Two weeks from tonight, Georgia Tech and Tennessee will collide on a football field for the first time in 30 seasons.
It wasn't always this way. The Yellow Jackets and Volunteers competed annually as Southeastern Conference members from 1954 to 1963, and they routinely met for a generation even after Georgia Tech announced its departure from the SEC in January 1964.
"When I played for the legendary Bobby Dodd, our biggest game of the year at Georgia Tech was not the University of Georgia," former Yellow Jackets center and head coach Bill Curry said. "Our biggest game was the Vols, and you could just feel that from him. It was a very big game, and it was a very big rivalry."
Georgia Tech was an independent after leaving the SEC until 1983, when the Yellow Jackets started competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They faced Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee out of conference when they joined the ACC, but the rivalry with Alabama ended after the 1984 matchup, and the annual games with Auburn and Tennessee ended after the 1987 season.
"I do hate to see those things end," said Curry, who was a recent guest of "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM, "but when you move into a different league, you have to be judicious with who you play out of your league, and I think that's the reason there was a change."
Tennessee leads the all-time series with Georgia Tech 24-17-2. The Vols won the inaugural matchup (10-6 in 1902 in Atlanta) and the most recent (29-15 in Knoxville).
The most notable showdown between these two took place before 40,000 at Grant Field in November 1956, when Georgia Tech was ranked No. 2 by The Associated Press and Tennessee was No. 3. Dodd elected to punt on fourth-and-4 from Tennessee's 28-yard line in the first quarter, and though the ball was downed at the 5, the Vols changed the field position with a 15-yard run by Johnny Majors and a surprise 63-yard quick kick to Tech's 17.
Tennessee wound up prevailing 6-0 in what former Knoxville Journal sports editor Ben Byrd called "the greatest football game I have ever seen."
The Vols went 10-0 in the 1956 regular season before losing 13-7 to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. The Jackets took out their frustration by humiliating Alabama, Florida and Georgia by a combined score of 90-0 before matching Tennessee's 10-1 final record with a 21-14 downing of Pittsburgh in the Gator Bowl.
Dodd was a former star quarterback at Tennessee — the Vols went 27-1-2 during his three seasons from 1928 to 1930 — and is in the National Football Foundation's Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, but the rivalry had deteriorated by the time Curry was hired to coach his alma mater in 1980. The Vols had won nine of 10 in the series and added a 23-10 triumph in 1980 and a 10-7 escape in 1981.
Majors was coaching Tennessee at that time and guided the Vols to a 35-28 upset over Alabama at Neyland Stadium in 1982, snapping an 11-year losing streak to the Crimson Tide. The next week, Tech tailback Robert Lavette rushed for 139 yards and three touchdowns as the Jackets stunned the visiting Vols 31-21.
Tech and Tennessee played to a 6-6 tie inside Neyland in 1985, when both programs enjoyed nine-win seasons, and the Jackets toppled the Vols 14-13 a year later in Atlanta. Carlos Reveiz made 55- and 51-yard field goals in the fourth quarter of the 1985 game to rally the Vols from a 6-0 deficit, but he missed a 27-yard attempt off the upright late in the 1986 game.
Curry went 2-2-1 in his last five meetings against Tennessee, but he left after the 1986 season to become head coach at Alabama.
"I have so much respect for Coach Majors, and we really had a heck of a rivalry," Curry said. "A rivalry is when it goes back and forth, and Tennessee beat us the first few times we played them in the 1980s, and then we started to move up a little bit and had some knockdown, drag-out games. The 1985 game was probably the best example of that, but the one that meant the most was probably the one in '82.
"We were still coming off the nightmare seasons of 1980 and 1981, and Tennessee came into Atlanta and was very heavily favored. It was a national TV game, and we just played lights out. It was just one of those magic days, and we managed to win the game. That's probably the one that sticks out the most."
Curry, who won a share of the 1989 SEC title at Alabama and went on to coach Kentucky and Georgia State, spends most of his time these days giving leadership talks to teams and companies and maximizing his time with seven grandchildren. He has spent Friday nights the past few years watching grandsons play high school football in Virginia, which does not allow him to make many Tech games.
He will, however, be a guest two weeks from tonight of Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury, who was a middle linebacker for Curry in the early 1980s.
"I'm looking forward to that one," Curry said.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.