Songs of the South 1--The '86 Sugar Vols and a Handshake That Wasn't

Few fans can attribute their love of a football team to a single moment. I can. 

Don't get me wrong--I grew up in a Tennesssee Volunteers family. My father, uncles, cousins, and grandfather all were Vols fans. When I was little, I learned to love the game of football. Being the only little girl in a room full of guys rooting for one team brought said little girl advantages--like staying up late so I could see the end of the game and lots of junk food. When I reached high school, of course, I had other priorities--school, books, and boys. But I always kept track of how UT was doing, and in the late 70s/early 80s things weren't exactly top of the line for the Vols. 

When I graduated high school and went to college, my interest in football began to shift. My freshman year, I started to follow the Vols more closely, heading to Knoxville several times for games. So when the 1985 Tennessee Volunteers were rewarded for their 8-1-2 record with an SEC championship and a trip to the Sugar Bowl against Miami, I was pretty excited. So I went to a fraternity's bowl party on campus, where I was pretty much the only girl who had any interest in the game at all. Most of the guys there were pals of mine, and they all thought I was the coolest girl on the planet because I not only understood the game, but knew the players' names and could spout off stats with the same ease that I could roll out answers in my political science classes or immediately find the right piece of evidence to refute my opposition's claims in a debate tournament. 

No one really gave UT much of a chance in that game. Everyone was pretty darn sure that Miami, under that ultra-arrogant Jimmy Johnson, was going to slaughter the Vols. There had been a lot of smack talking out of Florida in the few weeks before the game. Johnson, in fact, had made it pretty well known that he didn't consider the Vols a worthy opponent. Instead of talking about the bowl game his team was in, he spent his pressers talking about Penn State and the Orange bowl and how Miami had beaten Oklahoma and were obviously the best team in the nation. Unquestioningly number one. When Vinny Testaverde followed up with a warning that if UT tried to rely on the blitz they'd get burned, I'd thought that was a spectacularly stupid thing to say. UT had beat Auburn with Bo Jackson on the team. Obviously, we had a good defense. As a matter of fact, the 1985 season had been a spectacular year defensively. Our defense was nicknamed the "orange crush" and had held the last seven teams we'd played to a total of four touchdowns. Four. So after I'd read that comment by the Miami QB, I took a great deal of pleasure in telling all my football buddies that 'testaverde' meant 'green balls' in Latin--which is almost but not quite accurate. 

So there we were, preparing to watch UT's biggest bowl game in years. It being a frat house, the keg was already tapped, lots of bags of chips were being opened, girls were giggling and guys doing their pre-game 'remember this play' argument. The Sugar Bowl came up on the TV and we all cheered, because even from the Goodyear blimp it was obvious that UT had won the battle of the stadium at least. The cameras went to the center of the field for the coin toss, and our captains extended their hands for the pre-game shake. 

And the Miami captains ignored them. 

At first I couldn't believe it. They were refusing to shake hands? Seriously? At the biggest game of the year, in front of a national audience? They left our captains' hands hanging in mid-air, turned their backs, and walked away in a performance of such contempt and with such a complete lack of sportsmanship and respect that the entire frat house fell silent.  Our captains exchanged looks and turned for their own sideline. As they walked back to their team, one of the captains--I think it was Chris White--kind of squared his shoulders and stiffened his spine. Just that small change of posture was electrifying--and contagious. Because it was like a ripple on the sideline. The team stood straighter, their faces were grimmer, and their eyes were narrowed.

It electrified the frat party too. All of a sudden, the game wasn't just something fun to watch while you got drunk. Suddenly, it was an insult against all of us, against everybody in the entire state of Tennessee. Jimmy Johnson and his Hurricanes thought that the Vols were beneath them, not even worth the most rudimentary courtesy demanded by good sportsmanship. In that moment, our focus on the game shifted from anticipatory to hatred. Make no mistake about it, we were all invested in the Vols from that moment on. All the snide little comments by their coach and QB were forgotten in the absolute and unrelenting hatred we now felt for all the Hurricanes. 

And, of course, Miami took the opening kickoff and marched straight down the field to score a TD a few plays later. 

But then something miraculous happened. The Volunteers started to massacre the Hurricanes. The Orange Crush took control of the game, forcing Testaverde to gnaw on turf for the rest of the game. (Now his nose and chin were as green as his balls). Our offense started the run the ball down their throats. We sacked Testaverde seven times for a combined loss of 84 yards. Five of those sacks were in the third quarter alone, and three of those sacks resulted in fumbles that we recovered and turned into points. Add in an interception, and I'm sure Testaverde regretted his comment about how blitzing him would result in the Orange Crush getting burned.  The only thing that was getting burned at that point was his season stats. And even though Penn State did end up losing in the Orange Bowl, there was no chance of Miami ending up as the undisputed national champion. Not when they lost 35-7 to a Tennessee Volunteer team too unworthy to shake hands with their oh-so-elite team. 

It wasn't until football season cranked back up in the fall of 1986 that I realized my feeling for the UT Vols had changed. The "Sugar Vols" as we fondly call the 85-86 team had jarred me from my mild enjoyment of the game to a full-out passion, not only for the sport but for the Volunteers as well.  That moment with our three captains extending their hands and being ignored was seared into my memory. It lingers there still, as an insult that will never be forgotten and one that must be avenged, forever. I'm not sure any other team since has refused to shake hands before the game. I'm reasonably positive no other coach was as arrogant as that turnip-headed Jimmy Johnson in creating an environment where that kind of behavior would be considered acceptable. I did go to the UT-Miami game in Neyland two decades later, though, and watched Miami players practicing their chest bumps in the end zone instead of warming up. The next year was Kellen Winslow's idiotic comment about "We're soldiers"--so maybe there's just something about "the U" that bakes players' brains into some kind of vacuous arrogance. 

But one thing is certain. Since that night where my Volunteers taught Jimmy Johnson, Vinny Testaverde, and all the Miami Hurricanes a lesson on courtesy, sportsmanship, and the advantages of an 8 or 9 man rush against an overly cocky QB, they have been MY Volunteers, MY college team in all sports, MY lodestone exactly THIRTY seasons later, as I sit here impatiently waiting for the 2015-2016 season. Football is so different now, and yet that one thing remains, unchanging and unchangeable. I am a Tennessee Volunteer--a Vol for life, and the Sugar Vols of 1985-86 are the reason my feet were set upon that path.  

Celina's note: This is, I hope, the first story in a series of blog posts about college football and its fans, particularly from the SEC. I'm calling the series Songs of the South, and I'm  kind of fidgeting around with an idea beyond the blog involving these Songs. If you have a Song story you'd like to share, drop me a line at kaantira( at @), and if your tale has the kind of story I'm looking for I may just add it to the Songbook. 

For more reading on the 1985-86 Sugar Vols and the Sugar Bowl, check these links out:


Genus Germus said…
Funny. I've been calling him Vinny Greenballs, too.. for three decades now!

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