This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly series written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
The chant “S-E-C” might prove more salient than ever this fall. The Southeastern Conference announced last week member programs will square off against one another in a 10-game season with no out-of-conference opponents. The decision follows those of the Big Ten and Pac-12, which earlier announced their intentions for in-conference only schedules.
The SEC’s move ended hope to continue the 111-year-old streak between Clemson and South Carolina and the 95-year-old streak between Georgia and Georgia Tech. Florida and Kentucky will also miss in-state rivalries with Florida State and Louisville. The ACC had previously announced intentions to allow each school one non-conference game for the option to keep those rivalries alive.
Football season, as of now, retains a start date of Sept. 26. Each team, which normally plays against its six division opponents and two additional SEC opponents from the opposite division, will add two more cross-divisional games. This year marks the latest start for the Vols since 1962, a 22-21 loss to Auburn at home on Sept. 29.
If football time indeed comes to Tennessee in 2020, the occasion will be historic. The Vols did not field an official team as the Spanish Influenza gripped the world in 1918, primarily because of U.S. involvement in World War I. An unofficial team of students and Army recruits played five games, winning three, but the record does not stand in UT’s annals.
With less than 60 days before scheduled kickoff, the 2020 season remains up in the air. The health of student-athletes, coaches, staff and campus communities hang in the balance as cases rise across the South. Tennessee Director of Athletics Phillip Fulmer joined the City of Knoxville’s #KnoxvilleSmiles campaign promoting mask use and social distancing. On June 25, Fulmer tweeted out a plea to Vol fans asking them to help determine the fate of the season and public health saying, “From now until kickoff, masks are a must.”
Everybody keeps asking me if we’re going to be playing football with fans this season. Truth is, Vol fans statewide can help determine that outcome.
From now through kickoff, masks are a must. pic.twitter.com/mXyL1wqC57
— Phillip Fulmer (@phillipfulmer) June 25, 2020
While Tennessee awaits a historic decision regardless, season or no season, Rocky Top Insider looks back at key moments this week in UT sports history:
Aug. 9, 1944
The news would be wired home. One of the General’s men would not be returning. Lt. Bill Nowling, a starting fullback for Tennessee from 1940-1942, died in action on Aug. 9, 1944, in France. He was one of four Vols who not only gave his all for Tennessee but for his country during World War II. He had just celebrated a birthday the day before his death.
Nowling helped lead the Vols to SEC and national championship titles under head coach Gen. Robert Neyland in 1940. During his time at Tennessee, the Vols lost only four games. Adept in the backfield, he also demonstrated skills befitting the battlefield.
One month after his death, former Tennessee blocking back and Fort Benning instructor Capt. Sam Bartholomew recounted Nowling’s prowess to the Knoxville Journal while attending UT’s football practice.
“I told him at the time that we would like to have him at Benning as an instructor,” Bartholomew said. “Bill told me he had rather go with those ‘guys I have been with, wherever they go.’”
Having learned team loyalty as an athlete, Nowling chose to go overseas to serve rather than stay stateside as an instructor. He reported to the commanding officer and asked to be shipped out with his men.
“Football seems to breed that sort of man,” Bartholomew said. “I have been in the Army since 1941 and I have never heard of any athlete who failed to pass the test of blood, sweat and guts.”
He traveled first to Ireland, then to England and France shortly after D-Day. He would not return alive. Nowling’s wife, writing to a friend in Knoxville, quoted a letter from his commanding officer, Capt. Joe McCluskey, which confirmed his death.
“He never knew what hit him,” McCluskey said, describing the moment a sniper “picked out” Nowling as he led his company against German forces. His death marked the first of four Tennessee football stars in a seven-month period.
The university retired Nowling’s No. 32 jersey in 2006 before the Air Force game along with those of Rudy Klarer (No. 49), Willis Tucker (No. 61) and Clyde Fuson (No. 62), who all died in combat. Their football careers spanned from 1939-42, among the best years in program history.
Aug. 6, 2000
With kickoff set for Sept. 2, the Vols needed to get down to business with full pads and two-a-days in August 2000. Though some had already reported to campus for summer workouts, new Tennessee players – the freshmen – officially reported on Aug. 6.
With the departure of quarterback Tee Martin after the 1999 season, the position essentially stood wide open. One freshman looked to nab the job.
Casey Clausen, a 6-foot-3 quarterback from Thousand Oaks, California, entered the quarterback battle with A.J. Suggs, who redshirted in 1999, and sophomore Joey Mathews. The veteran Vols initially had the opportunity to earn the position as they shared time, but both would lose out to Clausen by the Third Saturday in October.
In his first career start, Clausen and the Vols rolled over the Tide of Alabama with a 20-10 win. He earned acclaim for his gritty finishes on the road, earning a nearly perfect 14-1 record in opponents’ stadiums. By the time he left Tennessee, he held the position of second-leading passer with 9,707 career yards and 75 passing touchdowns. The top spot, of course, belongs to Peyton Manning.
“He’s a big reason why I went to Tennessee,” Clausen said in an interview with UTSports.com’s John Painter in 2011. “As time goes on you appreciate a lot more where you fall in those dominos of great quarterbacks at Tennessee.”
When Clausen reported with his fellow freshmen, he had no idea what the season held in store. However, head coach Phillip Fulmer felt positive development brewing.
Coming off an 8-4 season in 1999, the Vols lost key starters like Martin. The new squad needed time to mesh and rebuild, but Fulmer sensed the endeavor might not prove too difficult.
“This team seems to very much into each other,” Fulmer said. “We’ve had an excellent offseason program, probably the best since I’ve been here. I’m looking forward to the start of two-a-day practices next week.”
The Vols again earned a record of 8-4 in 2000 leading up to an appearance in the Cotton Bowl. Tennessee lost to No. 11 Kansas State, but Clausen cemented his position as QB1 moving forward.
Nine quarterbacks now fill the Vols’ 2020 roster including Maryland transfer Kasim Hill and four-star prospect Harrison Bailey, a freshman. Redshirt senior Jarrett Guarantano currently holds the starting spot, but in 2020, anything can happen.
That is, if the season happens at all.