Tennessee football fans had an easy weekend. No hassle. No pressure. No consternation. Nothing invested, nothing to lose.
While the big boys were slugging it out, Tennessee fans had the weekend off. No pursuit of tickets; no travel problems; serious money saved, the equivalent of a month’s mortgage payment.
Back in the good old days, things were different. The Volunteers played on championship weekend. Twenty years ago, they went nose to nose with Mississippi State in Atlanta with half the whole world watching and everything, heart and soul, on the line.
Thanks to Tee Martin, Jeff Hall, Travis Henry, Peerless Price and a really, really good defense, Tennessee arrived undefeated. Along the way it created notable landmarks.
First, there was spring practice without Peyton Manning.
“I didn’t know if we were going to make a first down,” said Phillip Fulmer.
Things got better.
Fulmer said the squad “had great toughness and a great bond.”
In August, after careful calculation, the coach told the team it would go 8-4 at best.
That caused a fire drill.
Al Wilson politely asked Fulmer and assistant coaches to please leave the meeting room. The veteran linebacker wanted a little talking time, players only. It got intense.
“Look around you,” said Wilson. “You play first for the man sitting right beside you and your family second. Yes, you play for the University of Tennessee, our fans and our coaches, but ultimately, you play for each other.”
Wilson conducted the kind of prayer meeting that caused hair to stand up on the back of necks. Some got chill bumps. He supposedly knocked over a chair or two. The football team didn’t know what might happen next. The tone was very serious. I’ve always believed that was when the idea of a championship was conceived.
The landmark of early September was the yellow flag. Without the pass interference penalty at Syracuse, there would have been no Hall kick to win.
Al Wilson Night occurred in mid-September. Three times he separated the football from Florida Gators. He took away a touchdown on the first possession. He refused to allow the Vols to lose. Indeed, they won in overtime.
Could be you have forgotten what happened in that extra period. The Gators sacked Martin and it was suddenly third-and-23. Martin got back 14 on a scramble – to put the ball in Hall’s range.
Florida missed its field-goal try. Instead of saying the kick was no good, John Ward said, “No-sir-eee, no-sir-eee.”
After that he said, “Final score, Tennessee 20, Florida 17. Pandemonium reigns.”
I thought that was a good choice of words.
Florida coach Steve Spurrier threw down his visor and jumped on it with both feet. Tennessee fans stormed the field and tore down goalposts. The band played “Rocky Top” an extra 14 times. Blind optimists in orange started believing an impossible dream might come true.
There was a great goal-line stand at Auburn. Martin was sacked and fumbled a few inches from the Tennessee goal. The Tigers recovered. On four consecutive plays, they surged toward a touchdown. Raynoch Thompson made the fourth-down tackle at the 2. Tennessee won by eight.
The Vols were underdogs at Georgia but Martin, when it really mattered, threw two second-half touchdown passes.
Tennessee was ahead 14-3 when Alabama rallied, scored and thought it had seized momentum. Price answered – with a 100-yard kickoff return.
Of course you remember the leading landmark, the miracle, the stumble and fumble by Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner, the Billy Ratliff recovery and the five fierce runs by Travis Henry for the 43 yards that kept alive the perfect season.
The Southeastern Conference championship weekend of 20 years ago was understated, long lost in the shadows of the national title game that followed.
The Vols trailed Mississippi State in the fourth quarter until Martin hit Price with the go-ahead TD pass to make it 17-14.
On the Bulldogs’ next play, Wilson forced a fumble. Eric Westmoreland recovered. That set up the knockout punch, a 26-yard Tee TD strike.
Fulmer said he’d never had a player who hit as hard as Al Wilson. Al wrapped up the historic event with an interception.
Tennessee fans are far removed from SEC championship weekends. We now watch the giants joust on TV. Most of us will be seated by the fireside for the bowl season. Hopefully, some will remember how football used to be in Tennessee.
Marvin West invites readers’ reactions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org