By Trey Williams
Postseason football has become a given at Science Hill during the TSSAA’s playoff-mad era.
The Hilltoppers, however, were playing a rare postseason game when Steve Spurrier was a senior in 1962. And Coach Kermit Tipton’s Hilltoppers didn’t appear to be too interested in being at J. Fred Johnson Stadium for the second time in three weeks.
The Hilltoppers had concluded a 6-4 regular season with a 27-7 win at Dobyns-Bennett and were invited immediately afterward to return to the stadium in two weeks for the ninth annual Exchange Bowl.
The ’Toppers returned, in body if not spirit, and found themselves in 21-0 hole to Church Hill in the second quarter.
Once again, Spurrier’s Science Hill swan song had begun as an ugly duckling. The Hilltoppers had started his senior season with a 2-4 record.
Granted, three of those losses were by a combined six points. A pair of 20-19 setbacks came against Oak Ridge and Tennessee High, and Morristown beat the ’Toppers, 7-3.
The other loss was a 14-0 defeat against Chattanooga Central, which went on to cap an 11-0 season with a bowl win at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida.
“We had some high hopes and we had a team that could really do something our senior year,” Spurrier said. “We played a tough schedule and we lost the close ones. I screwed up and missed a few extra points at Oak Ridge and Tennessee High.
“We could’ve cashed it in and gone in the dumps and felt sorry for ourselves, but Coach Tipton wouldn’t let us. He said, ‘Fellas, we can still salvage this year. We’ve got a lot to play for. That’s history. You can’t change it.’ ”
The Exchange Bowl setting wasn’t bad, although the crowd was smaller than had turned out two weeks earlier for the Dobyns-Bennett game against Science Hill. Still, 4,000-5,000 spectators were estimated to be in attendance, including Wake Forest assistant Beatty Feathers and coaches from Georgia Tech (Jim Carlen), Ole Miss (John Cain), Virginia Tech (Jack Prater, Dick Callison) and South Carolina (Weems Basking).
But Science Hill was flat while stumbling into the 21-point hole against the Panthers, who Dr. Litkenhouse rated a nine-point underdog.
Church Hill coach Jay Salley, who’d played at Dobyns-Bennett and Ole Miss, had put together a solid program. And the ’62 team included 6-foot-4, 220-pound lineman Mike Johnson, who went on to start at center as a sophomore for South Carolina but died of cancer prior to his junior season.
Johnson and company hit the ground running against Science Hill. Bobby Grimes’ 8-yard touchdown pass to Gary Anderson opened the scoring. The Panthers scored again in the second quarter when Marvin “Bo” Walters returned a blocked punt 39 yards after the snap had short-hopped Spurrier.
“I remember making a bad snap or a hard snap to handle and the big ole tackle grabs it and goes in for a touchdown to put us down in the first half,” said Cotty Jones, a senior center on the ’62 team. “That’s not a very pleasant memory, but I always claim it made Steve look good, you know, giving him a comeback. That was a very disappointing first half. Those were some tough boys. That Church Hill crowd – they were a pretty tough group. And I think that kind of surprised us.
“And we’d just beat Kingsport pretty good, maybe 27-7, probably two weeks before. I think we were a little bit overconfident against this country team. But they had this big redheaded boy named Johnson, who went down to South Carolina and played. Freshman didn’t play, but his sophomore year he started. I remember him because his head was so big that they had a separate helmet for him. It was a little bit off color. They had to order it for him.”
Johnson helped pave the way on a 10-play, 62-yard drive which Connie Bailey capped with a 6-yard TD to give the Panthers a 21-0 lead with 2:28 left in the first half.
Spurrier, already known for his swagger, didn’t flinch. With a pass-happy, hurry-up offense that was surreal to see during the ground-oriented era, Spurrier engineered an 81-yard drive in 85 seconds to get the Hilltoppers on the scoreboard with 55 seconds left in the half.
The scoring march, which ended with a 3-yard TD pass to Jimmy Sanders, began with a 15-yard draw by fullback Lewis Cantrell. After Cantrell’s run, Spurrier completed 4 of 5 passes for 66 yards on the drive’s remainder.
The TD did little to dent Tipton’s disappointment at halftime. Emory Hale, who went on to win three state titles at Oak Ridge (1975, ’79, ’80) and was the head coach at Austin Peay seven seasons, was an assistant coach at Science Hill in ‘62.
“We came in at halftime and Coach Tipton said ‘Emory, you take Steve and go in the shower room,’” said Hale, who recalled Spurrier practicing basketball the week of the bowl game. “So Steve and I just stood in there and, basically, I might have said one or two things to him. There wasn’t much to say.
“And Coach Tipton didn’t say anything. He just went over and laid on the warm-ups until it was about a minute until we were supposed to go back on the field. I kept looking out and thinking ‘Say something. You gotta do something here. We’re getting killed.’ And finally Coach Tipton stood up and he said ‘I just thought you guys were better than this.’ Man, everybody jumped up and started screaming and hollering and going on.”
Spurrier ended up passing for 211 yards and four touchdowns. He threw a 30-yard TD pass to Sanders on Science Hill’s opening drive of the second half. Ken Altman recovered a Church Hill fumble at the Science Hill 45 late in the third quarter, setting up Spurrier’s TD pass to Ron Pelfrey. Spurrier’s PAT made it 21-21 late in the third quarter.
The game-winning score was a 13-yard TD pass to Tommy Thomas with 3:28 left.
“Pelfrey, Jimmy Sanders and Tommy Thomas, who was a sophomore, got it going,” Hale said. “And boy, Steve was dropping it on the button; I’m talking 30-, 40- and 50-yard passes … and Jimmy didn’t break stride. That was one of the most phenomenal performances I saw.”
Hale recalled Tipton saying something else at halftime that season – halftime of the loss to Morristown.
“I think that Steve had 14 balls that bounced off receivers against Morristown,” Hale said. “Jimmy Sanders was hurt. He got a concussion against Chattanooga Central and Tommy Thomas hadn’t been playing on the varsity yet. I was calling the plays and thought I was doing a pretty good job. We just weren’t catching the ball.
“But at halftime Coach Tipton said ‘Let Steve call some of them plays.’ I knew right then that he thought that Steve – like he’s proven calling plays in college – liked to be in charge and in control. So Coach Tipton gave him the opportunity to call the plays.”
Tipton, the engineer of two of Science Hill’s top all-time teams in 1939-40 for Plowboy Farmer, was a man of precious few words. But he’d come up with a mouthful, relatively speaking, when Spurrier was the topic. Tipton considered Spurrier’s heroics one day, the Exchange Bowl rally, the clutch hits and pitching performances while helping Science Hill win back-to-back state titles in baseball and a half-court buzzer-beater that beat Erwin in basketball.
“He performed very well to bring us back from way behind,” Tipton said. “Steve always rose to the occasion.
Science Hill’s offensive starters included linemen Sam Deen, Ken Lyon, Bob McCullough and Roy Payne and halfback Mike Moore.
The Hilltoppers players sang a song after the final Associated Press poll ranked them at No. 9. Spurrier sang some of it again when he was inducted into the Science Hill Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007, and Ken Lyon, a lineman on the ’62 team, sang it when introducing Spurrier as guest speaker at another athletics function when Spurrier was coaching at South Carolina:
“We’re the champs of the Exchange Bowl, and No. 9, praise God, in the AP poll.”