The 1967 Tangerine Bowl
Story by Ryne Rickman
Five decades ago this December, a legendary team was born in the Sunshine State. Playing more than 800 miles from campus in the first bowl game in school history, the UT Martin Volunteer football team trounced West Chester State by a 25-8 margin in front of 5,500 fans at the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
The staying power of the 1967 team is immeasurable. Five players went on to sign professional contracts. Fifteen members of this Atlantic Coast College Division national championship squad are enshrined in the UT Martin Athletics Hall of Fame. The team’s 10 victories are the second-most in 87 years of UT Martin football.
One of the 15 Hall of Famers from that team is Bob Carroll, who was 35 years old and in his 11th season as UT Martin’s head coach in 1967.
“That team was a very close-knit group,” said Carroll, who is the school’s all-time winningest football coach. “We didn’t have any problems with egos, and they were experienced. We had ended the previous year well, and that just carried over. They wanted to win, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Gary Capers (‘68), who transferred to UT Martin after two years at West Virginia University, recalls the 1967 team’s strengths on both sides of the ball.
“Two things stood out that year,” Capers said. “I thought the defense was outstanding throughout the year, and we controlled the football on offense. We kept the ball for long drives and pounded the ball at people. That was a very successful formula, and that’s how we dominated most opponents.”
As Carroll alluded, the root of the 1967 team’s success perhaps began in Peoria, Ill., in October of the previous year. That’s when the Volunteers routed Bradley University 40-0 to begin a four-game winning streak that established momentum at the end of the 1966 season.
By the time the 1967 season rolled around, expectations were high for a UT Martin squad with 26 returning lettermen. The Volunteers defeated Murray State 16-9 in the season opener and outscored their opponents by a 147-0 margin over the next three games to improve to 4-0 leading up to a road game at Delta State on Oct. 21, which turned out to be the only setback of the season.
“In spite of that loss, the team came back stronger and didn’t fold,” Carroll said. “That one loss did not cause our players to lose confidence.”
The Volunteers recovered with a 44-36 home win over Middle Tennessee State University before a matchup at Troy State in Week Eight. UT Martin dispatched the nationally ranked Trojans during a 20-12 victory that perhaps sealed the team’s fate at the end of the season. Representatives from the Tangerine Bowl were in attendance to scout Troy State but came away impressed with the Volunteers’ balanced style of play.
A pair of blowout home wins followed as national buzz grew around the UT Martin program. The same Tangerine Bowl scouts who witnessed the Volunteers’ victory at Troy State officially extended the bowl game invitation to Carroll, Athletic Director James Henson and Chancellor Archie Dykes, and the bid was accepted Nov. 22. UT Martin concluded the regular season one day later with a 47-6 triumph at Austin Peay State University on a snowy Thanksgiving Day.
More than three weeks would pass before the Tangerine Bowl, but the Volunteers kept busy. The team took final exams before resuming practice and scouting a West Chester State squad with a 10-0 record, including a season-opening 14-9 win over Villanova University. Ranked fifth nationally, the Golden Rams had outscored their opponents by a 391-69 margin while boasting the nation’s top fullback scorer and an eventual NFL/AFL Draft pick at quarterback.
“We were all excited and anxious … We wanted to show West Chester how they played football in the South.”
Three days before the championship showdown, the Volunteers departed campus on a 6 a.m. bus bound for Memphis, where they then boarded a flight to Orlando. The team arrived in Florida in their blue blazers with orange trim and found a local junior high school band, majorettes and cheerleaders waiting for them. The band played “Dixie” and made the team feel right at home.
The days leading up to the Tangerine Bowl were filled with anticipation as local energy built for the showdown between UT Martin and West Chester State, which is located about 25 miles west of Philadelphia, Pa.
“We were all excited and anxious,” Capers said. “We wanted to show West Chester how they played football in the South. I grew up in Ohio, but after being around Southern football, I really got an appreciation of it. Obviously, there were a little bit of nerves too, but I think the feeling was more excitement for the great opportunity to extend our season.”
The Tangerine Bowl kicked off at 2 p.m. local time and was televised on ABC Network as the teams clashed in light showers throughout the day. UT Martin established the upper hand early in the first quarter, scoring on a two-yard touchdown run by Jim Wiggins (‘69, ‘72), his seventh rushing score of the season.
Gordon Lambert (‘73, ‘75), the game’s Defensive Most Valuable Player, extended the Volunteer lead by forcing a safety less than a minute later before a West Chester 74-yard punt return touchdown and a two-point conversion trimmed UT Martin’s lead to 9-8 early in the second quarter.
Capers then got in on the action, making one of the biggest plays of the contest. His route veered to the back left of the end zone before hauling in a 20-yard touchdown pass from Allan Cox (‘69, ‘72), one of four Floridians on the 1967 UT Martin roster to be playing in his home state.
“It was a very tight ballgame and that touchdown helped increase our lead,” Capers said. “Football is a team effort, and no one player or one play determines the outcome of the game, but that was my personal high from the ballgame. It was my fondest memory of playing football in college.”
Lambert would add another safety to give the Volunteers an 18-8 edge at the halftime break. Errol Hook (‘69, ‘73), who was making his first start of the season under center, added a four-yard touchdown
run in the fourth quarter on his way to the game’s Offensive MVP honors. Left-footed special teams ace Lee Mayo (‘68) was a perfect 3-for-3 in extra-point attempts as the swarming UT Martin defense limited
the high-powered West Chester offense to just 186 yards of total offense.
The 25-8 victory crowned UT Martin as the best small college team in the eastern half of the United States, and the headline in the next morning’s “Orlando Sentinel” newspaper read “Tangerine Bowl Proves A Tennessee Waltz.”
“Our players came out ready to play,” Carroll said. “We were the underdog, but our players were relaxed and confident. To go up against the fifth-ranked team in the nation and dominate them like that was a fitting end to a spectacular season.”
Fast forward 50 years, and the 1967 squad remains close. About a dozen players join Carroll in Florida on a weeklong golf vacation in February of each year.
“Needless to say, the stories get bigger and better every year,” Carroll says with a laugh. “It’s a great group; we have a big time.”