When Tennessee and Oklahoma "Made" the Orange Bowl

Let's face it. Saturday's matchup between Tennessee and Oklahoma is not the marquee event that both of these storied institutions hoped for when they signed on. Oh sure, it's the ABC Game of the Week, but fans in Knoxville just hope their very young team will not be embarrassed, while fans in Norman probably hope their Sooners are not looking ahead to Big 12 play. However, fans in South Florida should watch this game with nothing but gratitude because these two schools made the Orange Bowl.

No, I'm not talking about the 1968 game. I'm referring to 1939, when the Orange Bowl was brand new and trying to establish its footing in the college football postseason. At that time, the game was only four years old and had fielded unexciting contests, the most significant being the 1938 game where about 19,000 fans watched a 5-2-3 Auburn team shut out Michigan State.

The Orange Bowl was not alone in its mediocrity. Since there were no agreements with conferences, the best teams in the country generally turned down invitations from the Orange, Sugar and Cotton Bowls for the more prestigious Rose Bowl. Then in 1938, these other bowl games seized an opportunity to make their mark.

Unlike in years' past, the bowls had four undefeated teams to choose from and the Sugar Bowl signed undefeated Texas Christian to play Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). The Horned Frogs were 11-0 and would be named the Associated Press national champion, while Carnegie Tech's only loss was to Notre Dame. The Rose Bowl signed undefeated and third-ranked Duke to play a two-loss Southern California team, but the Orange Bowl stole the show, signing both undefeated Tennessee and Oklahoma.

The Vols were 10-0 and had not been scored on since October 1, 1938. (They would ultimately go 19 games without being scored upon.) Coached by the legendary Robert Neyland, Tennessee had three All-Americans in guard Bob Suffridge, end Bowden Wyatt and tailback George Cafego. The Sooners were also 10-0 and riding a 14-game win streak. Despite the success and indicative of the era, the Orange Bowl would be the first postseason experience for all the players on both teams.

The trip to Florida could not arrive fast enough for Tennessee, as the majority of players reported for practice on December 20 with colds. The sickness led to sluggish practices following the December break.

"This thing can become serious if the boys don't throw off those colds," said Neyland. "Our timing is poor and we're not able to get together as a team. That Oklahoma line is plenty big and tough and we've got to be in top condition."

Both teams arrived in Miami by train, with the Vols arriving on December 26 and the Sooners arriving the next day. Through the week Neyland and Oklahoma Coach Tom Stidham kept their practices private and their comments pessimistic.

"I wouldn't be surprised if lost. I still regard this game as a toss-up, but I've never had anything to contend with like this before," said Neyland, whose only previous post-season experience had been a win over a two-loss New York University team at Yankee Stadium in 1931.

"We'll probably lose by two touchdowns," Stidham said with a grin. "Frankly, we are ready for our best performance. I know we are facing the best team we've played all year, an opportunist club that makes no mistakes and takes advantage of the bounces. We will try to give them no breaks."

Stidham's words summed up the game to tee. A then-record crowd of 32,191 that included U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy saw Tennessee capitalize on numerous breaks. After suffering a 15-yard penalty deep in their own territory in the first quarter, the Sooners' Hugh McCullough punted to Cafego, who returned the kick 16 yards to the Oklahoma 27-yard line. Five plays later, Bob Foxx trotted into the end zone to put the Vols up 7-0.

If you were listening to the radio outside of Miami during this period, chances are that you did not hear the first score. Joseph Marks, a pilot, accidentally crashed his crop-spraying plane into telephone cables near Fort Lauderdale, snapping them in two and suffering minor injuries. Those listening to CBS' broadcast of the game outside of Miami missed 13 minutes of it before an emergency circuit reestablished the signal.

Midway through the second quarter, radio listeners across the country heard Oklahoma's Bob Seymour fumbled the ball and Vol Bob Andridge recovered, once again putting Tennessee on the Sooners' 27-yard line. The Vols capitalized with a field goal.

A 19-yard run by Wood in the fourth quarter sealed the 17-0 win and Tennessee's first national title. Numerous ranking systems, including Dunkel, Litkenhous and Sagarin, crowned the Vols national champion.

"You've got a great ball club," Stidham told Neyland after the game.

The Sooners' consoled themselves after the loss with a trip to Havana. Neyland's final words to the players were not as welcoming as the mojitos likely enjoyed by his fallen opponent.

"Spring practice starts January 15," he told his players before dismissing them.

Hosting two undefeated teams is a major coup for any bowl game, and it would be another 15 years before the Orange Bowl secured another such matchup. Yet the 1939 Tennessee/Oklahoma game showed that the Orange Bowl was here to stay. Like Miami and Penn State with the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, these two schools' decision to travel to Miami in December of 1938 established one of the game's greatest institutions.  Regardless of whether this weekend's game is a blowout or surprisingly close, we will be watching two schools that helped forge the sport we love today.


Written by
Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021. One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines. Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide. Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports. Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.