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July 10, 2013It isn't 'Third Saturday in October.' Rather, it's just about every Monday night and is an off-the-books Tennessee tradition that's quietly collected some of the University of Tennessee's biggest legends.
The participants on this evening for two hours -- no more, no less -- of the card game Tong? They are collective witnesses of more than 150 Third Saturdays, and their leader is the incomparable Gus Manning. The Volunteers legend Manning, who as of this night needs a birthday cake with 90 candles and whose Rocky Top tenure stretches back to the days of Neyland -- yes, that Neyland, the man who hired him -- spins captivating yarns with Bill Petty, Roger Beauchene and Rob Hardin.
All are campus mainstays; Petty used to work practice security for Bowden Wyatt and then was a press box statistician who didn't miss a home game for 55 years, Beauchene remains a gameday fixture on the West Side of Neyland Stadium; and Hardin is a doctoral professor in the school's esteemed sports management program.
But no one holds court like Manning. It is effortless. It is limitless. It is Neyland and Wyatt and Woodruff and Harris and Ford and Ward. Above all, it is Manning's life.
Still Beauchene is on fire early, unable to lose at this strategic game of cards with peanut stakes the same as the genesis of this weekly tradition 50-plus years ago. Manning does not seek favorable birthday attention, but he is not conceding the evening to Beauchene, the recipient of some of Manning's good-natured colorful descriptives.
The stories, across all sports, are the treats. Manning is a man who counts five athletics directors, 11 football coaches and perhaps a baker's dozen school presidents among those with whom he shares a Tennessee history.
General Robert R. Neyland, a close friend of Manning and man who anointed him to an early publicity position within UT's athletics department seven decades ago, could hold his own at 'Bridge,' Manning explains.
"Neyland was a great 'Bridge' player," Manning casually mentions. "You hated it if you weren't his partner, because after everybody had bid the General would know where every damn card was."
General was the hard-earned title to which Neyland always answered. However, there was another nickname widespread but whispered on campus.
"They called him 'Bull,' but not to his face," Manning said.
"Because the General was so damn tough," Manning added.
Bowden Wyatt, as Petty notes, joins Bobby Dodd as two Vols and among only three men enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame as both player and coach, was the coach for which Tennessee players most appreciated playing.
"The players loved him, more than any coach that's been here," said Manning, who has had offices in Humes Hall, South Neyland Stadium, Stokely Athletics Center and currently Thompson-Boling Arena. "He was just such a great guy.
Added Petty, "He was disciplined, tough. But they loved him."
Example: Jim Tracy, who at some point earned the nickname 'The Bomb,' was a skilled ballcarrier among the best Manning ever saw. But Tracy was no fan of practice. So Wyatt bid him farewell.
Tracy didn't pick another college; instead, he logged a decade of professional football with Detroit, Pittsburgh and Washington.
"Ole Tracy was the first player to arrive here with a zoot suit and duck-tail haircut," Manning recalled. "But he didn't like to practice."
Not that Manning's reach stopped at the sidelines. He had a friend who managed a New York hotel, and that manager had a friend named Joe DiMaggio. Manning asked DiMaggio to come to Knoxville for a charity golf tournament and picked up DiMaggio at the airport when he arrived.
But longtime Manning compatriot and fellow Vols legend Haywood Harris had previously been no fan of the Yankees. When Harris changed his tune to DiMaggio, Manning called him out.
Just as Manning did in Ocala, Fla., when the Vols stayed at George Steinbrenner's Yankee Clipper Hotel for a game against the Florida Gators.
Steinbrenner was there, passing out Yankees gear to anyone at the hotel. Harris, Manning recalled, was among those first in line for the gear. Not so fast.
"I said, 'Mr. Steinbrenner, don't you give him any of that stuff,'" Manning said. "He's a damn Yankee hater!"
Beauchene is now trailing in the 'Tong' standings, as is Manning. Petty and Hardin are on the plus side of the running scoreboard, which by night's end typically includes approximately 40 hands.
Manning is asked how many United States Presidents he's met across his storied career, and before he answers, Petty uncorks the evening's best line.
"Start with George Washington," Petty blurted.
The actual list includes Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Manning knew the former Michigan footballer Ford on a fairly personal level.
"Ford was at the College Hall of Fame every year before he was President," Manning said. "And I remember saying, 'I sure hope he doesn't get elected President; I'll miss seeing him at the Hall of Fame."
Everyone laughs. Talk returns to the football field.
"I think Butch Jones is the best p.r. man we've ever had as a coach," Manning said. "He's really good.
"Dick Huffman is the toughest player I ever saw."
"I believe he's the one they said was as big as (Herman) Hickman and as tough as (Bob) Suffridge," said Hardin, whom everyone refers to as "Prof."
Manning, a veteran of the U.S. Marines who also earned a letter in baseball at Tennessee once he was deemed not a fit to run Neyland's offense as a 'T' quarterback, served with Huffman in the military.
"Huffman was a hell of a fighter, and I remember we were in the South Pacific and having a championship fight with a fighter from the Navy," Manning said. "It was a big deal. Huffman knocked him out in the first round."
When the last hand, always a double, goes to Beauchene and plans are made for next week's game, Beauchene is the evening's big winner with 13 points.
Slices of birthday cake are passed around, and everyone knows despite Beauchene's official triumph: an evening with Manning is, in the quintessential VFL's own vernacular, "a damn fine consolation prize."