This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly series written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
For the first time in program history (129 years), Tennessee has lost its fifth consecutive football game by a double-digit margin. Trouble began against Georgia in October when the Vols lost 44-21. They have since been outscored 136-54. Tennessee dropped to 2-5 on the conference-only season. However, looking beyond the losses proves more important this week of Thanksgiving in a year riddled with challenges. As a public health crisis continues to grip the country, health and safety remain top reasons for thanks.
Yet, other reasons to be grateful might include the return of Tennessee basketball this week. Preseason All-SEC first-teamers Yves Pons and John Fulkerson will lead the Vols against Charlotte on Wednesday night at 8 p.m.
Rocky Top Insider takes a look at this week in UT sports history with gratitude, thankful for rich traditions about which to write and readers who appreciate them:
Nov. 27, 1988
One month before people wished “Mele Kalikimaka,” the Lady Vols kicked off the Rainbow Wahine Classic and their 1988-89 season in Honolulu, Hawaii. Pat Summitt’s team beat Illinois in the first matchup, 81-50, before another commanding win against Washington, 70-48. The final matchup of the tournament, however, put the Lady Vols to the test.
Their opponents, the Lady Techsters of Louisiana Tech, stood as reigning national champions. Tennessee had beaten Louisiana Tech, 67-44, in 1987 for the program’s first national championship. Tech took revenge in 1988, beating Tennessee by a sound 68-59 in the semifinal round before winning the title against a scrappy Auburn team in a last-second, 56-54, win.
The rematch between the national champion programs came down to the wire. Then, overtime came down to the wire. Tennessee outlasted the other powerhouse program, winning 62-61 in the third victory of what would be an 11-game win streak. The game, a measuring stick for the Lady Vols, indicated Summitt’s team had what it took to win the national title yet again.
Of course, they did.
Tennessee’s first loss of the 1988-89 season came against Auburn on the Plains in January, losing 67-59. Having lost the national title game the season prior, the Tigers wanted to avenge themselves. However, the Lady Vols would yet again dash their hopes. Tennessee beat the SEC rival team, 76-60, to win a second national championship in 1989.
Kellie Harper and the 2020 Lady Vols face Florida A&M this Friday at 1 p.m. in Knoxville.
Nov. 27, 1976
The 2020 men’s basketball team faces Charlotte this week, as they did on Dec. 4, 1976. At the time, UNC Charlotte ranked No. 15 in the national polls, and the Vols squeezed out a 69-67 win in a regional matchup at Stokely Athletic Center. But before the thrilling, small-margin victory, the Vols outlasted South Florida by a 30-point margin to begin the season on Nov. 27.
The Vols, including New Yorkers Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King, took the W with 94 points to USF’s 64. Thus began the final year of the “Ernie and Bernie Show” in Knoxville. Ray Mears’ superstars would lead the team to a 61-20 overall record over their three years in orange and white. They capped off their run with a conference title in 1977. By season’s end, they had compiled an SEC record of 16-2.
Grunfeld won a gold medal with the U.S. National Team at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal prior to the season. The 6-foot-6 senior became the first Tennessee player to reach 2,000 points in career scoring, finishing his collegiate career with 2,249. King followed closely behind, finishing second all-time in scoring to that point in program history with 1,962 points. He also had 1,004 rebounds to his credit. King averaged a double-double in each of his three seasons as a Vol with 25.8 points per game and 13.2 rebounds per game.
The 1976-77 season marked the end of an era. Grunfeld graduated in 1977, and King decided to enter the NBA Draft following his junior year. The Milwaukee Bucks selected Grunfeld at 11th overall four spots behind King, who went seventh overall to the New Jersey Nets.
A panel of SEC and national media members predicted Rick Barnes’ 2020 team will win the 2021 SEC regular season title during preseason voting on Nov. 12. Tennessee returns four starters and welcomed the fourth-ranked class in the nation for this impending season. Recently, senior Yves Pons earned recognition on the Naismith Trophy watch list, an accolade awarded to the nation’s top men’s college basketball player.
Tennessee basketball tips off Wednesday night at 8 p.m. on the SEC Network.
Nov. 28, 1901
A rivalry began with a tie game this week in 1901. Tennessee faced the University of Alabama for the first time on Nov. 28, 1901, in Birmingham, Alabama. From the beginning, the series has been heated. The initial meeting ended early in a 6-6 stalemate. Following a controversial offside call, fans stormed the field and prevented further play in the second half.
Over the next 12 years, Bama owned the series, losing only once and allowing one touchdown against the Vols. Two of those games came on the same Nov. 28 date in 1907 and 1912. The Vols lost, 5-0, in 1907 before losing again, 7-0, five years later.
Birmingham served as the site of the first four games between the two programs between 1901 and 1908 before home-and-homes commenced in 1909. The Vols and Tide played most of their early games in Birmingham, including the 1912 matchup. Though they played in Tuscaloosa several times prior to 1930, Legion Field served as the primary site until 1999.
The series wouldn’t be played on the traditional “Third Saturday in October” until 1928 and would not officially earn the moniker until 1939. Robert Neyland’s No. 5 Vols defeated Alabama 21-0 in 1939, drawing national attention to the rivalry. Tennessee faced Alabama on the fourth Saturday in October this season, losing 48-17.
The 2020 team faces Vanderbilt in Nashville this Saturday on the 119th anniversary of the first Bama game. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on the SEC Network Alternate.