Even in a time of unrest, amid reports of an arrest (defensive back Bryce Thompson), a departure (wide receiver Maleik Gray) and many uncertainties, let us look on the bright side of football life.
No college celebrates the pursuit of greatness with a better touch than Tennessee.
Fans never forget. Becoming a winner in an orange shirt assures a place in history. Memorabilia is treasured. Autographed photos are priceless. Descriptions of accomplishments are actually handed down from generation to generation.
Every time old Vols gather, for reunions or golf tournaments, fans thumb through the archives. Some of the best days and greatest plays are getting a little age on them. Perhaps you have noticed that not much has happened lately.
The obvious highlight of the Phillip Fulmer era was the national championship of 1998. That was the most recent Southeastern Conference championship. We didn’t realize then how hard it is to maintain that level of play.
We have since endured a decade and more of dysfunction (a Mark Nagi chosen word). Big Orange Country has become blunderland (Mike Strange created this one). The decline and crash of Butch Jones remains painful because UT is still paying for that mistake.
At the very least, Tennessee football has been in a dreadful recession. The Vols are an unbelievable 25-55 against SEC foes since Fulmer was coach. Included in those losses are three in a row to Vanderbilt. The last time that happened was in the 1920s, before Bob Neyland.
The previous two paragraphs are for perspective only. Forget the facts if you so choose. Do fight off new depression. Let us hope Saturday is the beginning of a more cheerful era.
There is a beautiful collection of cherished times past. The 24 men in the College Football Hall of Fame are very special. Other All-Americans are a distinct group. All-SEC honors are also indelible. Of course we remember.
The Stop is forever, the great defensive play of Nov. 7, 1959, Heisman hero Billy Cannon running for a two-point conversion and the fourth-quarter lead after an LSU touchdown. Wayne Grubb, Charles Severance and Bill Majors combined for the tackle, three-quarters of an inch short of the goal. Tennessee won, 14-13. You can look it up.
Johnny Butler’s serpentine run against Alabama lives on. On the third Saturday in October, 1939, the second-team tailback, 5-10 and 162, unraveled an official 56-yarder that was at least twice that long.
Nothing like it has ever happened on Shields-Watkins Field. Butler looked like Casper in cleats, “a dancing, dodging, untacklable ghost,” as the great sportswriter Grantland Rice described him.
Perhaps you saw the Miracle at South Bend. Millions say they were there for one of the iconic games in Tennessee football history.
Nov. 9, 1991, was a cold day at Notre Dame. It felt worse when the Volunteers fell behind by three touchdowns in the first quarter. It was 31-7 as the Fighting Irish lined up for another field goal with less than a minute to play in the half. Darryl Hardy blocked the kick. Floyd Miley got the ball and ran 85 yards for a touchdown. That helped.
Tennessee played better in the second half. For some strange reason, the Irish decided to become a passing team. Eventually, the Vols got even on an Andy Kelly screen to Aaron Hayden. Freshman John Becksvoort’s extra point made it 35-34.
Notre Dame recoiled. It returned to the running game, charged down the field and was in position to win. Rob Leonard, substitute kicker replacing injured Craig Hentrich, lined up for a 27-yard field-goal on the final play.
Jeremy Lincoln overran the ball but it deflected off his posterior and veered wide right. Happy hour was next.
Irish coach Lou Holtz was not happy.
“This is the most disappointed I’ve ever been in my life.”
Vol coach John Majors was very happy.
“This may be the greatest comeback in Tennessee history.”
Lincoln had the best celebratory line: “I thanked my mom for giving me such a big behind.”
The Sugar Vols of 1985 remain a favorite team. Fans took over New Orleans after their 35-7 bowl romp over arrogant Miami. Ken Donahue’s defense shut off every Hurricane route of attack.
Tennessee defenders came at quarterback Vinny Testaverde from what seemed like everywhere and caused six turnovers, seven quarterback sacks and five tackles for lost yardage. That said, Vol quarterback Daryl Dickey was MVP.
Never to be forgotten: Gene McEver’s 98-yard opening kickoff return against Alabama in 1928; Hank Lauricella’s 75-yard run versus Texas in the 1951 Cotton Bowl; Tee Martin’s bomb to Peerless Price in the 1998 national championship game.
Condredge Holloway’s touchdown scramble at Georgia Tech in 1973 was one of my favorites. The Artful Dodger rolled out looking for an open receiver, didn’t find one and took off on one of the greatest runs in Tennessee history.
He avoided one would-be tackler behind the line of scrimmage. He dragged another for several steps. He escaped three more Yellow Jackets and broke two more tackle attempts.
Amazing, absolutely amazing.
Dewey Warren had a great one-yard run to beat UCLA in the Rosebonnet Bowl. James Wilhoit kicked a meaningful 50-yard field goal against Florida. Peyton Manning threw a first-play touchdown pass to Joey Kent to shock Alabama.
“Willie Gault is running all the way to the state capitol” was John Ward’s description of a big play against Vandy.
Bobby Majors had an unforgettable day against Penn State. Curt Watson had one in the mud between the famous hedges at Georgia.
Billy Ratliff caused Arkansas QB Clint Stoerner to stumble and fumble. Dale Jones tipped and intercepted a Mike Shula pass at point-blank range. Larry Conska never forgot Paul Naumoff’s hit in the Gator Bowl.
OK, you can count Jauan Jennings’ catch of the Hail Mary pass with no time remaining for the 34-31 victory over Georgia – even though Jennings abandoned responsibility and did his own thing.
So many magic moments, so many team gems, dozens, maybe a hundred. Want to guess when we get the next one of significance?
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks, corrections or questions. His address is email@example.com