Bob Woodruff, Joe Paterno, and the lights at Neyland
Former Tennessee Athletic Director Bob Woodruff was a crafty old dude. I had the privilege to interview him in his office during my undergraduate years at UT as part of a journalism project. I was researching the plans (that were never fulfilled) to retrofit the south end of Neyland Stadium so that the Vols basketball team could play a few selected home games there. This was the mid-1970s when Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld and Co. were lighting up men’s hoops like a bonfire. The old Stokely Athletic Center was not big enough to hold the excitement of those days. All-night lines for student tickets were becoming commonplace, especially for the big games like Kentucky (that 103-98 war remains the best basketball game at any level I’ve ever witnessed in person).
Bob was finishing up a telephone conversation when I arrived at his office. He told me to wait a few minutes while he attended to somebody else for a few minutes, so I used the moments alone to walk around and look at all the memorabilia within the beautiful wooden bookshelves that lined the walls of his workplace. I couldn’t believe what I was getting to look at — footballs from the 1930s, old orange jerseys, trophies, and plaques. A Vol treasure chest; a young Vol fan’s dream.
When we started to talk, he wanted to know a few things about me and what I was doing for this class project. Of course I got into the subject of growing up a Vols football fan, and how I wished that I could have attended the night game against Penn State in 1972. Sitting in Woodruff’s office, I had yet to attend a game under the lights at Neyland Stadium. Night games were a new thing, and a very rare occurrence at that. That 1972 game against Joe Paterno’s team was the first one.
I don’t really remember much else about the interview, except for some rolled-up blueprints that Woodruff laid out on his big desk illustrating the bizarre plans for playing basketball in a stadium named for Robert Neyland. But when I read David Climer’s article in The Tennessean on Monday, it reminded me of that meeting in the Athletic Director’s office — a meeting that I have long forgotten.
In December 1971, Tennessee had defeated Penn State 31-11. It was “Majors Family Day” for the home season finale, and the game was telecast nationwide on ABC. Vol defenders were excellent, stopping a Penn State offense featuring Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell . Conrad Graham scored on a 76-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Bobby Majors returned two punts for 82 yards, one for a score, and returned two kickoffs for 113 yards.
Coming into the game, Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions were undefeated (10-0-0) and ranked #4. The Vols victory (Tennessee was 8-2-0 and #12 going into the match) caused Paterno to look for a way out of the rematch scheduled for the following year. The 1972 game was slated for September, and different weather than the December game. As Climer writes,
Paterno sent word that the only way he would follow through with the game was if it was played at night. Otherwise, he’d find a way out of the contract. Paterno knew that night football was considered blasphemy to many in leadership positions at UT who grudgingly clung to tradition.
Apparently Woodruff had secret plans already in the works for lights to be installed at Neyland Stadium. Just as Woodruff had kept the installation of the new Tartan Turf in 1968 under wraps, much to the chagrin of Vince Dooley, Woodruff wasn’t going to go public with the inevitably of night football in Knoxville. Paterno’s threat made Woodruff want to keep that a secret even more.
The lights went up, and Tennessee beat Penn State 28-21. Oh, how I wish I could have been there. But thinking about it now, my desire made for good conversation with one of the legends of Tennessee football and UT athletics. I’m glad I have that memory. Many night games were to come for me soon enough.