SEC 360: Why the Third Saturday in October still matters
My father had a propensity for leaving Alabama games early to beat the outgoing traffic. But in 1993, that worked in my favor. Let me take you there.
In my opinion, the golden years of the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry, otherwise known as the Third Saturday in October, occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. As a young boy living just 40 miles from Legion Field, I was privileged to experience many of these games in person.
Our seats, as my father would say, were “straddling the 50-yard line” that season and how blessed I was to be a part of that spectacle. Alabama was my beloved team; therefore teams like Tennessee and Auburn were mortal enemies. Back then, Alabama and Tennessee, at least in my mind, were about as equal as two college football programs could be. From the bands to the way the teams carried themselves, it was first class all the way. Tennessee had dominated from 1982-1985, and Alabama was still trying to get its legs after the death of the “Bear” wobbled the program like nothing before.
The pageantry at Legion Field when Tennessee came to town was simply electric. I think about how those colors clashed, the orange and the crimson, and how there was a hum outside of the stadium that was just a bit louder and more stirring than most other games.
Heading into the 1993 season, the Crimson Tide had enjoyed a long winning streak against the Vols — 7 games, to be exact. But Tennessee had a good team that year, its only loss on Sept. 18 at The Swamp in Gainesville. (It seemed like every year, you watched Tennessee more than any other school in anticipation of that Third Saturday in October game.) I knew it was going to be a tough, hardnosed contest, but I thought we would be able to move the ball. We weren’t.
So there it was, the scoreboard reading 17-9 with just a few minutes left in the 4th quarter and Alabama’s 28-game winning streak on the line. We hadn’t done much of anything on offense all day, and after quarterback Jay Barker failed to convert a 4th-and-7, my dad simply gave up hope.
“Let’s get out of here. We ain’t scorin’,” he thundered. Crestfallen, I agreed and followed him out of the stadium corridors.
But what we weren’t planning on was the ‘Bama D holding, the guts of Barker, and David Palmer.
As Dad and I were walking back to the car, we noticed that several people had gathered around an old black-and-white TV set near a tailgate area outside the stadium.
“Alabama’s driving!” someone hollered.
The crowd grew. I remember being up on my tiptoes, trying to peek around the bigger adults who had encircled that diminutive TV set.
Finally, finally, finally, the dam had broken and the Crimson Tide punched it in for a score to make it 17-15 in favor of Tennessee. There was no doubt what we had to do, and that was go for a 2-point conversion.
Palmer, the “all-purpose” receiver for Alabama affectionately known as “The Deuce,” crouched under center, took the ball and ran around right end on a keeper to complete the conversion.
Alabama has just tied Tennessee, ladies and gentlemen.
And the folks, wherever you are now, who enjoyed that special moment around a small, grainy, black-and-white TV set at a tailgate outside of Legion Field that splendid October afternoon, had a memory for a lifetime.
Former coach Eddie Erdelatz once said that “a tie was like kissing your sister,” but for a 15-year-old boy, it felt like I’d smooched Christie Brinkley.
As gratifying as that day was, there were disappointing moments along the way, too.
There are Alabama fans who will never forgive Peyton Manning for leading the “Pride of the Southland” band in a hearty rendition of “Rocky Top” on the field at Legion Field after a 41-14 shellacking of the Tide in 1995. There was the 1999 game at Bryant-Denny Stadium when the ‘Bama offense looked like it was mired in quicksand. There was the frustrating 51-43 5-overtime loss in 2003 (Brodie Croyle will discuss that in a moment), and there was the hard-fought 20-13 loss in 1996 when quarterback Freddie Kitchens, hard as he tried, simply could not overcome a menacing Volunteers defense.
Alabama-Tennessee is a rivalry of streaks. Alabama’s active streak of 12 wins is the longest in the history of the rivalry, but Tennessee has had streaks of its own. Bama fans who suffered through 7 miserable years in the 1990s and early 2000s know what it’s like to think to themselves, “will we ever beat Tennessee?” The Crimson Tide recruiting class that arrived on campus in the fall of 1982 and walked out the doors in 1985 with a degree do not know what it feels like to beat the Vols. Neither do those who arrived as freshmen in 1955, ’56, ’57, or ’67 and stayed the usual 4 years.
But the longest streaks belong to Alabama. From 1971-81, Bear Bryant’s Tide defeated their orange rival 11 consecutive times, and Alabama relished in a 9-game unbeaten streak from 1986-94, with that 17-17 tie tucked in (which really felt like a win).
Although the current landscape of the rivalry has been one-sided, the viciousness has not subsided, but rather intensified to some degree. Consider the following Alabama-Tennessee memes created recently:
IF UNSWEET TEA WAS A COLLEGE, IT WOULD BE THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE.
PEYTON, HOW’S THAT NATIONWIDE JINGLE GO? TENN-ESSEE JUST LOST AGAIN.
THE RESULTS ARE IN … TENNESSEE, BAMA IS YOUR DADDY!!
I DON’T ALWAYS TALK TO ALABAMA FANS, BUT WHEN I DO I ASK FOR LARGE FRIES.
FROM 2014: WHERE’D YOU GET LANE KIFFIN, THE TOILET STORE?
Saturday night’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium had me feeling like compiling an oral history of this historic rivalry. I thought I’d try to preserve a few “Third Saturday in October” tales and quotes that might stir up some anticipation and maybe awaken some ghosts from the past.
Honestly, I had more luck getting quotes from former Alabama players and coaches, so I had to scour the internet to find newspaper and video clips from the Tennessee guys. Please forgive me if this article seems a bit one-sided; that was not my intent.
Peyton Manning – Quarterback, Tennessee (1994-1997)
Speaking about the first play of the 41-14 win in 1995, in a video produced by the Knoxville News Sentinel:
“It was going to be the first play of the game, but I didn’t think it was going to be an 80-yard touchdown. I thought (Joey Kent) might get a 5- or 6-yard completion out of it and get to a 2nd-and-5.
“That was a special night … and all those Tennessee-Alabama games were all special. Great rivalries, great players, a lot of NFL players in those games.”
Brodie Croyle – Quarterback, Alabama (2002-05)
In a phone interview with me this week:
“What I remember about the Third Saturday in October. … Back then they were ranked fairly high almost every year we played them. It was always a good game. I remember my freshman year, the first time ever getting to play them, we went up there and it was just a sea of orange. We had a really good game and beat ’em pretty good.
“My sophomore year was probably the most fun game that I’ve ever played in. We actually lost. That’s hard to say. That was the 5-overtime game. The ups, the downs, the highs, the lows. It was one of the most fun but also one of the most devastating — that you play that hard and end up losing it at the end.
“But then my senior year, we went from losing 51-43 to winning 6-3. It was a defensive battle. Both teams moved the ball, just couldn’t score. I remember sitting on the sidelines thinking, ‘something needs to happen, something needs to happen.’ And about that time, there was a Roman Harper hit on their fullback on that screen when the ball went out of the end zone. It was tied 3-to-3 at that point in time and we had one more drive.
“So we get to 3rd-and-long again and we call the play. And I looked at DJ Hall and said, ‘I’m not going to have time to do that. Can you get a ‘go’ ball?’ He said, ‘I’ll bring it in.’ They’d had pressure on us all day. So I took 3 steps and I threw it as far and as high as I could throw it and DJ went down there and caught it. It was really the first big play of the whole game. Then we just had a couple more plays and lined it up in the middle and kicked the field goal. It was a great rivalry.”
Roger Shultz — Center, Alabama
After Alabama’s 9-6 win in 1990.
Jeremiah Castille – Defensive Back, Alabama (1979-’83)
“Tennessee Week was as big as the Iron Bowl Week, it would be as big as any week,” he told me in a phone interview this week. “You knew that from the way you practiced. You knew it was going to be all-out, physical, tough practice. Coach Bryant wanted to beat the University of Tennessee as bad as any other team we played — including Auburn. You practiced that way.
“I like to tell people we won the 1980 game on the Wednesday night prior to Saturday. Coach Bryant would have meetings on Wednesday night. This particular Wednesday night he came in and started talking to the players. He always kept a manila folder rolled up, tapping on his leg. And he started the meeting out by saying something to the black players. He says, ‘you know, for the black players on the team who grew up poor, I know what that’s like. I grew up poor.’ He was relating to us. That’s the way it was for me, and the majority of the black players on the team. He just had a way of connecting with people. But then he made a transition to how bad he wanted to beat the University of Tennessee. And he got very emotional about it. I’m talking about so emotional that Coach Bryant shed a tear or two. As a sophomore, I had never seen that.
“The atmosphere in that room … he had everybody ready to play that night in the parking lot with no gear on. He got us on the edge right there, ready to go play that night, and he’s crying a little bit. Then he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped his eyes and said, ‘Men, I’d have been a pretty good actor, huh?’
“We beat them up there in Neyland Stadium 27-0. I don’t think they crossed the 50-yard line until the second half.
“I’ve never met a coach who could motivate like him. Who could get you ready to play. He knew what to say, when to say it, and how to say it to get you ready to play. He motivated us that Wednesday night, and we went up there and just took care of business.”
Ed Butler – Defensive End/Tight End, Tennessee (1997-01)
“Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, I did not hear much about the rivalry, really,” Butler replied in a long email this week. “The game was not something I even thought about in high school until a friend of mine’s older brother who played wide receiver for UT at the time caught the opening pass for a touchdown in Birmingham the Third Weekend in October.
“UT went on that afternoon to win the game and break the streak of losses to Alabama. I made a trip with family to Neyland Stadium the following fall for that very reason — to see it for myself. It was no disappointment, even with the barrage of rain that evening and cold temperatures. Upon arriving on campus, the tradition of the importance of the Third Weekend in October was injected in our freshman class as a flu shot: quick, fast, and a slight stinging burn. The vaccine worked well for our class of 1997, allowing us to stave off any signs of a Bama loss during our tenure at the University of Tennessee.”
Griff Redmill – Guard, Alabama (1996-2000)
“People say this rivalry is dead or it’s not what it once was. I’d tell you to ask the former players that are around my age. I never beat UT the entire time I was at the University of Alabama,” Redmill wrote in an email this week. “I watched Peyton Manning lead their band when they beat us in ’95. I can promise you it’s an important game to us. It won’t be any less important if the winning streak reaches 100 wins in a row. Matter of fact, nothing would make me happier than beating those guys 100 times in a row.”
Johnny Majors – Head Football Coach, Tennesssee (1977-92)
Told reporters after Tennessee won 28-27 in Knoxville in 1984:
“I don’t know how the Alabama-Tennessee series can get any more exciting. You can’t start talking about all the big plays and key mistakes, because there are so many … I felt it was going to be an exciting matchup from the start, and that if we were going to win the game, we would probably have to score 28 points or more. I’ve been a part of two of the most exciting games I have ever experienced these past two Alabama games. Nothing is sweeter than to have a team come from behind to win and avoid the critical errors that would have kept us from scoring.”
Kerry Goode – Running back, Alabama (1983-’87)
“My first Bama/UT game, I didn’t understand the depth of the rivalry. I was an Iron Bowl only kinda guy. Then I learned that UT and LSU games brought their own rivalries as well,” Goode wrote in an email this week.
“In 1983, I took the handoff from Walter Lewis off right tackle with nowhere to go. I performed a spin to get to the outside and halfway through the spin I was face-planted into the turf at Legion Field. I returned to the huddle a little woozy and Ricky Moore began shouting at the offense line “If he gets hit like that again … I’m going to whip all of y’all’s ass!”
“The next play, I faked a toss sweep toward our sideline and ran off the field. There was no way that I was going to let No. 92 know that he had hurt me! By the way, No. 92 was NFL All-Pro and Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White.
“My other lasting memory is the year I blew out my knee the first game of the season against Boston College. I was allowed to travel with the team to Knoxville wearing a cast from hip to toe on crutches. Tennessee blocks a punt with under 2 minutes to go and the place goes crazy. They score to go ahead. The trainer comes over to me and says, ‘You might want to get a head start to the locker room. This place is about to be nuts.’
“As I was hopping off the field, a Jack Daniels bottle landed next to my foot and shattered. Then I heard someone say, ‘Goode, you better be glad you’re not out there, we would have broken the other leg!’ Since that point in time my love for Tennessee has been to show them the same constant attention that they showered me with.”
Chad Key – Wide Receiver, Alabama (’92-95)
Quoted in The Tuscaloosa News – Oct. 13, 1995:
“For whatever reason, we’ve sort of owned them these last few years. It’s not that they’re overmatched. Tennessee is always a good football team, and the Alabama-Tennessee game is always big. I can’t name one biggest reason (for Alabama’s dominance). I don’t know if it’s our heart at Alabama or our winning tradition or what. So many people talk about this magic that we sort of own them, but we can’t go into this game and play less than our potential. We’ve never lost to Tennessee since I’ve been here. It would mean a lot to me to beat them one more time and be able to say the rest of my life that I never lost to Tennessee.”
Jeremy Pruitt – Head Football Coach, Tennessee
Knoxville News-Sentinel – Oct. 14, 2019:
“Well, if you know anything about this rivalry, which I do, anybody that’s been associated with this rivalry over their lifetime know it’s a pretty special event or ballgame. The Third Saturday in October or the Third Week in October, so whether you’re on the Tennessee side or the Alabama side, kind of all the old heads so to speak, this is the rivalry, this is the game. So, yeah I grew up watching it, I had the opportunity to play in it, I’ve had an opportunity to coach in it — now on both sides — so this week does kind of get you going right there.”
Bryne Diehl – Punter, Alabama (1992-94)
“In ’92, when we were going through the normal walkthrough routine, were actually having fun — meaning running stuff Coach Stallings would never call! After we finished with the practice I remember looking up at the press box/skybox and we thought we saw silhouettes in the window. Whether it was players or coaches or whoever, I really felt that day we really came together as a team. From that point on, I knew we had something special. Needless to say we won it all. I always look back at that day and remember what a wonderful feeling that was!” Diehl wrote in an email this week.
“Another one was a big thing with us punters … being backed up in the checkerboard end zone was something we wanted, at least early in the game. It was my senior year and we were backed up it seemed all day! I told my punt team that we need to flip this because I was tired of punting out of the checkerboard end zone. Eventually we flipped the field and won the game. It wasn’t because of my punting. It was because of our awesome punt coverage, protection and snappers that we flipped the field and won the game.
“That was a very special time in my career, a time I will cherish all of my life. The Alabama/Auburn game is the best in the country by far because it is a state rivalry, but the Tennessee rivalry is different in its own right. Alabama has the best fans in the world and travels better than any I know.”
Phillip Fulmer – Athletic Director, Tennessee
On almost playing at Alabama:
“Alabama had just won the national championship in ’(65) and I think ’61 — something like that. We were on the border of Alabama where I grew up, with a lot of Alabama people there. I considered Alabama strongly. UT had a great year in ’67 and Alabama had an average year or even a down year. That sort of flipped things a little bit.
“Then Tennessee sort of convinced me a little bit that Coach Bryant was going to retire because he was getting older. I look back now and he was young, really. He obviously didn’t retire, but I took that into consideration. I didn’t want to play during a coach change, you know? So I came to Tennessee and, fast-forward 10 years later, I’m on the field in pregame warmup, getting ready to play Alabama, and Coach Bryant walks by my offensive line drills and says, ‘Boy, I haven’t retired yet.’ I’m not even sure he knew my name as a prospect, but he remembered that.”
Phillip Fulmer was strongly considering playing for Alabama before the Tennessee coaching staff convinced him that Bear Bryant was going to retire. Bryant didn't retire and reminded Fulmer of that 10 years later. #Vols pic.twitter.com/A7uz0dGURb
— Marshall Hughes (@marshallhughes) October 17, 2018
Bill Oliver – Defensive Coordinator, Alabama (1993-95)
Told reporters after a 41-14 loss to Tennessee (and Peyton Manning) in 1995:
“It wouldn’t have made any difference if we had used a hundred defensive backs tonight.”
Bill Curry – Head Football Coach, Alabama (1987-89)
“I have vivid memories of heroic performances by specific teams and players from my playing and coaching days,” Curry wrote in an email this week. “My high school coach, Bill Badgett, was fond of saying, “Men, football is just life marked off in 100 yards.” As teens we snickered, but he was right.
“As we approached the third Saturday in October, 1988, which would be the 15th, we were dealing with an injury situation with quarterback David Smith. We were always careful with these things, and listened to our excellent doctors, since the players, especially David, always wanted to play. He was a former walk-on that combined reasonable physical talent with a brilliant football mind.
“We would learn on this day that he also was one of the toughest players we ever coached. I cannot remember the precise time in the game as it rocked back and forth, but at some point David went down in one of those pileups that cause you to hold your breath until everyone is on their feet. He didn’t get up, and the officials called time so that the trainers could escort him from the field. Tennessee was big and fast on defense, and very physical.
“I met David at the sideline, as his teammates sought to comfort him, and thanked him for giving it a shot. I said something like, ‘Great try David, go get some ice on the knee.’ He smiled, glancing down at the huge brace on his knee. ‘What do you mean Coach? I’m fine. Just twisted it a little.’ I said, ‘You are not going back unless the doctors clear you, so go sit down, right now!’
“I will never forget his response. ‘Coach! You can’t take me out now! We got these guys! I know exactly what to do! I promise, we’re gonna beat’em!’ I thanked him, sat him down, and turned him over to the doctors. A few minutes later he was back at the sideline. ‘I’m cleared Coach! Let’s go beat these guys!’ I looked into the eyes of each doctor, asked if we were risking further injury, got their response that he was adequately mobile to avoid the rush, and sent him back.
“We rallied behind David’s brilliant mind, accurate arm, and great leadership, came back and won 28-20, all in Neyland Stadium before a raucous Vol crowd. The offensive genius Homer Smith, who was David’s coach, and who coached many HOF quarterbacks through the years, would later say of that that performance, ‘David’s courage, tenacity, and understanding of offensive football produced the most courageous act of successful leadership I have ever seen on a football field.’
“By the way, if you are watching SEC football anytime soon, take a look at the officials’ list. One of the top referees is our very own David Smith, back to run the show one more time.”
* * * * * * * * *
After that game in 1993, I don’t think we ever left a game early again. My dad and I experienced some great moments surrounding Alabama football during those years, memories that enriched my childhood and sealed my love for Alabama football.
I don’t care how bad Tennessee is, in my mind, Tennessee is still the Tennessee I grew up watching and respecting. The Third Saturday in October is still the Third Saturday in October.
And this game on Saturday is as big as any.
After Palmer ran it in, I looked up at my father, and with a big grin on my face, I said, “See, Dad. We should have stayed.”
I’m so thankful we didn’t.