Musing with Cecil Buffington
May 21, 2010
The best football game I ever saw!
It has been several years since I read an editorial in the Atlanta Constitution written by the legendary Furman Bisher. He happened to mention something about the 1956 Georgia Tech-Tennessee football game that caught my attention. I sent him an e-mail telling him I was at the game. I also told him it was the game that will always stand out in my mind as the best football game I ever saw.
He sent me back an answer several days later in which he said, “you and I know how good that game was, but try and convince fans of today that a 6-0 game in 1956 was one the greatest football games ever played.” He was, of course, right on.
I well remember my first football game back in 1955. It was Jefferson and Commerce in Jefferson. The Dragons and Tigers fought to a 0-0 tie. My cousin Tom Williamson played tackle for the Dragons on that team. I had begged my uncle ( his Dad ) to let me go with him to see a Dragon game since the first grade. Well, needless to say, when he agreed to let me go with him to the game, I did exactly what he expected me to do. I played football behind the grandstands with a group of other boys. I don’t think I saw a play in that game. I’m not even sure I ever knew the score of the game until years later. That wasted night ended my football presence at any football game until 1956. By then, my attention span had improved to the point where I started attending the games to actually watch the teams play on the field.
I saw my first Georgia game on October 6 of that year when Mississippi State downed the Bulldogs 19-7 in Athens. As an adult I would later referee many basketball games with the starting quarterback that day, Billy Hearn. Since Georgia was playing the Gators in Jacksonville ( there was not any televised Georgia-Florida games in the 50s ) on November 10, my uncle, Ray Williamson ( as dedicated a football fan as I have ever seen ) and cousin Tom decided to attend the Georgia Tech-Tennessee game at Grant Field. I was not a big Georgia Tech fan, but I did watch their replays every Sunday on television. I knew they were a very good football team. I also felt the Georgia Tech uniforms were the best looking uniforms in college football at the time. I don’t to this day remember how I talked them into taking me with them to the game.
The 1956 Georgia Tech football team could very well have been the best team in Tech history. They were certainly the best up until the early 90s.
Entering the game, Georgia Tech’s belly-series, option team was ranked number 2 in the country and the single wing offense, Tennessee team was ranked number 3. Oklahoma had shut out 5 of their first 7 opponents and was ranked number 1.
Grant Field was packed and deafening loud.
There was not much fineness in the game for either team, especially early on. The defense was unbelievable. A two or three-yard gain was a rarity. For the game Tennessee managed only 5 first downs, two on their only touchdown drive, while Tech managed only three for the game. This was the game that determined the 1956 SEC title. There were 23 punts altogether, ( Georgia Tech quick-kicked three times on third and long deep in their own territory ). There was no score until midway through the third quarter, when Tennessee end Buddy Cruze noticed that Tech had stopped double-teaming him. Quarterback Johnny Majors ( who would later become head coach for UT ) passed to Cruze for 16 yards to their 35. On the next play from that point, Majors again hit Cruze down the middle. The big tight end, who also starred on the basketball court for the Vol cagers, ran 64 yards down to the Tech one-yard line. This would set up a fullback Tommy Bronson touchdown dive that won the game, 6 - 0.
The 1956 game was ranked No. 2 in collegiate history by UPI in 1965, surpassed only by the 1935 Ohio State-Notre Dame game. The game is still rated in the top 5 “football Classic games” before 1970 by many football publications of today.
The "names" from that game flow readily off the lips of either team's fans of that era: Johnny Majors, Tommy Bronson, Buddy Cruze, John Gordy, Tom Howe for Tennessee, and Wade Mitchell, Paul Rotenberry, Ken Owen, George Volkert, and Toppy Vann for Georgia Tech. Probably my favorite Tech player in ‘56 was a 145-pound halfback named Jimmy Thompson. They called him “Little Jimmy.” He was cat quick and lightning fast. Coach Dodd dressed out the Techsters in “tare-a-way” jerseys during those years. “Little Jimmy” must have went through about 5 or 6 jerseys each game.
Georgia Tech 1956 Homecoming game ~ Vs.Tulane
Quarterback Wade Mitchell and halfback George Volkert of the 1956 Georgia tech Yellow Jackets.
The super-star of the game was a tailback from Tennessee. Johnny Majors was a skinny youngster who weighed at most, 160-65 pounds. Even the name had a special ring to it. It wasn't Jones or Smith or Johnson. It was Majors. Playing for Bowden Wyatt's Volunteers, Majors was a do-everything back who was MVP of the Southeastern Conference in both his junior and senior years. In his senior year, Johnny Majors led Tennessee to an undefeated regular season, was a consensus All-American, finished second to Paul Hornung in the Heisman Trophy balloting and was named by UPI as Back of the Year. And why not? He ran, passed, punted, and even blocked. He was one of college football's best punters. He was second only to Billy Cannon of LSU as my all-time favorite college football player. Cannon led LSU to a national title in 1958.
There was a wonderful moment after the Tech-Tennessee game highlighting Vol Coach Bowden Wyatt's competitive spirit. When it was fourth-and-4 at the Tennessee 28 early in the game, Coach Bobby Dodd elected to punt.
"Why didn't Dodd go for it?" One media type asked.
"Because he wouldn't have made it," Wyatt responded.
To this day, I have never forgotten that Tech-Tennessee game. It will always rank as my favorite football game of all time. The Yellow Jackets went on to beat Pittsburgh 21-14 in the Gator Bowl to complete a 10-1 season. Tennessee was upset by Baylor 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl. They also finished 10-1. For the season the Jacket surrendered only 33 points with 14 coming from Pittsburgh in the Gator Bowl. They had five shutouts. They scored 248 points for the season.
Tennessee had allowed 68 points including the Baylor game, with five shutouts. They scored 226 points during the season.
While I remain a die-hard Georgia fan, I always root for the Jackets when they play anyone other than the Bulldogs. My favorite college game to this day is and probably always will be Georgia and Georgia Tech.
But as long as I am able to watch college football, I doubt that any game can ever be so firmly implanted in my mind as that 1956 game. It’ll always be the Greatest football game I ever saw!
Tailback Johnny Majors, Tackle John Gordy and end Buddy Cruze made Tennessee a formidable team during the 1956 season.