sports (2006-43)

So what? Tony Basilio is here to tell you

Yeah, We Beat the Tide

by Tony Basilio

Not meaning to come off as smug, but the 30-and-under set was educated recently at UT. This is the type of life-lesson that can’t be experienced in a classroom. The young ’uns can be forgiven if they don’t get it. Theirs is a disposable world of video on demand and fashion in retreat. So, here’s your lesson, young Vol fan: Alabama and Tennessee in a football stadium is the real thing. This is college football. Or as former Tide National Championship quarterback Jay Barker told me the day before the latest installment of this October football fest, it’s “southern college football in its purest form.”

The ’06 version of this series will hopefully be a wake-up call to those who thought that the 11-point underdog Tide was just going to “Volunteer” for a beat-down in Neyland Stadium. It doesn’t work that way. It never does when the Vols and the Tide collide. All many of you have seen is a remnant of what Alabama football once stood for. They now routinely snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Still, their mediocrity can’t melt the meaning of this game. It’s too historic to be treaded upon by record or standing. Put simply, even though the Tide sucks, this series still rolls. It’s a different kind of “Roll Tide.”

It’s sad that many can’t enjoy Tennessee’s recent win over Bama. They’re too busy populating talk-shows with overly analytical blather about UT not winning by enough style points. Those of us in the 30-plus set understand what a win over (even a mediocre) Tide team truly means.

Divisional play makes the Florida game more meaningful, but it can’t diminish the glory of the Alabama game. Each year, around the third Saturday in October, two schools get together and create ugly beauty. Opposite the Tennessee game television-wise, Notre Dame hosted UCLA on the Notre Dame Broadcasting Company while Iowa visited Michigan. Neither game had anywhere near the aesthetic appeal of Tennessee and Bama hooking up on the lush grass of Neyland Stadium.

The legendary Johnny Majors was perhaps more involved than any living Vol in the Autumn Classic, first as a player in the ’50s, then as a family member in the ’60s and early ’70s and eventually as a coach from ’76 to ’92. Although he may hang his hat in Pittsburgh these days, a part of him will always carry the memories of this great series. Tennessee-Alabama was a love affair that began before his playing days in Knoxville.

“The first three times I ever saw Tennessee play were in the early ’50s, and all were against Alabama,” Majors recalled. “My dad (legendary Sewanee coach Shirley Majors) used to tell me about Beattie Feathers beating the Tide way back when. I played for Harvey Robinson, who was on the general’s staff, and he was a Tennessee guy. He was always emphatic on the Alabama game. And then when Bowden Wyatt came in as our head coach later in my career, he used to say, ‘We’re going to get after their asses. I hate those guys. They broke my jaw.’ Coach Wyatt taught us what the series was all about.”

As a coach, Majors lead Tennessee to a four-game winning streak over the Tide from ’82 through ’85. “That interception in ’85 (in Birmingham) that Dale Jones made of Shula (current ’Bama head coach Mike) was one of the most fabulous plays in Tennessee history,” Majors said.

The lore cuts both ways. Painful moments are easily recalled. Who will ever forget the ’90 game when Tennessee hosted a Tide team that limped into Knoxville with a loss to Memphis the week before, only to trip up a Vol squad that was a national title contender? Not only did the Vols have a kicked blocked, but it hit a Tide player’s face mask and caromed about 40 yards the other way where the Tide lined up to kick a game winner. It was ecstasy to agony in a matter of seconds.

“All losses are tough. But that was as tough as I’ve ever had. We were lining up to kick a 55-yard field goal, and you hate to not give it a try. It was an excruciating loss,” Majors said.

As much as that one hurt, ’93 in Birmingham is emblematic of the series. Two teams, trading shots, going to the wire—until Jay Barker led the Tide (trailing by eight) down the field for six, before yielding to David Palmer who lined up under center, converting a two-point play.

Barker observed that heading into this year’s renewal of the rivalry, the hype wasn’t as intense in Birmingham where he hosts a talk show. “I think the younger generation sees the eastern division and the western division, and the importance of this game historically is lost on them. It’s too bad,” Barker said.

Yeah, Jay. Maybe it was time for an education for both fan bases. Tennessee versus Alabama is special. Never forget it.

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.