Once upon a time, Tennessee was very good in football

Marvin Westwestwords

Just noticed that Tennessee is a 25,000-to-1 longshot to win the 2021 football championship. Maybe that was somebody’s idea of a joke.


Sad that a young generation has no idea what the Volunteers used to be. Relatives may have handed down a Peyton Manning poster but thousands of fans have never been inside Neyland Stadium when it was rocking, when a sellout crowd was helping the Vols polish off Georgia, flail Florida or actually defeat Alabama nose to nose.

Except for the occasional senior discount, one of the few treats in being old is to stand back and listen when junior experts talk about big games. They think Tennessee football started in 1982. They never heard of Gene McEver. There is no awareness of Tennessee against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, No. 1 versus No. 2, John Majors’ down-and-out to Buddy Cruze.

Something happened in the late 1930s? Fifteen consecutive shutouts? Bob Suffridge? No clue.

Some do recall the peak of the Phillip Fulmer era, the 45-5 run. The Vol Network produced a video classic called Decade of Dominance. A big win in that hot streak was over Florida, 1998, the Al Wilson game, great linebacker performance, the Gators’ field-goal miss at the end, the massive celebration.

It was a really fine season, 13-0 and a national championship, just 23 years ago.

Because nothing of significance has happened lately and some have conceded that nothing ever will, let us recycle a few good times before they just fade away. Those who have a bit of background can rank them in importance. You can all wonder how The Stop and the Sugar Vols and the Miracle at South Bend came to be.

There was a very good game in 1985, Tennessee over Auburn in large part because ex-Vol Ken Donahue had moved from defensive coordinator at Alabama to defensive coordinator for the Volunteers. Scheming against the Tigers was a favorite subject when Donahue worked for Paul Bryant.

Auburn came into Neyland as the top team in the country. Bo Jackson was on his way to the Heisman trophy. Ah yes, old Vol safety Chris White remembers it well.

“Early in the game, Bo ran a sweep and I came up and hit him full speed. I was knocked out. A series or two after that, Bo left the game and never came back.”

Bo was pummeled by gang-tackling. He took himself out because of injury – or hurt feelings. Vol Tony Robinson threw for four touchdowns.

Tennessee 35, Alabama 28, October 16, 1982, was a very fine day. The Tide, ranked No. 2, had won 11 in a row over the Volunteers but the end was near.

Tennessee was up by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Alabama cut the deficit in half and threatened for more. It took a fourth-down interception in the end zone by Mike Terry to seal the decision.

The goal posts came down. A good time was had by all. John Ward said “Pandemonium reigns.”

As a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, Florida-Tennessee was rescheduled for Dec. 1. Both arrived with 11-1 records. Florida was ranked No. 2. Professional gamblers decided the home team was an overwhelming 18.5 points better. Tennessee won, 34-32.

The Gators were stunned, even crushed. Some wept. They thought they were going to the Rose Bowl for the national championship game. Pretty girls had held long-stemmed roses with their teeth. A couple of old friends picked up discarded flowers as souvenirs.

That was Steve Spurrier’s final game in The Swamp.

Some unusual things happened for the Vols on the way to the 1998 crown. In the opener at Syracuse, an amazing pass interference flag was dropped against the home team on a last-gasp Tennessee fourth-down incompletion. Jeff Hall’s field goal on the final play provided a 34-33 victory.

If you are past age 30, surely you know about the historic stumble and fumble that led to the Vol victory over Arkansas.

In the SEC championship game, Mississippi State took the fourth-quarter lead on an 83-yard punt return. The Vols answered with two Tee Martin touchdown passes – 28 seconds apart. A sack by Corey Terry and a fumble recovery by Eric Westmoreland were in between.

The ’85 season and the Sugar Bowl are among my favorite memories because of four unusual circumstances.

After 20 years at Alabama, Donahue switched to Tennessee because Bryant retired. Daryl Dickey, career reserve, played quarterback because Robinson was injured. Very little was expected of Chris White in his fifth season. He had never started a game.

Jeff Powell had transferred to Tennessee from William and Mary to run track. He hadn’t played football in four years. He asked if he could come out for the team. Why bother? Track coach Stan Huntsman said he’d be the fastest man on the squad. OK, but he was not listed in the media guide.

What were the odds that four such people would be major factors in a resounding 35-7 upset of the mighty Miami Hurricanes in downtown New Orleans?

Miami scored early. Thereafter, Tennessee defenders came at quarterback Vinny Testaverde from nearly everywhere, caused six turnovers, inflicted seven sacks and made five other tackles for minus yardage.

Powell provided the highlight, a 60-yard touchdown sprint that made Miami appear in slow motion. The Vols scored their final touchdown after a White interception. Dickey was named MVP.

Coach Majors, years later, had a summation sentence: “I’ve heard people say that, other than their marriage and birth of their first child, or the first Christmas they remember, that Sugar Bowl was the most exciting time of their lives.”

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *