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Among the number of storylines associated with today’s Georgia-Tennessee game, it’s one of the more obscure—yet a story certainly worth telling. Stetson Bennett, the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback, will play in Knoxville for the first time against a school that, for one season in 1970, prominently featured Bennett’s late grandfather, Richard (Buddy) Bennett, as a revered assistant coach.

Notably, today would have been Coach Bennett’s 84th birthday.

In 1970, Tennessee’s defensive backs coach, Buddy Bennett, Stetson Bennett’s grandfather, is surrounded by his family at their home. (Photo courtesy of 1970 Tennessee football media guide.)

A native of Jesup, Georgia, Buddy Bennett was a quarterback at South Carolina who led the Gamecocks in rushing in 1960. His football coaching career began at Waycross (Ga.) High School, followed by Georgia Tech and South Carolina in the college ranks, then Screven County (Ga.) High School, before being named as an assistant coach at East Tennessee State in 1966.

With Bennett as ETSU’s defensive backs coach in 1968, the Buccaneers set an Ohio Valley Conference record by intercepting 26 passes. A year later, with ETSU’s defensive secondary nicknamed “Bennett’s Bandits” by local media, the Buccaneers picked off a staggering 37 aerials, including three thrown by Louisiana Tech’s Terry Bradshaw in a 34-14 win over the future Pro Football Hall of Famer in the Grantland Rice Bowl for the College Division’s Mideast regional championship game.

In February of 1970, Bill Battle, Tennessee’s newly appointed head coach, rounded out his coaching staff by hiring 32-year-old Buddy Bennett. With Bennett as the Volunteers’ defensive backs coach, his position group continued its intercepting prowess while labeled with the same nickname as before at ETSU, “Bennett’s Bandits.”

“Coach Bennett had immediate success at Tennessee. It was a really special year in 1970,” said Dr. David Allen, a urologist in Athens, Georgia, who was a starting cornerback for the Volunteers that season as just a sophomore. “His philosophy was simple: when the ball is in the air, it’s either yours or theirs (the opponent’s).”

At Tennessee, Bennett instilled a concept that it was the sole responsibility of the first defensive back defending the pass to try to intercept the ball. Whereas it was always the second defensive back’s responsibility to try to make the tackle, if need be.

“We were taught by Coach Bennett to go for the ball. That was the deal,” Allen said. “And we learned this from him really working us at practice. He didn’t like to go over film. Coach Bennett would much rather have us out on the field than anything else. Often, the defensive backs would be out practicing 45 minutes before the rest of the team—and 45 minutes after the rest of the team.”

According to Allen, Bennett would finish every practice by placing wide receivers along the sideline and a defensive back on each of the two hashmarks. Bennett would then throw a pass towards the sideline, whereby one defensive back attempted to not only tip the pass—but tip it into the hands of the other defensive back.

“Every defensive back had to complete that drill. And, when one didn’t, whether he couldn’t tip the pass, or couldn’t catch the tipped ball, we all had to start over,” Allen said. “We soon realized that if we all didn’t complete that drill at practice, we’d miss supper! So, we got pretty damn good at it (laughing).”

Buddy Bennett in 1970. (Photo courtesy of 1970 Tennessee football media guide.)

In 1970, led by safety Bobby Majors’ team-leading 10 interceptions, followed by nine picks made by safety Tim Priest (Allen had a team fourth-best three interceptions), Tennessee corralled a whopping 36 errant passes in 11 regular-season games—an SEC record which will likely never be broken—as the Volunteers achieved a 10-1 record and a No. 4 finish in the AP Poll. Including 21 fumbles recovered, the 57 turnovers forced by Tennessee remains an FBS record. The Volunteers finished their campaign by defeating Air Force in the Sugar Bowl, 34-13, when they forced eight Falcon turnovers, including four interceptions.

“Although he was at Tennessee for only one season and was not the head coach or a coordinator, Coach Bennett, I believe, was similar to Georgia’s Erk Russell,” said Allen of the Bulldogs’ long-time and beloved defensive coordinator from 1964-1980. “When we get together for football reunions at Tennessee, we always tell Buddy Bennett stories.”

Beginning in 1971, Bennett was a defensive coach at Arkansas, before coaching at Virginia Tech from 1974-1978. He resumed high school coaching at Jeff Davis High School in the late 1970s before ending his coaching career at his alma mater, Wayne County (Ga.) High School (known formerly as Jesup High School). Bennett was inducted into the Wayne County Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.

In 2016, Bennett passed away at his family home in Screven, Georgia, at the age of 78. Five years after his passing, and more than 50 years following his one-season stay on Rocky Top, Coach Bennett and his “Bandits” are still distinguished in Tennessee football lore.

“He was a phenomenal, phenomenal defensive backfield coach—and a truly interesting person,” Allen said. “There was only one Buddy Bennett.”