‘The right choice’
Growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., Eckenrod attended a private high school for Catholic students. It was called Notre Dame High School.
You really can’t make this stuff up.
Mike and his older brother, Pat, were always meant to play football at the University of Tennessee — their mother was a Volunteer graduate and their father was the proud owner of season tickets on the 50-yard line at the southern institution's famed Neyland Stadium for 25 years — yet neither of them did.
Pat’s college recruitment came to a close in late 1965 with a two-way race between Kentucky and Tennessee. Alabama had also shown heavy interest but missed out on the 6-foot-4, 230-pound tackle-center by not having an architectural program.
With Charlie Bradshaw as coach and new defensive line coach Charley Pell in charge of Pat’s recruitment, Kentucky sold Pat on becoming a Wildcat.
In a day and age when the frequency of recruiting visits wasn’t capped, Pell would pick up Pat and Mike from school once a week and take them out for a hearty steak lunch, which was always better than the alternative — brown-bagging it because the high school was brand new and still lacked a cafeteria.
Later those nights, the Albertville native and Tide graduate was welcomed into the Eckenrod household for home-cooked suppers complete with fresh vegetables and all the fixin’s “a country boy from Sand Mountain” could ever ask for. Before long, Pell won over the entire family.
“It was unusual because my father was a big Tennessee fan,” Mike said. “I guess he dreamed of having his two sons play there, but they let Pat make his own decision.”
Pat invited Pell, as well as Tennessee coach Doug Dickey and assistant coach Vince Gibson, to the house the night before signing day. He told all three he would go out to eat with the representatives from the school he had decided to commit to.
So when Pat let Dickey know he was going to dine with Pell and join Kentucky, the Vols’ head coach was understandably upset, but he let his anger go a little too far.
“Dickey spent two hours telling this 17-year-old kid he was making the biggest mistake of his life,” Mike said. “That kind of cut us from Tennessee because they felt like Pat was a traitor.”
When it came time for Mike to choose a college four years later, Dickey’s terrible tantrum remained fresh on the young man's mind. With the coach still ruling the roost in Knoxville, Mike was determined to play for a program that would beat the Vols.
After losing to his heated rival 24-0 his freshman season, Mike and the Tide downed Tennessee 35-12, 17-10 and 42-21 their next three meetings.
“I picked the right place,” he said.