As you applaud the return of the 1998 national champion Volunteers to Neyland Stadium on Saturday evening, give this some thought:
Tennessee hasn’t won a Southeastern Conference football title since their departure 25 years ago. Obviously, there have been no more national crowns.
Consider the damage inflicted by Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt. Consider those who chose that leadership: Mike Hamilton two, Dave Hart one and Phillip Fulmer the worst.
Don’t get bogged down on Hamilton and Hart. They were traveling salesmen who just happened to be passing through. Fulmer is a Vol for life. He played for Tennessee. He was an assistant coach for 14 seasons. He was head coach for 16. His teams won a hundred more games than they lost, 152-52-1.
He was a few other things – national spokesperson for the Jason Foundation, an educational organization aimed at preventing teenage suicide; a member of the board of directors for Alzheimer’s Tennessee; active with Boys and Girls Club, Team Focus and Child and Family Services.
He was 2003 president of the American Football Coaches Association. He was co-chair for the Ride for Prostate Cancer. He was vice-chair for Boy Scouts of America. He received the Eddie Robinson Coach of Distinction award. He and his wife contributed $1 million to the University of Tennessee to be divided between athletics and academics.
Amid tumult or crisis after John Currie was fired, Fulmer, as the new athletics director, was asked to restore order and find a football coach. He did it but the net result was a disaster. Jeremy Pruitt and his henchmen were convicted by the NCAA of flagrant cheating. That was bad enough. Worse was, while cheating, the staff produced an 11-19 record.
That Fulmer didn’t see a thing was not a ringing endorsement of his oversight.
Fulmer was much better as coach. He was a first-ballot selection to the College Football Hall of Fame.
That 1998 team had some good players. Tee Martin was the quarterback. Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry were key running backs. Peerless Price and Cedric Wilson were starting wide receivers. Cosey Coleman was leader of the offensive line.
I thought linebacker Al Wilson was the heart and soul of the team. Oh, how he hated to lose. Darwin Walker was one tough tackle. Deon Grant was a safety. Jeff Hall kicked a lot of points.
Billy Ratliff made the key play of the perfect season, one of the biggest in Tennessee football history.
The Arkansas game, Nov. 14, drippy day, seemed essentially over. Heartbreak was happening. The Razorbacks had the lead and the ball and were running out the clock. Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner was under center, second down, 1:47 left.
What was Ratliff, defensive lineman, thinking?
“I’m going to try jump the snap, get off the ball as quickly as possible and I’m going to put my hand straight on his chest and run him through the goalpost.”
That’s near enough to what happened.
Ratliff knocked all-American guard Brandon Burlsworth back onto his heels. Burlsworth stepped on Storner’s foot. The quarterback stumbled. He tried to catch himself with his right hand.
Oh my, that was the hand holding the football. On video, the fumble looks like he placed the ball on the ground.
Ratliff: “It seemed like it was there for five or six seconds.”
Ratliff recovered at the Arkansas 43 with 1:43 to go. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, Martin and Volunteer knockdown blockers responded with sensational simplicity, five handoffs and ferocious runs by Travis Henry, the last from the 1 for the winning touchdown with 28 seconds to spare, 28-24, ninth consecutive victory, really big win.
Said Fulmer: “Anybody that loves football would love that. You take the ball and run almost the same play, sometimes right, sometimes left, but basically the same play, and run it down their throat and win the game and not leave hardly any time on the clock. I love that.”
Now that is something to celebrate.
Last year’s Vols were close enough to wonder what the national playoffs would be like but the defense didn’t show up for the South Carolina game.
Alas and alas, last year’s Vols didn’t have an Al Wilson or a Travis Henry or a Billy Ratliff.
Marvin West welcomes questions or comments from readers. His address is email@example.com.
Bonus: Watch highlights of the 1998 Tennessee (8-0) vs Arkansas (8-0) game, called by the late John Ward