollars for the schools and the alumni and students demanded winning teams. The pressure to win caused some schools to employ such unethical tactics as admitting football players who did not qualify academically, encouraging professors to pass players in their classes in order to keep the players eligible, and inventing classes just for football players. Alumni paid players under the table to come to their alma maters or to remain on their football teams. It was not unusual for athletes to play at a different school every year or change schools in mid-season.

Perhaps the most egregious practice involved the excessive brutality associated with the games. Elite players were targeted by the opposition and intentionally injured. For example, in a game between Princeton and Dartmouth, Princeton’s players intentionally broke the collarbone of Dartmouth’s best player early in the game. Other premeditated acts such as breaking an opponent’s nose were commonplace. In some cases, players died from overly aggressive play. A Union College player died after a play during a game with New York University. Amidst this backdrop of unethical actions and overt brutality, Columbia and Union abolished football and more schools threatened to do the same. Harvard’s president also called for the abolition of the sport. As a football fan and Harvard graduate, Roosevelt decided it was time to intervene. He believed football built character and that physical play was a necessary part of the game. However, Roosevelt did not condone the sport’s brutality and poor sportsmanship.  The President invited representatives from three of the eastern football powers – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – to meet with him at the White House on October 9, 1905. Roosevelt hoped this group could develop a plan to reform college football.

The group discussed the current state of the game, including examples of unethical behavior and unsportsmanlike play committed by each school. In a recent game between Harvard and Yale, a Harvard player called for a fair catch of a Yale punt. Two Yale defenders intentionally ran into the Harvard player after the fair catch was called. One Yale defender broke the Harvard player’s nose while the other delivered a body blow with his feet knocking the Harvard player unconscious. Roosevelt also referenced the aforementioned Dartmouth-Princeton incident. The school representatives denied any knowledge of their respective school’s indiscretions. However, upon the urging of the President, a representative from each school agreed to draft an agreement that the three institutions would play by the letter and the spirit of the established rules of football.

This agreement among Harvard, Yale, and Princeton did not bring immediate change to the game. Roosevelt had no enforcement powers over the schools, so the White House meeting proved unsuccessful. However, Roosevelt had given legitimacy to the problems of college football by publicly acknowledging serious problems existed.  The momentum for reform led to a meeting of about 60 schools in New York on December 28, 1905. The group created a new rules committee, composed of men from all over the country, to oversee the game. Additionally, the group demanded enforcement of these rules by a capable body of well-trained officials. The Inter Collegiate Athletic Association became the new organization to enforce the rules. In 1910, the organization changed its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA.

Roosevelt may not have saved college football but he surely fanned the flames for reform that eventually led to the establishment of the NCAA. It is debatable how effective the NCAA has been over the ensuing years, but that is a topic for another time.