Sept. 30, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
The early 1960s wasn't a good time to be a passing quarterback at Tennessee. But that didn't faze the "Swamp Rat," Dewey Warren.
When he came to Knoxville from Savannah, Ga., in 1963, Warren was primarily a passer playing in a run-heavy single-wing offense. To see the field, Warren played linebacker on the freshman team.
But when Doug Dickey took over as coach the following season, he scrapped the single-wing, which operated much like today's spread formation with the quarterback in shotgun. Dickey moved Warren back to quarterback and redshirted him as he implemented the T-formation, with the quarterback under center. And Warren's instructions were to pass first.
"That was probably the best thing to ever happen to me," Warren said of his redshirt year. "It gave me a year to mature as a person and in football, and an extra year of school, too."
It also helped Tennessee experience resurgence in football.
The Vols hadn't won more than six games since 1957, and in Dickey's first season they went 4-5-1. Nevertheless, Dickey had evaluated his personnel and knew that switching to the more aggressive offense in 1964 was a good call.
"I'll never forget, the great George Cafego, a hall of famer here, he always told us on the redshirt team when we get to the varsity team and have an opportunity to play, don't let anyone ever take it away from you," Warren said. "Always be ready. You're one play away from playing. I never forgot that. So when you get your opportunity, go for it. That happened with me."
Warren trotted onto the field for his opportunity against Mississippi in 1965 - only when he got to the huddle he realized he forgot his helmet. He got beat up that day by Mississippi's penetrating defense, and his teammates wondered aloud if he would be healthy for the next week.
Warren's response: "As long as I can stand on one leg and raise my right arm, Old Dewey will be humming that tater."
"Now that I look back over so many years, everywhere I go everybody talks about the '65 UCLA game in Memphis where we had a shootout," Warren said. "We were a bunch of hillbillies going to the Bluebonnet Bowl, and they were going to the Rose Bowl. They called it the Rosebonnet Bowl."
Warren secured his place in Tennessee football history when he scored the winning touchdown to beat the Bruins in a controversial game.
On fourth-and-1 with two pulled groin muscles, prime receiver Johnny Mills out and the game on the line, Warren couldn't find an open receiver. So he ran toward the corner of the end zone, but there was a problem: Warren wasn't a runner.
It was as if time stopped for the big guy to rumble toward the goal line as UCLA defenders closed in. With a plunge, Warren went for the score. UCLA players thought they stopped him. The official signaled a touchdown.
"I ended up scoring the winning touchdown by accident because I was supposed to pass it and it didn't work out," Warren said. "I ended up getting across. I played that final quarter with two pulled groins, but we finally got it across and won. People remember that. That was a high-profile team from the West Coast, and we're a bunch of country boys from Tennessee. Nobody gave us any chance, and we ended up winning."
That sort of sums up Warren's legendary status as a Volunteer. He walked into Knoxville as a member of a run-heavy offense and considered playing linebacker. He left having helped revolutionize Tennessee's offense.
Before Warren, Tennessee's season record for pass completions was 36, set by Johnny Majors in the mid-1950s. Warren completed 136 passes in 1966.
Before Warren, Tennessee's season record for passing yards was 552. Warren threw for 1,716 yards in 1966.
"When you have a boy who can throw like that, you just let him get out and throw all he wants," Dickey told Sports Illustrated following the season.
It helped Warren that he could throw to ends like Mills and Austin Denney. Richmond Flowers took their place when they graduated and provided a down-field target for Warren. Fulton, who was quarterback before Warren took over, moved to tailback and was a dual threat with his legs and his arm.
"I was surrounded by good players," Warren said. "What I did best was pass the football. I could run the huddle. I tried to be a leader, the guy they could turn to. I wanted the pressure put on me and taken off the other guys. That's what I always tried to do, and we were very successful.
"It goes back to you do what your quarterback can do. If he's a passer, you pass. If he's a runner, you run. If he's an option guy, you run the option. If he's a Wildcat guy like Tim Tebow, you run the Wildcat. So that's what we did best."
Warren led Tennessee to an 8-3 record in that transformational 1966 season. The following year the Vols went 9-2, won the Southeastern Conference championship and were recognized by Litkenhous as national champions before a 26-24 loss to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. But not everything was about wins and losses for Warren.
Warren said he remembers so many of the big games - an 18-12 win over Larry Csonka and Syracuse in the 1966 Gator Bowl, that loss in the Orange Bowl, and a road victory against Alabama in Birmingham when he was injured and Bubba Wyche filled in. His best memories, however, were in Gibbs Hall living with his teammates and in the dining hall sharing meals. Those are the threads that have kept the "Swamp Rat" bound to Tennessee.
"That friendship and bond we had in college still is bonded today," Warren said. "I think back then the difference that I see now, back when I was playing in the mid-`60s, we were very close. It was about the team. We didn't care who scored, who made the tackle, who threw the pass, whatever. As long as we won at the end of the game, that was the main thing. That's the difference and something I'll always cherish."