1963 Tech versus Tennessee: Controversy On and Off the Field

Bobby Dodd and Billy Lothridge - Wikipedia Commons

Tech defeated Tennessee 23-7 in Knoxville in 1963. The game marked the end of Tech's last win streak against the Vols in the series history. The game is not only remembered for a controversial trick play and media firestorm but also due to post-game UT student vandalism of Georgia Tech's mascot, the Ramblin' Reck.

In Georgia Tech's final season in the Southeastern Conference, Tech was scheduled to meet 7 SEC opponents (4 on the road). One of the more notable games in the 1963 season was against the Tennessee Volunteers led by one year head coaching bust Jim McDonald. The Volunteers came in to the game 1-2 reeling after a 7-0 shutout at the hands of Mississippi State. Tech was equally frustrated after losing their previous week by 1 point in Baton Rouge to the Bayou Bengals. However, Tech was still sporting a 2-1 season record ranked 14th in the nation with plenty to play for.

Bobby Dodd saw the upcoming game as a true "blood battle" due to the importance of the outcome for both teams' seasons. Dodd had to announce new starters at receiver due to star Billy Martin's knee injury the week before. The game was homecoming for Tennessee and ironically Dodd was invited being that he was a graduate of UT. The invitation hoped all returning alums would enjoy the game against Tech to which Dodd responded on October 10, 1963, "I sure hope so."

Billy Lothridge was the quarterback for Tech and would finish the season as a Heisman runner-up to Roger Staubach. For historical perspective's sake, Lothridge finished his career as one of Tech's most decorated quarterbacks with around 2,400 passing yards, 372 completions, and only 18 passing touchdowns. Lothridge was also the kicker for Tech in '63 and kicked both field goals against LSU (Tech's only scores). At the end of the game against Tennessee, Lothridge was the subject of the most controversial play of the day.

A record crowd of 51,527 Tennesseans packed in to Neyland Stadium to see the Engineers put-a-hurtin' on the Volunteers. Lothridge ended the day with a passing TD, rushing TD, and made field goal. Tech outscored the Vols 13-0 in the first half and would finish the game with a 23-7 final tally. Tech racked up 300 yards of offense versus Tennessee's 237. Tennessee scored in garbage time when third string running back Wayne Bush slipped in to the end zone on a relatively uneventful offensive outing for the Volunteers.

The play of the day was in the 25 seconds of the first half. Tech had the ball on the GT 46. After the previous play, Ted Davis (one of Tech's receivers) never rejoined the huddle and faded to the sideline. He never left the playing field. Tennessee's defense huddled and lost track of Davis. When the ball was snapped, Lothridge hit Davis who streaked down the sideline for a 54-yard touchdown. Paul Johnson used an almost identical play against Clemson in 2009.

After the game, fireworks flew with regards to the play. UT's athletic director Bob Woodruff called the play a "sleeper play" and filed a complaint with the SEC on October 14th, 1963 stating Ted Davis was never within 15 yards of the ball when the ball was snapped and that SEC coaches have a gentlemen's agreement against such plays. The NCAA rulebook at the time stated:

Before the ball is ready for play and before the snap, each player of team A must have been within 15 yards of the ball and no simulated replacement of a player shall be used to confuse opponents.

Bobby Dodd felt the play was totally legal. Dodd's final comments on the issue came out as Tennessee officials continued to press Dodd's buttons in the media:

It seems to me that Woodruff is trying to distract from our wonderful victory over Tennessee...In my opinion, it was strictly a judgment call by the officials...It was his judgment that Davis had come back to within 15 yards of the scrimmage line... I wonder if Woodruff has realized we could give him the touchdown he calls 'unethical' and give him one more and still have beaten his Tennessee Vols 10-7...

For me, the interesting aspect of the UT-GT game was not the football play that sparked the media firestorm but a separate incident in Neyland Stadium the night after the game. In the Ramblin' Reck's first 15-20 years of service, it would travel by rail to almost all road games. Neyland Stadium was no different. Ramblin' Reck Committee Chairman Jack Painter had stored the Reck in the Stadium in hopes UT security would protect the car. He was wrong.

UT Students broke in to the Reck's storage area, painted the car orange, and tore the soft top apart. This further aggravated Dodd who sent a bill to the UT Athletic Department for repairs. Jack Painter stated in his final Student Council report to never trust another school's administration with the safekeeping of the Ramblin' Reck ever again.

It was not until November 19th, 1963 (38 days later) that Bob Woodruff traveled down to Atlanta to make amends with Dodd. The series contract had ended with Tech's departure from the SEC. Woodruff and Dodd signed a 7 year extension and the series was maintained continuously until 1973 where it was off and on until the last meeting in 1987. No future games are currently scheduled with Tennessee as of March 2012.

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