Editor’s note: Dave Hooker covered the 1998 Vols. Our special series — “Undefeated. Unexpected. Unforgettable.” — celebrated the 20th anniversary of the their 1998 national championship season.
They could have lost three or four games. Instead, they never lost at all. Credit their bond, their talent and yes, some good fortune. They were the perfect team at the perfect time. In their words, this is how they did it.
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Chapter 1: I picked the wrong year to stop being a fan
I walked out of the Orange Bowl that night determined that I’d never be a fan of any school moving forward, even my alma mater that I had cheered for throughout my entire life.
I had no qualms with Tennessee, even after the Vols had just gotten hammered by Nebraska 42-17, ending Peyton Manning’s career. My decision wasn’t emotional. I wasn’t some sort of scorned fan who swore off his team forever. I had made the professional decision to remove fandom from any team I would be potentially covering — and I was pretty sure I’d be covering UT or another SEC team.
My girlfriend didn’t believe I could suddenly stop being the rabid fan who threw things at the television, yelled to the heavens and suffered through a mini-depression if the Vols lost. She also probably didn’t believe I’d marry her. She was wrong on both accounts.
I felt I owed it to fans of any team I eventually covered to provide an objective view of their program.
So after the game, I retired my Vols fandom and headed into the South Beach nightlife intent on being unbiased forever more.
Man, that was some terrible timing.
You might recall, just a few short months later, Tennessee won every game it played in 1998 and captured its first national title in 47 years. Every game I attended was from the press box. I traded my ticket for a media credential. That was a far different experience from being in the student section, where I had been seated until I graduated from UT following the 1998 spring semester.
Even through my unbiased view, I felt the same way leading up to the 1998 Tennessee-Florida game that I had felt for most of the 1990s. The Vols had a shot, especially at home, because they had comparable talent to the No. 2-ranked Gators.
That game will always go down as one of the most amazing I have seen. The Gators outplayed the Vols except for a few key plays, yet UT won on Jeff Hall’s field goal. John Ward said, “Pandemonium Reigns” as the fans rushed the field. There are still pieces of Neyland Stadium’s goal posts throughout Tennessee.
The first person I saw on the sideline after the Florida game was UT defensive back Steve Johnson, who later sealed the national title with an interception against Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl National Championship Game. Johnson was a fellow communications major, so we knew each other from taking classes together. He immediately gave me a huge hug as if I had done something. I’ll never forget the elation on his face.
After that Week 2 victory, it seemed as if Knoxville held its collective breath for the rest of the season. After all, the Vols had beaten Florida, so they controlled their fate. But the Vols had lost so much from 1997, including Manning, could they really run the table and win every game?
The Vols needed a stout defense to beat Auburn on the road. Then the Vols dominated a very good Georgia team. According to then-head coach Phillip Fulmer, that was a turning point. The Vols beat the Bulldogs thoroughly after losing star tailback Jamal Lewis to knee injury against the Tigers.
Even with the Lewis’ injury, it seemed the path had been laid for the Vols. UT was favored in its next three games, against Alabama, South Carolina and UAB. They won those games handily.
Tennessee had long been known to have a pretty easy ride in November with Kentucky and Vanderbilt on the schedule each season. However, 1998 was different. Arkansas also dreamed of a national title and could have achieved it if not for a fumble late in the game by quarterback Clint Stoerner. The Vols escaped with a win. According to every player I’ve spoken to, that was when they truly believed they were destined to be national champions.
I met Stoerner in Fayetteville years later. I told him he was an incredibly popular man in Knoxville. That didn’t go over well. Stoerner had no response and made sure to ignore me for the rest of evening. I have a habit of not using a filter far too often. That was one of those instances.
Things fell right for the Vols after they beat Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game. The Vols needed some upsets in other games around the nation. They got them. That opened the door for UT to play Florida State in the national title game. That was a great Seminole team, but injuries forced them to play third-string quarterback Marcus Outzen, instead of Chris Weinke. Outzen was woefully outmanned against UT’s defense.
Some call that 1998 national title team the luckiest national championship team in college football history. Maybe it was. Maybe it was just fortunate and really good. I tend to think the latter. I’ll let you decide as we look back all week on Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team 20 years later.
Chapter 2: 13 key moments for 13-0
Tennessee’s 13-0 season in 1998 is full of memories that will last a lifetime. The program’s first national championship run in 47 years had plenty of twists and turns, but good fortune always seemed to be on the Vols’ side.
Here are the 13 most memorable moments that helped the Vols to a perfect record and the first Bowl Championship Series national title:
13. Believe in Tee: In Year 1 After Peyton, the Vols were considered a power-running team that relied on play-action passes and an occasional run by quarterback Tee Martin because, well, that’s exactly what they were. However, Martin proved he could do more in UT’s seventh game against South Carolina. Martin set an NCAA record with 24 consecutive passes completed. Martin finished the Alabama game with a completion the week before he completed 23 consecutive passes against the Gamecocks. Martin proved himself as an efficient passer that day. The Vols certainly needed that later.
12. Shaun Ellis’ marathon return: Defensive end Shaun Ellis was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week in UT’s fourth game of the 1998 season. Ellis intercepted a shovel pass and rambled 90 yards for a touchdown. That would be key for the Vols in a 17-9 victory at Auburn. Perhaps foreshadowing another big play, fellow defensive lineman Billy Ratliff led the way for Ellis but Ratliffe couldn’t find anyone to block. Ratliff and his teammates were a convoy of Vols into the end zone. It was an early sign that the Vols were a hustling, hard-working team.
11. The Stand: The Vols refused to relent when Auburn reached the 1-yard line and were threatening to close the gap. UT stopped the Tigers four consecutive times inside the 1-yard-line. The goal line stand was capped by a tackle by linebacker Raynoch Thompson on fourth down. Auburn only managed three field goals against the Vols. Auburn’s final play, a pass into triple coverage, was knocked down in the end zone.
10. Jamal goes long: Jamal Lewis ran for 67 yards and a touchdown on his first carry of the Auburn game. It was a run that showcased Lewis’ speed and put the Vols in a position to lean on the run and force the Tigers to score against UT’s stout defense. It might have been conservative, but it worked. The Vols beat Auburn 17-9.
9. Running over Georgia: The Vols had every reason to doubt themselves after Lewis was lost for the season with a knee injury in the Auburn game. Lewis was the cornerstone of UT’s running attack — or so we thought. Travis Stephens rushed for 107 yards and Travis Henry ran for 53 yards as the Vols hammered No. 7 Georgia 22-3 in Athens.
8. The Call: The Vols had all they could handle in the season opener against No. 17 Syracuse. UT trailed Cuse 33-31 late in the game. It appeared Donovan McNabb and Syracuse had won the game when Martin’s pass to Cedrick Wilson fell incomplete on 4th-and-7. Then, a flag flew in. Syracuse cornerback Will Allen was called for pass interference, which gave the Vols a first down. Jeff Hall attempted the winning kick just seconds later. More on that in a moment.
“The official did a great job,” former UT head coach and current athletic director Phillip Fulmer said. “It ended up a big play but there were a lot of plays that we made and didn’t make in that game. It’s always easy to point to one. The official did a great job. Then we took it from there.”
7. Bryson busts one: Shawn Bryson would have been a starting tailback on most any team in the nation. However, he agreed to play fullback since the Vols already had Lewis, Henry and Stephens at tailback. Still, Bryson had the ability to run the ball. He showed that on a 57-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against Florida on a simple fullback dive. The play symbolized the selflessness and overall talent that the Vols would be remembered for. How many times does a fullback break a 57-yard run against one of the nation’s best defenses? How many players would take a smaller role to help their team?
“I think Shawn Bryson probably epitomizes that team as much as anybody,” Fulmer said. “He was a tailback and moved to fullback willingly.”
6. Tee to Peerless Part I: This would become a recurring theme. Martin and receiver Peerless Price hooked up for a 29-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter against the Gators. It was a high floating pass that looked as if it might soar through the back of the end zone. The touchdown put the Vols up 17-10. This wouldn’t be the last time Martin and Price would hook up downfield.
5. Jeff Hall goes back-to-back: If not for kicker Jeff Hall’s right foot, the Vols could have lost their first two games. That would have eliminated any chance at a national title and probably an SEC title. Hall, however, came through with a 27-yard field goal to help beat Syracuse 34-33 and a 41-yard field goal against Florida to help beat the Gators 20-17. Hall’s clutch kicking was key for a team that would be in more than its fair share of close games.
4. Fourteen in the Fourth: Tennessee’s SEC and National Championship hopes were on the ropes in Atlanta. The Vols trailed Mississippi State 14-10 before Martin threw two touchdown passes in 32 seconds in the fourth quarter. The first was a 41-yard strike to Price. The second was a 26-yard pass to Wilson after a State fumble. Thanks to losses by the nation’s other two undefeated teams, UCLA and Kansas State, the Vols were assured a chance to win a national title.
3. The Interception: Dwayne Goodrich helped set the tone with a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown against Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, which was the site of the National Championship Game. The score put the Vols up 14-0 and let their defense rule the day. Florida State was hampered by having to play back-up quarterback Marcus Outzen, who struggled throughout the day.
“I stuck my hands out and it just kind of stuck to my hands,” Goodrich said. “It was a lot of good preparation. We kind of knew that play was coming from film study.”
2. Tee to Peerless Part II and III: Price overshadowed Florida State star receiver Peter Warrick in the Fiesta Bowl. Price caught a pass for 76 yards that set up the Vols’ first touchdown. Martin found Price again for a 79-yard touchdown pass that put the Vols up 20-9. Price ended up with 199 receiving yards. The Vols won the national title with a 23-16 win over the Seminoles and finished the season undefeated.
“It was amazing the chemistry they had. No question,” Fulmer said. “That was a big part of our year. … It all started and stopped with the ability to throw the play-action pass to Peerless.”
1. The Fumble and The Drive: Tennessee’s national title hopes were in serious doubt when they trailed undefeated Arkansas 24-10 in the third quarter of their Game 9 showdown. Arkansas, ranked No. 10, seemed as if it was putting the game away in the fourth quarter. The Razorbacks led 24-22 and were driving with 1:47 left. One first down would end the game.
Then the unbelievable happened. Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner tripped over a lineman as he was rolling out. In an odd-looking play, Stoerner seemed to place the ball on the ground as he tried to balance himself. Tennessee’s Billy Ratliff recovered.
“The only thing that saved us was a miracle,” UT guard Cosey Coleman told the New York Times after the game. “That’s the only way to explain it because we pretty much had lost the game. It was definitely a miracle that happened. It was nothing we did. It was just something that happened.”
Goodrich, in a recent interview with SDS, said the defense knew what it had to do.
“We knew as a defense, when we gave our offense the ball back, it was over with,” Goodrich said. “When we got that fumble, it broke their spirit.”
After taking over at the Hogs’ 43-yard line, the Vols wouldn’t be denied. Henry ran the ball five consecutive times. The final run resulted in a touchdown and an eventual 28-24 win over the Razorbacks.
According to many players and coaches on the 1998 team, that was the sequence of events that made them believe they were destined to be national champions.
Chapter 3: Cutcliffe: ‘Fall camp was a little frightening’
Fans and media always want more access to their favorite college football teams. What are the coaches really thinking? How is the team performing in practice? That type of access to Tennessee’s offense would have been rather uninspiring before the 1998 season.
UT’s offense had to be rebuilt following the 1997 season. The entire philosophy of the offense that had thrived for 3-plus years under Peyton Manning had to be reworked. Manning was gone, as was the tendency for coaches to throw the ball more aggressively with him at the helm. The Vols had to morph into something different on offense.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” former UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said during a recent interview to discuss the magical run to the national championship. “One of the things that we became, we became physical. That 1998 team could run power. We defined that starting in the spring. I think we played a role in our defense becoming maybe the best defense in the country because we went right at them. They beat us and beat us up badly.
“That spring I started to wonder if we’d ever make a first down, but we did not back off.”
Tee Martin was tabbed to replace Manning in 1998. Martin admitted that he lacked the consistency his coaches were looking for in spring practice. It couldn’t have been a fun time.
“As a competitor, you just want to be good, period,” Martin said. “You want to win at everything.”
That wasn’t happening for Martin or UT’s offense as they struggled in the offseason in spring practice and summer workouts. Fortunately, Tennessee’s coaches adapted to Martin’s strengths instead of simply running the offense that Manning had mastered.
“Obviously, the whole key of it was what was Tee Martin going to be able to really do,” former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “We found a way to make it happen.”
UT’s coaches decided to lean on some old tricks. They built their offense as it had been under former quarterback Heath Shuler. Like Martin, Shuler was known for his mobility and strong arm. In order to take advantage of Martin’s talents, the Vols started exploring ways to move the pocket and ran more naked bootlegs and waggles.
“We used some of those plays and systems to fit Tee,” Fulmer said. “Tee was more like Heath than he was Peyton — for sure early.”
Martin wasn’t the only concern on UT’s offense headed into the 1998 season. Fulmer said the Vols had to make adjustments on the offensive line, figure out how to handle the rotation of a talented group of tailbacks and replace two receivers that were selected in the NFL Draft. It wasn’t an easy challenge.
“Fall camp was a little frightening,” Cutcliffe said. “I wasn’t sure we were ready to go to Syracuse and be successful offensively against a good Syracuse football team. We had already made a commitment to our offensive line and our backs. We lived with it.”
UT’s offense also lived with daily beatdowns in practice. The Vols’ defense never took it easy on their offensive counterparts just because they played on the same team. Former UT linebacker Al Wilson (below) chuckled when he was asked about the offense’s struggles heading into the 1998 season.
“It was tough for the offense. I’ll say that,” Wilson said. “We had one of the best defenses in the country so we didn’t make it easy on them. We took it very seriously to go out and compete with them because at the end of the day, if they can move the ball on us, they can move the ball on anybody in the country. That’s the way we felt.
“It wasn’t about going out and taking it easy. It was about going out and competing and making these guys play football on the other side. They had some damn good football players over there. If we can make it tough on them in practice, then it should be alot easier for them on Saturday.”
Martin had waited too long behind Manning to wilt. He relished the opportunity to face UT’s defense in practice. It was the ultimate test.
“There wasn’t a defense that we faced that season that from top to bottom could play man, could play zone, could pressure you, could stop the run, could take away your best wideouts in the passing game,” Martin said. “I thought (defensive coordinator) John Chavis did a really good job of positioning the talent on our defense to be successful for his scheme. … I really feel thought that defense was intelligent and talented and that’s what made them what they were.”
That mindset was brought on by the former leaders UT had, such as Manning and defensive end Leonard Little among others. Hard work was the only way the Vols could overcome the many personnel losses from the previous season. Hard work? The 1998 Vols were used to that from previous seasons.
“There were a lot of lessons learned by our players about commitment to football and work ethic,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve told Peyton and those guys that they had a lot to do with that national championship. No doubt in my mind.”
Fulmer, Cutcliffe and UT’s offensive coaching staff also deserve plenty of credit. Their adjustments put aside those profound offseason concerns.
Chapter 4: Tee Martin wasn’t Peyton. That was perfectly fine
Tee Martin had plenty of reasons to choose Tennessee after a fantastic career at Williamson High School in Mobile, Ala. However, there was one big reason not to sign with the Vols.
Let’s start with the positives. By choosing UT over Notre Dame and Auburn, Martin would be playing for a bona fide winning program with some of the best tradition in the nation. He also would get to learn from offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who was quickly being considered as one of the best offensive minds in the country. Those are all pretty positive reasons to become a Vol.
However, there was one really big reason not to choose Tennessee. That reason was Peyton Manning.
Choosing UT meant Martin would be sitting behind Manning for at least one season and possibly two if Manning didn’t enter the NFL Draft following his junior season in 1996. Martin was not afraid — even after Manning shocked the college football world with his decision to return for his senior season in 1997.
“That was part of the whole respect that he earned,” former UT coach Phillip Fulmer said of Martin. “He could have easily made some noise. I think everyone was somewhat surprised that Peyton stayed in school and passed on being the first pick (in the NFL Draft). He wanted to enjoy another year, which we were fortunate and it was great that he did.
“Tee had to bite the bullet and he did. He was not a guy that complained at all. He knew he would get his opportunities. Instead of three years, he had two really great years. It was hard for him I’m sure.”
Not too hard. Sure, like any competitor, Martin would have liked to play more. But instead of complaining in 1997, he continued with the approach that led him to Knoxville, to face off against an elite signal caller.
“The reason why I chose to come (to UT) was to compete with who at the time I felt was the best college quarterback,” Martin said of Manning. “I could have gone other places and started as a true freshman and who knows that would have been like. When I found out how good (Manning) was, I said, ‘Man, how could you prove yourself to be one of the better ones if you don’t compete against the best one everyday?’
“I didn’t know if I would sit for one year or two years. It ended up being two years, but I was OK with that. It was just a competitive challenge for me to show and prove to the coaching staff and my teammates that I belong.”
When Manning finally left following the 1997 season, it was Martin’s turn to lead UT’s offense. While some other players might have tried to live up Manning’s legacy or even surpass it, Martin didn’t view the transition that way.
“It wasn’t a personal vendetta,” Martin said. “I wanted to go against the best defense in the SEC (in practice at UT) and actually perform well against them. I wanted to show (receiver) Peerless Price, the receiving corps, (running back) Jamal Lewis and the offensive line that I could make the checks at the line of scrimmage, I could get us in the right play, I can take care of the football and get the ball in the end zone. Those are things that I focused on. It never really motivated me to fill the shoes of Peyton.”
Martin never had to fight for his teammates’ respect. It was always there. However, his coaches’ confidence was another matter. Martin admitted that he grew frustrated at times when his coaches scaled back the offense in 1998. The move made sense. Martin was a first-year starter, the Vols were a power-running football team in 1998 and could lean on a stout defense and consistent special teams play. Yet Martin believed he could do more.
The Vols knew early they had to rely on running the football, some occasional play-action passes and Martin’s ability to extend plays with his running ability, which was a trait that Manning never had. Cutcliffe will always be known for his work with the Mannings: Peyton and Eli. Both are likely NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl victories. However, the way Cutcliffe handled the transition to Martin was masterful.
“We had a relationship where he allowed me to be myself,” Martin said of Cutcliffe. “Filling the shoes of Peyton before me, you can’t replace or try to emulate that. You have to go in and be yourself. Those are the conversations that we had going into the season. It was about being a consistent performer.”
Fate forced UT’s hand a bit after running back Jamal Lewis was knocked out for the season with a knee injury in the Auburn game. The Vols, then 4-0, couldn’t continue to be so simplistic in the passing game without Lewis on the field.
The Vols faced No. 7 Georgia the following week, in Athens. Martin completed 16-of-22 for 156 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also ran for 107 yards. Martin and UT’s passing offense was a growing, more efficient threat as the season rolled on.
“After the Georgia game, we became a more complete passing team,” Fulmer said.
That became obvious when the Vols faced South Carolina on Halloween. Martin’s accuracy was at an all-time high when he set an NCAA record with 24 consecutive completions. Martin finished the Alabama game with a completion the week before he completed 23 consecutive passes against the Gamecocks. The Vols won easily 49-14.
As Martin’s efficiency grew, his explosiveness never waned. He was always a threat to run the football and his connection to Price resulted in several downfield touchdowns.
“Big plays to receivers along with that run game made a huge difference,” Cutcliffe said.
Those deep passes from Martin seemed to crop up just when the Vols needed them. There was the 29-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter against the Gators. Trailing Mississippi State 14-10 in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game, Martin threw two touchdown passes in 32 seconds in the fourth quarter to take the lead. The first was a 41-yard strike to Price. The second was a 26-yard pass to Cedrick Wilson after a State fumble. And no Tennessee fan can forget the 76-yard touchdown pass to Price that put the Vols up 20-9 in the Fiesta Bowl against Florida State. That play practically sealed a national title for the Vols.
Martin was never in the hunt for Heisman Trophy like Manning, nor was Martin ever considered to be the first overall pick in the NFL Draft like Manning. That was one of the keys to the 1998 season: Martin never tried to be like Manning.
In the process, Martin took the Vols to heights Manning couldn’t.
Chapter 5: Al Wilson, Vols’ heart, soul … enforcer
Al Wilson was known for his leadership in 1998. It was born in 1997.
The Vols were trailing Auburn 20-10 at halftime of the SEC Championship Game in 1997 when Wilson decided, despite the fact that he was a junior, he needed to step up.
“He became Al Wilson that you know as the leader in the locker room against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game in 1997,” former UT safety Fred White said recently as he looked back on the 20th anniversary of UT’s national championship season. “For all the guys on the team, we already saw that leadership skill that he had. That night, it was like a changing of the guard.”
The previous regime of Vol leadership was headed by quarterback Peyton Manning and defensive end Leonard Little. It was formidable, but it wasn’t Wilson.
“They were leaders,” White said of Manning and Little. “However, that night the leaders needed to be quiet and shut up and let a young guy like Al step in and say ‘Man, this is it.’ He gave us the business that night. … What he said, everybody stopped to listen because all you had seen is that guy work his butt off. That was the right time for him to become the leader and show you he was the leader. When he did, you had to listen because he had never really said anything.”
Wilson wasn’t afraid to call out Manning or Little that night. He also wasn’t afraid to reminisce on the halftime fireworks. Wilson recently said that it seemed no one was excited to take the field in the second half as the Vols usually were. That wasn’t acceptable.
“Nobody was really standing up and saying anything,” Wilson said. “Me being a guy that is emotional and passionate about the game of football, I had never won a championship at anything before in my life. Maybe at the YMCA at basketball when I was like 7 or 8 years old, but other than that I had never won a championship before. That was the closest I had ever been to becoming a winner and becoming a champion.
“I just felt like if anytime is going to be the right time to stand up and say something, now is the time. I challenged Leonard. I challenged Peyton. I challenged everybody on the team to go out in the second half and let’s turn this thing around and see what happens. We’ll let the chips fall where they may, but we’ve got to go out and play better football in the second half. Everybody has to do their job. … I just told him and Leonard, ‘You guys are our leaders. Lead us.’ I remember specifically calling those two guys out. It was that simple.”
The fiery, simple approach worked. UT outscored Auburn 20-9 in the second half to notch a 30-29 win and the Vols’ first SEC Championship since 1990.
White remembers when he caught Wilson’s ire. White held up to make sure not to hit a ball carrier as he was headed toward the sideline. Wilson didn’t like that.
“He grabbed me by the back of my jersey and pulled me all the way to the sideline because he went by me,” White said. “He said to me, ‘If I ever pass you again going to a ball, we’re going to fight right here on this football field.”
White, who was known as a tough, hard-hitting safety, had no desire to tangle with Wilson.
“I know one thing about him,” White said of the prospects of fighting Wilson. “He’s going to give it everything he has. He’s going to fight to the end. He’s going to go 100-percent all out. He’s not going give up. That’s not a guy I want to fight.”
Wilson’s leadership continued little more than a month later when the Vols returned from Tempe, Ariz. The Vols were hammered by Nebraska 42-17 in the Fiesta Bowl. Wilson wasn’t happy about that and knew that the Vols needed to squeeze every ounce of effort out of the 1998 team in the offseason. After all, UT was replacing eight NFL Draft picks, including Manning and two other first-rounders.
“We come back and he’s the first guy in the weight room,” White said. “Not only is he the first guy, but he’s on the phone calling guys, ‘Get your butt over here. Let’s go.’”
Wilson’s leadership style evolved. He learned that screaming at every teammate wasn’t the only way to lead.
“I started to see and understand what leadership was really all about, how to approach the leadership role, and one thing that really stood out to me that I learned over the years was the ability to lead each player individually,” Wilson said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all type of thing.”
Tennessee’s coaching staff saw Wilson’s leadership ability and felt it was important to encourage it in order to reach their full potential in 1998. Whenever leadership was brought up in team meetings, Wilson felt head coach Phillip Fulmer’s message was meant for one man.
“He was speaking to me indirectly and I took exactly what he was saying to heart,” Wilson said. “I felt like coach was counting on me to be that one missing piece that we needed as a team, to stand up when players weren’t feeling quite like they wanted to practice that day or guys didn’t feel like they wanted to workout that day.
“You always have to have that one guy that’s not only going to try to push you along but is going to lead you by example. That was the challenge I took from what Phillip told me in one of those early meetings.”
Said White, “You saw how hard he worked and he waited his turn to be the leader. You saw that leadership ability he had every day in practice. He went to work, kept his head down and when the older guys spoke, he listened and he paid attention. Then he relayed the message to the other guys.”
In 2009, the toughest guy in UT cleats faced a much more challenging than anything he had seen on the football field when his son, Carrington Wilson, was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was 15.
“I’ve been blessed to have an amazing son,” Wilson said. “Going through the cancer thing was tougher than anything I’ve ever experienced. It was tougher than going against any fullback, any offensive lineman, playing any team. It was the toughest thing I could ever be a part of. Just to see him fight through that, push through it and not complain and just do it, whatever it takes to make it through.
“It was an eye-opening experience for me. It was motivating for me. It made me have more of an appreciation for life and understand exactly what my role is in this world.”
Carrington overcame cancer and graduated from Triveca University, where he still plays baseball. He’s pursuing his masters degree.
“He’s an amazing kid,” Wilson said. “I couldn’t ask for a better child. I’m just happy that I have him in my life.”
There are countless Vols that could say the same about the elder Wilson’s presence in their lives. Without him, UT’s national title run would have likely never taken place.
Chapter 6: Jeff Hall saves Vols, twice
Tennessee’s expectations ahead of the 1998 season were different than they had been in quite sometime. Peyton Manning had departed for the NFL and the reins were handed to a junior from Mobile named Tee Martin. While the Vols managed to claim their first SEC crown since 1990 during the previous season, things were returning to form. Florida — a team Tennessee hadn’t beaten in five consecutive years — was the favorite in the East and Tennessee was ranked No. 10 team in both major preseason polls.
Kicker Jeff Hall, who kick-started Tennessee’s unexpected run to the national title, remembers the modest outlook.
“That (season) was particularly exciting because the expectations were somewhat low for us,” Hall said during an interview this summer about that magical fall. “I think the fans and the coaching staff probably didn’t expect what we were able to accomplish that year.”
Few knew it at the time, but Tennessee showed what kind of team it would become in the season opener, when they traveled to Syracuse to take on Donovan McNabb and the 17th-ranked Orangemen in the air condition-less Carrier Dome.
“Syracuse was really, really good,” Hall said. “You had, arguably, the greatest quarterback to ever play in the Big East in Donovan McNabb, and they had a number of guys who were great players. They were way too good for us to look past them.”
Tennessee led for most of the game, but Syracuse answered every time the Vols tried pulling away. With Tennessee ahead 31-27, Syracuse embarked on two scoring drives that ended in a pair of field goals to take a 33-31 lead with just under three minutes left in the game.
Tennessee’s final drive began at its own 17-yard line — with first-time starter Tee Martin directing it. The drive looked to have stalled at the Tennessee 33-yard line when Martin’s 4th-and-7 pass to Cedric Wilson was broken up. A pass interference call breathed new life into the Vols — and virtually sucked the life out of the Carrier Dome.
Martin quickly hit Peerless Price, Jamal Lewis followed with a big run. The Vols worked their way to the Syracuse 15-yard line. Just four seconds remained. That’s when Hall, a senior who still holds Tennessee’s career scoring record, nailed a 27-yard game winning field goal to complete the come-from-behind win on the road.
“To go into that environment, well out of the Southeast, and go up North and be able to come away with a win was so needed,” Hall said. “The first game is always important, but because it was Syracuse and because they had so many good players and was at their place, you can’t not have a lot of confidence going into the second game of the season, which was Florida.”
An impressive, tone-setting win, for sure. But there was one thing standing in the way of Tennessee going from good to great, and that was Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators.
Tennessee hadn’t beaten Florida since 1992, though they had come close. In 1995, at Gainesville, Manning and Co. used an immaculate first half to take a commanding 30-14 lead before Florida stormed back, scoring 48 consecutive points to win 62-37 en route to an undefeated regular season. In 1996, Florida watched a 35-0 lead nearly slip away in a downpour, as Manning’s comeback attempt fell short in a 35-29 decision.
Even with all of the accolades Manning achieved, the one blemish on his record was his inability to beat Florida. Had they managed to beat them in 1995, it would have been Tennessee — not the Gators — playing Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl for a shot at a national title. In short, beating Florida mattered. That’s why there was plenty of hype surrounding yet another top-10 showdown between the two programs under the lights at Neyland Stadium on that mid-September night in 1998.
“We knew the history, we knew what it was,” Hall said. “It was not just another game because it was Florida and the winner of that game, typically, had been in the driver’s seat to get to the SEC Championship Game.”
The circumstances were no different. Florida was ranked No. 2 in the country, while Tennessee was up to No. 6. Much like the Syracuse game, neither team could find enough separation throughout the game.
Unlike previous meetings, offensive fireworks were few and far between. Tennessee took a 17-10 lead on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Martin to Price in the third quarter. Florida responded with a 70-yard strike from Jesse Palmer to Travis McGriff on 3rd-and-long.
For the first time in either school’s history, the game headed into overtime deadlocked at 17. Tennessee again wasn’t able to find the end zone in OT. It took a Martin scramble on third down just to get back into field goal range. For the second week in a row, the Vols’ fate rested on Hall’s right foot.
Hall’s no-doubt, 41-yard field goal gave Tennessee a 20-17 lead. Now, it was up to the Vols’ vaunted defense to win the game.
After Palmer misfired on first down, Wilson blitzed and hit Palmer, forcing another errant toss on second down. After Spurrier changed quarterbacks, Doug Johnson’s pass fell incomplete on third down.
Collins Cooper, who connected earlier from 21 yards, came onto the field with hopes of tying it.
“I had no idea what was about to happen,” Hall said. “After I made the field goal, I went to the sideline and relaxed. Cooper comes out and I’m thinking, ‘He’s going to make this kick and we’re going to into a second overtime.'”
Cooper’s 32-yard kick from the right hash mark sailed wide left. In the press box, the Vol Network’s play-by-play icon John Ward was making his now-famous call of “NO SIR-EE! … NO SIR-EE! Pandemonium reigns!”
Meanwhile, a collective sigh of relief filled the humid air along with the fireworks just across the Tennessee River. The goal posts came crashing down as a sea of orange and white covered the field where 5 years of frustration had just been lifted. As Ward said from his perch high above the chaos, pandemonium truly reigned.
“He (Cooper) was on the opposite hash away from us,” Hall said. “You couldn’t really see the flight of the ball. We were watching the fans, who began standing up and cheering and then you see the officials signal that it’s ‘no good.’ It happened so quickly that it was just surreal.”
Beating Florida was certainly a milestone, but it didn’t ease Tennessee’s path to the promised land. They needed a a goal-line stand to beat Auburn, a Clint Stoerner fumble in the waning minutes against Arkansas, and a second-half surge to beat Mississippi State in Atlanta to play and beat No. 2 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl for the program’s sixth national title.
“As the season unfolded, we could just tell it was a special season,” Hall said. “We all cared about each other. We all knew we were accountable for our jobs. I’ve always said since then that ‘great teams always win close ball games.’ Considering the overtime win, the fourth-quarter win against Syracuse, and obviously the Arkansas game. It was a special year for a lot of reasons.”
— By Noah Taylor
Chapter 7: Miracle vs. Arkansas
The game was essentially over, as were Tennessee’s national championship hopes. Oh well, it was a great run.
The Vols won eight consecutive games to start the 1998 season before they hosted Arkansas. They’d risen to No. 1. A UT win would mean the Vols’ national title hopes would stay alive. An Arkansas loss would end the Vols’ dreams for a title but keep hope alive for the Razorbacks, who were surprisingly also in the national title hunt. That’s where things were headed as Arkansas’ quarterback Clint Stoerner lined up under center on second down with just 1:47 left on the clock. Arkansas needed 12 yards for the first down, but that wasn’t even necessary.
If Arkansas could just run the clock and punt the ball deep, they’d likely upset the top-ranked Vols in Neyland Stadium. As UT’s defense tried to hold on, quarterback Tee Martin and UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe were devising a drive in which they’d have very little time left — if they got the ball back at all. Turns out, that conversation was all for naught thanks to Billy Ratliff.
“I’m going to try jump the snap, get off the ball as quick as possible and I’m going to put my hand straight on his chest and run him through the goalpost,” Ratliff said recently when asked what he remembered about the play that would most define UT’s national championship season. “Sure enough, it happened. I pushed Brandon back. He was on his heels and I was like, ‘I’m not going to stop pushing.'”
Brandon was Brandon Burlsworth, an All-American offensive guard who began his career at Arkansas as a walk-on and was known for his thick, black glasses. Until that point in the game, he had his way with the Vols, including Ratliff.
“He whipped my butt that whole game,” Ratliff said.
Except for one play.
Ratliff’s explosive push into the backfield caused Burlsworth to step on Stoerner’s foot. Stoerner tried to balance himself with right hand. There was only one problem. That hand was holding the football. Stoerner lost his grip as he seemingly laid the ball on the ground.
“All of the sudden I looked down and I see the ball on the ground,” Ratliff said. “I promise you that ball seemed like it was there for 5 or 6 seconds.”
Ratliff pounced on the ball. Suddenly, the Vols had the ball in Arkansas territory with time to mount a more conventional drive. The play was unpredictable, right? Not exactly.
Anyone within earshot of Ratliff just moments before heard him call his shot. UT linebacker Al Wilson witnessed his teammate’s proclamation to Martin on the sideline.
“Billy Ratliff was right next to me,” Wilson said. “Tee came off the field and Billy told him, ‘Hey man, don’t put your helmet away. We’re going to get the ball back.’”
It was the offense’s turn after Ratliff proved prophetic. UT took over at the Hogs’ 43-yard line with just 1:43 left. All Martin had to do was hand the ball off to running back Travis Henry. Cutcliffe called on Henry five consecutive times. The final carry was a 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds left and an eventual 28-24 win.
It was an interesting set of play calls for Cutcliffe, who is widely considered a quarterback and passing game guru. Surely, UT head coach Phillip Fulmer called the shots given his background. Fulmer was a former offensive lineman who loved running the football. One of Fulmer’s favorite phrases was “Pound the Rock,” as in run the football until the other team breaks. Cutcliffe decided to do just that.
“That defined the Tennessee offense that year,” Cutcliffe said. “Phillip was saying ‘We’ve got to throw it. We’ve got to throw it.’ I said ‘No, we’re going to run it every down’ and we ran the football right down their throat.”
Said Fulmer, “Anybody that loves football would love that. You take the ball and drive it 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 don’t leave hardly any time on the clock. I love that, whether it’s as (a former) lineman or just a person that likes sports. You like to see those kinds of things happen in sports. It was a legendary drive for sure.
* * * * *
One of the most unusual aspects of the Arkansas fumble is that Ratliff shouldn’t have been in the game at all. Ratliff replaced fellow defensive lineman Jeff Coleman, who was suffering from cramps on the sideline when Ratliffe made history.
“I tell people all the time that if I was still in the game when that happened, we probably would have lost because I just didn’t have it in the tank right then,” Coleman said. “Billy was great. He had fresh legs and blew up the play.”
Ratliff and Coleman were suite mates, so they knew each other well off the field. Coleman had seen the suffering Ratliff had been through. During his UT career, Ratliff suffered a severe neck injury, two torn knee ligaments and serious shin splints. Yet Ratliff kept fighting through his injuries to help his teammates.
“If Billy Ratliff is still out here playing, whatever injury I have, it can’t be that bad,” Coleman said. “He inspires people. He keeps getting knocked down and coming back.”
Considering the medical issues, an NFL career wasn’t likely in the works. Ratliff continued playing football for the love of the game. When relatively healthy, Ratliff showed he had elite talent. Coleman recalled seeing Ratliff, who was over 300 pounds, dunk a basketball with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“He was freak athlete. He definitely was,” Coleman said. “That’s one of those that I would have loved to have seen his career if he had not been injured. He was already something special, but it would have been something else had he not gone through the injuries he did.”
* * * * *
The Arkansas win did more than preserve the Vols’ perfect record. It made them believe they could win a title and instilled fear of the possibility of coming up short.
“After the Arkansas game, we knew that was our moment,” former UT cornerback Dwayne Goodrich said.
Said Martin, “It was really good for us as a team to win in the fashion we won. I really felt like that game built character in our team because for the first time, we felt the feeling of defeat and that was a feeling we didn’t want to have anymore.”
That wouldn’t be the case. The Vols finished the regular season by blasting Kentucky 59-21 and Vanderbilt 41-0. There was no overlooking those two foes like the Vols might have done against Arkansas.
“It was one of those games where we always thought we were going to win,” Ratliff said. “We always beat those guys. We had never had a problem with anybody in the SEC but Florida. … They (Arkansas) did a good job of game-planning on us. They were winning the whole game, really. We didn’t really get a chance until the end of the game.”
It’s no surprise that Wilson, who was on the sideline with a torn groin, was leading the charge to get the ball back late in the game.
“I remember Al on the sideline screaming at us and telling us, ‘We can’t lose to Arkansas,’” Ratliff said.
Good fortune was certainly on the Vols’ side against Arkansas. It was odd that Arkansas’ coach Houston Nutt didn’t just run the football instead of calling a bootleg that allowed Ratliff to make his historic play.
“I’m not sure what coach Nutt was thinking about,” Ratliff said.
Some called the Vols lucky after the Arkansas game. After all, UT needed a pass interference penalty to beat Syracuse and were outgained by Florida but still beat the Gators. Now, a careless fumble? Safety Fred White didn’t see it that way.
“He didn’t do it on his own,” White said of Stoerner’s fumble. “He was made to do it. Billy Ratliff hit the lineman and he stepped back on his foot. That was a caused fumble. He didn’t just lay the ball on the ground. You can say that if you weren’t a part of it and you didn’t see what I saw. … Billy Ratliff had every opportunity to give up during that game because that kid was giving him the business, the entire game.”
Ratliff saw both luck and destiny in the play that would make him a Tennessee football folk hero.
“History happened,” he said. “We got the ball back. It was a crazy play. Every national championship team that ever played college football has to have a little luck sometime. That was one of those plays that had to happen. It was meant to be.”
* * * * *
While Ratliff’s NFL future was never a realistic option because of his myriad injuries, Burlsworth had an incredibly bright future ahead of him. The offensive guard had been named an All-American and a two-time All-SEC First Team player. He was drafted in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft to protect — oddly enough — former Vol quarterback Peyton Manning. Tragically, that never happened. Burlsworth was killed in a car accident less than two weeks after he was drafted.
That has to be the bittersweet part for Ratliff. Among UT fans, his name is synonymous with the Arkansas fumble and what it meant to UT’s 1998 season. However, every time he thinks of the fumble, it’s hard not to think of Burlsworth.
“When I heard Brandon passed away, it hit home,” Ratliff said. “It was a tough situation. Especially knowing the kid was getting ready to go on to the next chapter of his life and getting to the point where he was trying to help his family. It was tough.
“A mother losing a child at that young age, it was tough. I can’t imagine losing a child at that age. I think about it all the time. I have a son right now that just turned 22. He’s in college at Georgia Southern. I think about that all the time.”
Ratliff and Burlsworth will always be linked by the Arkansas fumble. It’s hard not to imagine what might have been had Burlsworth not passed away when he was 22. It’s hard not to imagine what kind of player Ratliff would have been had he not been injured so often. It’s very possible the two would have had many more epic battles in the NFL. Fate intervened.
“You can’t control it,” Ratliff said. “When it’s your time, it’s your time. The Good Lord doesn’t make things happen without a reason. To this day, I still think if he would have fulfilled (his career), we’d be talking All-Pro and Hall of Fame Brandon Burlsworth right now.”
* * * * * * *
Chapter 8: Defying expectations — even Fulmer’s
Tennessee had fallen short with Peyton Manning. Now he was gone. Even their head coach wasn’t sure what to expect in 1998. The Vols could finish 7-4 or 6-5, Phillip Fulmer warned them. Motivated, The Replacements authored the perfect response.
Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team took part in some of the most iconic games in UT’s storied history. The games were just part of the story. The journey started much earlier.
The Vols’ final two games of the 1997 season set the tone for the Vols’ run at perfection the following year. It began with the birth of a leader at halftime of the SEC Championship Game as the Vols faced getting upset by Auburn.
“I remember us not playing our best football in the first half. I do remember that very vividly,” linebacker Al Wilson said recently. “I remember going into the locker room at halftime and the vibe just wasn’t the vibe we normally had at halftime.”
The Vols didn’t seem excited for the second half. Wilson’s fiery speech helped spark a frantic comeback that secured an SEC title for the first time since 1990.
“Once you win one, you want to continue winning them,” Wilson said. “It fueled the fire. It was the fuel that we put on that fire for that 1998 season. Even though we lost so many great players going into the ’98 season, we still knew that we had a helluva football team. We still had some players that could really play and some of the best players in the country.”
Those players didn’t play like the best players in the Orange Bowl. With a possible national title at stake for Nebraska, the Cornhuskers hammered the Vols 42-17. That was more fuel for the fire leading into 1998.
“Let’s be completely honest,” Wilson said, “Nebraska just kicked our butt hands down. They manhandled us. … That particular game showed us that we had some work to do. In the offseason, we needed to get bigger. We needed to get stronger. We needed to work harder. We needed to be more in tune to what our jobs are. And we needed to hold each other accountable.
“That’s kind of the approach we took into the 1998 season. Everybody do their job because if you don’t, we will hold you accountable. We’re going to call you out if you’re not doing it. That was the beautiful thing about the ’98 team. You didn’t have to worry about the coaches getting on players for not doing their jobs. It was going to be your teammates that were going to let you know.
“Do your damn job and that’s it. Don’t try to do to much. Do your job and we’ll go from there. That was our approach. That’s the love I have for that ’98 team because it was strictly business.”
With a new leader in place and the sting of the Orange Bowl humiliation still resonating, the table was set for one of the most unlikely national title runs in college football history.
-- Fred White, safety
The list of players lost from the 1997 team is astounding. The Vols had eight players drafted by the NFL following the 1997 season, including Peyton Manning, who was the first overall pick. The Vols also lost cornerback Terry Fair and receiver Marcus Nash, who also went in the first round. That was just the beginning.
Defensive linemen Leonard Little and Jonathan Brown were selected in the third round. Offensive lineman Trey Teague and receiver Andy McCullough were selected in the second round.
The Vols were ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP Poll, but there was no reason to believe they could accomplish more than reach the SEC Championship Game again in 1998. That was a reasonable goal considering all of the losses. Winning an SEC title seemed a bit lofty. Competing for a national championship wasn’t even in the conversation — except for those in Tennessee’s locker room.
“We weren’t really expected to do that much,” former UT coach Phillip Fulmer said last month. “It was fun to watch them come together in spring practice. We were having our struggles offensively, but we were a good kicking team and a good defensive team, so we had a chance. As we continued to develop our passing game offensively, the defense kind of carried the load. … They were selfless and hard workers.”
Building a passing game was indeed a struggle. The Vols had to change philosophies completely. Manning had the ability to break down a defense. In essence, he was a coach on the field. His replacement, Tee Martin, was a strong-armed quarterback with the ability to extend plays with his running ability.
“I didn’t think we could be what we were with Peyton and I was right,” former UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. “I just didn’t see that as a remote possibility, but I couldn’t put my finger on what we had to do to be special. I think our players helped guide us in that direction, but I had a lot of concerns offensively as we were moving forward.”
Said Fulmer, “We couldn’t make a first down in spring practice. It was rough. One, our defense was very good. Two, we just couldn’t find that consistency (on offense).”
No one needed to tell UT’s defensive players that the offense was struggling. The topic came up in a defensive meeting shortly after spring practice.
“We were talking about how we were going to have to play better than the offense every game simply because we had a new quarterback,” Wilson said. “When you lose Peyton Manning, I don’t give a damn who you put in after that, it’s not going to be at that level at that point.
“Tee Martin did a helluva job running the offense and making plays, but he wasn’t Peyton Manning. We knew we were going to have to go out and make plays on our side of the ball.”
Wilson and his teammates only knew one thing to do with the deck stacked against them. Work, work some more and work hard. The season was pressing upon them and the doubters were aplenty.
“Coming into that year, there were a lot of red flags,” safety Fred White said. “There were a lot of things said about us as a team, that we couldn’t get it done without Peyton and we couldn’t get it done without those guys. It was a slap in our face because we had been chomping at the bit waiting on our chance to get an opportunity to show what we could do. … No one expected us to win. It was an us against the world mentality.
“It was like we were the replacements. We had all this superstar power the year before, but what they failed to realize is we worked just as hard. We just hadn’t had a chance to play. Back then, Tennessee stockpiled recruits. We were just like Alabama today. We had a group of guys that could step in and start for most teams in the country. We felt disrespected so we banded together as a team. That camaraderie and that chemistry was what helped through all of that.”
-- Al Wilson, linebacker
The Vols headed into summer workouts determined to raise their game to another level. Manning had famously instituted “voluntary” offseason workouts at during his career because the NCAA doesn’t allow offseason workouts to be mandatory. However, if you wanted to play in the fall, working out in the summer was absolutely mandatory.
The 1998 team took Manning’s vision to another level. The Vols didn’t just hold summer workouts. They held summer practices.
“We were having full blown practices with no pads,” White said. “And we were going hard. When we got to practice in the summer, that (preseason) camp was a breeze. Football season? That was a breeze because we practiced so dog gone hard. We demanded perfection.”
Perfection meant more than just working out. The Vols had the option to work out in the afternoon or early in the morning. In truth, there was no option.
“If we saw you working out later in the afternoon, we knew you weren’t committed,” White said. “You’re not here with the rest of the team working out in the early morning?”
That philosophy bled into preseason camp. Team leaders would go to UT’s coaches and tell them who wasn’t practicing hard.
“We all wanted to work hard for our position and we did,” White said. “It made us better as football players. It made us closer as teammates and our chemistry was so much different because we saw the hard work everyone put in. If you didn’t put in the hard work, we did not want you on our football field. I’ve got a lot of teammates that I love to death and I would never say their names, but some of those guys didn’t work hard. That’s why some of those guys didn’t play.
“On our team, if you didn’t work hard in practice, you weren’t playing — plain and simple. We made sure the coaches knew ‘That guy should not be on the football field. I do not want him on our football field because he’s not working hard in practice. I see his work ethic and I don’t need that on the football field because we need to fight tooth and nail for every inch.’ That’s what won us a championship.”
* * * * *
Despite the boulder the Vols carried on their shoulder, Fulmer thought it might be time for some extra oomph just before the season. He openly challenged his team during UT’s annual preseason senior meeting. Twenty years later, defensive tackle Jeff Coleman remembers what Fulmer told the Vols in that meeting.
“I’m looking around and I don’t know if we’re going to be 7-4 or 6-5,” Coleman said, recalling what Fulmer relayed. “When he said it, everybody in the room just looked at each other like, he can’t be serious. … We felt disrespected. We had something to prove. We already had something to prove, but that just really lit a fire under everybody.
“That’s the thing I remember most about that year. That’s what kind of started it for me. He says he did it as a motivational tool. I think he believed it.”
Said Fulmer, “That meeting, I remember, was about leadership. We had lost a lot of leadership. … I told them all and pointed out a few of them. This is a team you’ve got to make into what it’s going to be. This is what we will be if you don’t. It was great actually because they responded in a super way.”
Wilson and his teammates listened, but they didn’t buy into Fulmer’s doomsday scenario.
“I don’t think anybody in that room believed we would win (just) seven or eight games,” Wilson said. “I think we knew we would win more than that, but that was Phillip’s way of challenging us.”
Fortune smiles on Vols, from the opening kick
Of course, no one was aware of the Vols’ mindset at the time. The Vols were ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press Preseason Poll. Finishing 10th would have been an accomplishment with an opening road trip to No. 17 Syracuse and a daunting SEC schedule ahead. However, the bond and chemistry that developed during all of that offseason work had the Vols shooting for much more when the season started. The first test came immediately.
Syracuse had one of its best teams in years, led by future NFL star quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Vols also found the Syracuse’s homefield a bit inhospitable. Perhaps because of all the intense offseason conditioning, cramping was an issue even in the first half of the Carrier Dome.
“It always amazes me that the largest air conditioning company is Carrier,” said Randy Sanders, who coached running backs to begin the season. “Then you go to the Carrier Dome and it’s not air conditioned.”
UT trailed Syracuse 33-31 late in the game. It appeared Syracuse had won when Martin’s pass to Cedrick Wilson fell incomplete on 4th-and-7. Then, a flag flew in. Syracuse cornerback Will Allen was called for pass interference, which gave the Vols a first down.
“I remember when it happened I thought it was pass interference,” said Sanders, who was standing nearby on the sideline. “My biggest concern — was the official going to call that on fourth down on the road? Obviously it was the right call, but officials are human. It takes courage to make the right call on fourth down on the road.”
With a second life, the Vols drove to the 10-yard line. Kicker Jeff Hall kicked a 27-yard field goal as time expired to steal a victory, 34-33. One down. Twelve to go.
The Vols hosted No. 2 Florida after a bye week. It seemed likely the Gators would win. Florida, rather famously and boisterously, had beaten UT five consecutive times, the latter four largely against Manning.
“There for a while, it seemed like even when had the better team for a few years, Florida still had our number,” Sanders said.
Not this time. The Vols’ defense made sure of that.
“Going into that game, we already knew it wasn’t going to be a super high scoring game,” Wilson said. “They didn’t have a super explosive offense … but we knew that Florida had a helluva defense. We knew that defensively it was going to come down to us on our side of the ball to win that football game.
“After losing to them for three straight years (in my career), we were just determined not to lose. It was that simple. It was one of those mindsets that we’re not going to lose four in a row.”
Wilson was right. Steve Spurrier’s Gators outgained the Vols 396-235 yards, but the Gators had five turnovers. Wilson forced three fumbles, which is a school record. Fullback Shawn Bryson scored on a 57-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The Vols also scored on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Martin to receiver Peerless Price.
The game was hard fought before Hall nailed a 41-yard field goal to help beat the Gators 20-17 after Florida kicker Collins Cooper’s field goal attempt sailed wide left in overtime.
The Vols were 2-0. They had survived cramps in the Carrier Dome, a pass that initially looked incomplete and the dreaded Gators. The Vols had every goal left to play for and it looked like it the next time they took the field.
The Vols hammered Houston 42-7 the following week before returning to SEC play. Auburn was next — a rematch of the SEC Championship Game.
Still struggling to find more offensive production, UT’s defense ruled the day on The Plains. Defensive lineman Sean Ellis was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week thanks, in part, to a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown. Jamal Lewis ran for a 67 yards and a touchdown on his first carry. The Vols also turned in a key goal line stand with Wilson, who was injured, cheering on his teammates from the sideline.
“Being a leader, I had to stay in tune to the football game, so when the defense is on the field, I was looking at the opposing offense, looking at formations, looking at motions and trying to figure this is what they’re trying to do to us,” Wilson said. “So when the guys came back to the sideline, it’s like having another coach on the field with you.”
The Vols beat Auburn 17-9, but it was far from a perfect day. Lewis suffered a season-ending knee injury. Lewis had been the focal point of a UT offense that was still trying to find its identity. His loss wouldn’t be easy to overcome. A date at No. 7 Georgia was seven days away.
The Vols responded incredibly well without Lewis. Travis Stephens rushed for 107 yards and Travis Henry ran for 53 yards as UT beat Georgia 22-3 in Athens.
“We were a huge underdog,” Fulmer said. “At that time we were still undefeated and an underdog. That shocked us. They were a good team but certainly a team we had beaten at home the year before pretty good. I think our guys got pretty pumped up to play. It was a pivotal game for us. … We beat them a lot worse than the score was. I do know that.”
The Georgia win infused the Vols with confidence. They could win without Lewis and the passing game was more than just screens and an occasional deep pass. Beating the Bulldogs as soundly as they did was also personal for several Vols as many key UT players hailed from Georgia, such as White, offensive lineman Cosey Coleman and safety Deon Grant. Beating Georgia handily was a midseason bonus for the players from the Peach Tree State.
The remainder of the schedule seemed beatable. There were plenty of big-name programs but was was playing at a high level — at the Vols’ level — except a surprisingly formidable foe that was lurking later in the season.
As odd as it might seem now, the Vols cruised past Alabama, as they were used to. UT beat the Tide 35-18 to notch its fourth consecutive win over its rival.
The offense had found its stride.
-- Tee Martin, quarterback
The Vols then crushed South Carolina 49-14 and UAB 37-13. They were 8-0 — already exceeding Fulmer’s preseason skepticism. They climbed to No. 1 in the AP Poll — the first time since 1956. The road seemed paved to the SEC Championship Game.
Tennessee showed a maturity in that run of games since Georgia that no one would have expected with a team that lost so many leaders from the previous year. The Vols were better than the teams they played and showed it. UT didn’t need a key pass interference call, a rash of opposing turnovers or a goal line stand to beat Bama, South Carolina and UAB. They just needed to play like they had practiced in the long offseason leading up to the 1998 season. However, there was one major hurdle to overcome and it would determine the Vols’ fate.
Stoerner’s fumble the ‘Miracle’ that saves Vols
As surprising as UT’s 1998 season was, Arkansas’ was nearly as stunning. Like the Vols, the Razorbacks were undefeated and hoping for a shot at an SEC and national title. The two teams were set for an epic matchup at Neyland Stadium. The game certainly lived up its billing.
Tennessee trailed Arkansas 24-10 in the third quarter. The Razorbacks, ranked No. 10, seemed as though they were putting the game away in the fourth quarter. They led 24-22 and were driving. One first down would end the game. That’s when an unlikely event happened and hero appeared.
“A miracle,” Coleman told reporters after the game.
Defensive tackle Billy Ratliff decided he’d take things into his own hands. He famously told Martin to keep his helmet handy because UT’s defense would get the ball back. Ratliff, who admittedly had been beaten throughout the game by Arkansas All-American offensive guard Brandon Burlsworth, decided to jump the snap, risk jumping offsides and just try to make a play.
“I stuck my arm straight in his chest and was going to try to drive him into the goalpost,” Ratliff said.
Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner was pressured when Ratliff drove Burlsworth into Stoerner, causing him to stumble. Stoerner seemingly placed the ball on the ground as he tried to balance himself. Ratliff jumped on the loose ball, giving Tennessee an unexpected opportunity.
After taking over at the Hogs’ 43-yard line with just 1:43 left, the Vols wouldn’t be denied. Henry ran the ball five consecutive times. The final run resulted in a 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds left and an eventual 28-24 win.
According to many players and coaches on the 1998 team, that sequence events made them believe they were destined to be national champions. The Vols had tasted what it was like to lose even in a win. They didn’t like that taste.
The Vols blew by Kentucky 59-21 then hammered Vanderbilt 41-0. Next up was a shot at winning UT’s second consecutive SEC title. All the Vols had to do was beat No. 23 Mississippi State. That proved more difficult than many expected.
The final steps to perfection … and an unexpected curveball
The Vols trailed Mississippi State 14-10 before Martin threw two touchdown passes in 32 seconds in the fourth quarter. The first was a 41-yard strike to Price. The second was a 26-yard pass to Wilson after a State fumble. It was a sign of how far UT’s offense had come.
The Vols could still run the ball, but Martin, who is now the offensive coordinator at Southern California, was now considered a threat in the passing game. He never doubted he could do it. Cutcliffe, however, thought it best to keep the reins tight on the passing game, especially early in the season.
“I wasn’t concerned as a player, but now that I’m a coach I understand,” Martin said. “Then you’re a player, you don’t always think the coaches know how good you are. They have to think of the repercussions of calling plays whereas when you’re a player, you know you can do these things. For me, I had to talk to people. I had frustrating moments during that year where I knew I could do more, but I wasn’t getting the opportunity to do more.”
Now the Vols could do more on offense and the biggest stage was yet to come. The Vols entered the SEC title ranked No. 1 in the major polls and — most important — in the all-new BCS ranking. Thanks to losses by the nation’s other two undefeated teams, UCLA and Kansas State, the Vols were assured a chance to win a national title. They would face Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
However, they had another challenge to endure before heading West.
-- David Cutcliffe, on leaving before the title game
Cutcliffe had interviewed with Ole Miss and was expected to leave to become the Rebels’ head coach. Once he was officially offered the job, the question was when would Cutcliffe leave. Ole Miss asked him to coach in the Independence Bowl against Texas Tech. Cutcliffe knew he couldn’t be in both places at once, so he decided to leave UT and take on the Ole Miss challenge. Cutcliffe, who is now the head coach at Duke, had coached at UT since 1982. The emotions were strong.
“I cried in front of that team,” Cutcliffe said recalling telling his players. “I cried at home, literally cried. I grieved.”
Cutcliffe said there were two reasons he agreed to leave immediately for Ole Miss. First, he felt confident in Sanders as UT’s offensive coordinator. Second, Cutcliffe felt confident in his team.
“There was no way on God’s green Earth they weren’t going to win that game,” Cutcliffe said. “I never had a concern.”
Most of the sports world didn’t agree with Cutcliffe. Most predicted a Florida State victory despite the fact that the Seminoles had to play their third-string quarterback, Marcus Outzen, due to injuries to starter Chris Weinke and backup Jared Jones.
Florida State’s best offensive threat was receiver Peter Warrick, who also starred as a punt returner. Goodrich knew what he had to do. He made it clear to defensive backs coach Kevin Ramsey.
“I told coach Ramsey I wanted Peter Warrick wherever he went the whole game,” Goodrich said.
The strategy worked. Goodrich and the Vols contained Warrick. More important, Goodrich jumped one of Warrick’s routes and returned an Outzen interception 54 yards for a touchdown.
“I knew he couldn’t run by me,” Goodrich said. “He wasn’t faster than me, so I wasn’t worried about him blowing by me.”
That put the Vols in control. However, they’d need one more big play to secure UT’s first national title in 47 years.
A go route into history
“I’ll never forget that play call,” said Sanders, who is now the head coach at East Tennessee State. “It was ’69 Go.’ Florida State had a huge tendency. They either played Cover 2 or they played man-to-man on those situations. It was a route that was good versus either of those coverages. We felt good about Peerless. Peerless had a great game for us. He kind of got hot. Tee had a lot of confidence in it. One of the things Tee did very well was throw the deep ball.”
Price hauled in a 79-yard touchdown pass that gave the Vols a 20-9 lead midway through the fourth quarter. That was all UT’s defense would need. Florida State tacked on a late touchdown, but the perfect Vols stayed perfect, 23-16.
“The SEC titles were good; the national championship was a feeling that I never could have imagined,” Wilson said. “That national title puts you as the creme de la creme. You are the number uno in college football. … That’s a feeling that’s indescribable.”
And it was all born out of the hard work that began a year earlier and the chemistry that resulted in a dedication to being a team.
“Nobody expected that ’98 team to be that special,” Wilson said. “That’s why I believe we were so much closer as a team simply because nobody gave us a chance. That just motivated guys to go out and want to play hard and compete for each other and show the world that we’re a lot better than you think we are. That’s what stood out to me, how close we were as a team, the way we hung together off the field, the way we held each other accountable when guys weren’t doing their job.
“The way we policed ourselves other as a team. Coaches didn’t have to worry about us off the field. We did it ourselves. If a guy is out (expletive) up, you pull him to the side and let him know we need everybody doing their role and doing their part.”
That wasn’t a problem for the Vols in 1998. That attitude proved to be championship worthy.
* * * * * * *
Chapter 9: Like those rings? Thank the punter … says punter
You probably remember Dwayne Goodrich’s 54-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl. Surely, Tee Martin’s 79-yard touchdown pass to Peerless Price is emblazoned in your mind. However, there is one play you might have forgotten and it might have been just as vital to securing Tennessee’s first national title in 47 years. Former Tennessee punter David Leaverton hasn’t forgotten it.
With 6:07 left in the second quarter, the Vols lined up at their own 31-yard line to punt on 4th-and-22 as they held onto a tenuous 14-6 lead. Leaverton thought he had dodged a bullet when Florida State’s Reggie Burden lined up to return a punt instead of superstar Peter Warrick, who was getting a break after playing receiver on the previous series. Then an offsides penalty changed everything. After the short break, Warrick took Burden’s place.
“I was like, ‘Ah crap,’” Leaverton said.
With adrenaline flowing, Leaverton outkicked his coverage. It looked as if Warrick would make him pay. Warrick weaved through UT’s usually solid punt coverage team in the middle of the field. That meant Leaverton had no sideline to help him. Warrick even had a blocker ahead.
For some reason, perhaps disrespecting a punter, the blocker ran past Leaverton. There was one man between Warrick and the end zone: Leaverton.
“I just kind of ran at him and lowered the boom and, by God, I got him,” Leaverton said. “I was kind of surprised. I think if we did it 10 more times, he would have scored 10 more times. It mattered when I got him.”
The momentum swing that Warrick’s punt return could have caused had been avoided. The Vols would hold on to beat Florida State 23-16.
“To be a part of one of the key plays … I’ll make sure I remind my friends at the 20-year reunion that they’re wearing a ring because I stopped Peter Warrick,” Leaverton joked. “There were other people involved in the game, I know, but I won’t diminish my importance. Twenty years later it gets even greater.”
After his UT career was complete, Leaverton was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the fifth round of the 2001 NFL Draft. Leaverton never could quite stick with an NFL team as he bounced from the Jaguars, to the Jets, Patriots, Redskins, Rams and Buccaneers.
“I spent more time in what I would call ‘in between teams’ as opposed to on teams, which is a nice way of saying unemployed,” Leaverton said.
Leaverton kept punting back in Knoxville, hoping for another shot at the NFL. At some point, he decided that practicing his craft didn’t completely fill his days. So instead of playing video games, he decided to volunteer for a political campaign. He chose to support Lamar Alexander’s bid to become a United States Senator. There was a Tennessee connection that helped Leaverton climb the ladder quickly. Alexander was formerly the President of the University of Tennessee.
Leaverton’s future seemed set. He had great connections at an early age. He was handsome, affable and well spoken. He seemed destined to be a lifelong politician. There was just one problem. When he got to Washington, D.C., and worked in various roles, he saw an underbelly of government that made him uneasy.
“Really through that process, I began to see the dysfunctional nature of our federal government,” Leaverton said. “It was really discouraging for me because I went into it bright eyed and optimistic.”
Leaverton managed to stomach the political realm for six years before deciding it was time to go. He returned to Texas to enter the private sector and start a family. Then, the 2016 campaign unfolded. Leaverton had that uneasy feeling again.
“It was so visceral and so ugly,” Leaverton recalled. “I just saw our country devolving in such a horrible position, I said, ‘I want to do something about it. What I’m seeing before my eyes is heartbreaking. I’m seeing Americans attack each other in the streets.'”
That’s when Leaverton made a drastic decision.
Leaverton and his wife sold their house, quit their jobs and decided to tour all 50 states in a recreational vehicle with their three children, who were 7, 5, and 3. With 420 square feet, calling it cramped would be an understatement. Leaverton’s goal was to gain perspective from learning about the perspective of others.
Leaverton and his wife started a non-profit organization called Undivided Nation. The focus was on reconciliation and unity.
“We had no clue what was dividing people so we had to get outside our bubble,” Leaverton said.
Leaverton isn’t trying to raise awareness on the issue of divisiveness just yet. He said he’s trying to listen and learn before he shares whatever message he decides needs to be delivered.
“Before you speak, you need to listen,” Leaverton said. “That’s really what this year is for us, to listen and to learn. I think the worst thing is to go out and act like you’ve got all of the ideas, so we don’t really have a lot of ideas, but we’ve been transformed by what we’ve learned and what we’ve seen. There are people across our country whose lives are so different than our own. Their experiences are different. We’ve uncovered a history that we didn’t know existed.”
Leaverton has covered 31 states halfway through his year-long journey. From town to town, he visits with people about their view of America. One of the most profound conversations occurred when he reached out to an 85-year-old African-American man in Savannah, Ga. The spoke for a few minutes before the tone changed.
“The only white people around here in Savannah who will even talk to me are guilty liberals,” Leaverton recalled the man saying. “I thought that was interesting. He said ‘Even if I had time to talk to you David, I don’t think I would. It’s hard to be reconciled with someone that has a boot on your neck.’”
That conversation made Leaverton feel insensitive. Leaverton realized America needed to address why some people feel oppressed before it’s time to discuss reconciliation and unity.
Leaverton blames social media as part of the problem. While we’re connected, each person’s message is tailor made for each individual, not the entire population.
“My social media feed, because of these algorithms, tell me exactly what I want to hear,” Leaverton said. “They tickle my ears. People in my neighborhood often look and think and act allot like I do. The media sources that I consume are things that tell me what I already believe and confirm those things. We rarely get a chance to see life through someone else’s eyes and see their perspective. I know my perspective. I don’t need anymore of that. I’ve got that pretty well.”
Leaverton said he doesn’t plan to reenter politics after his journey, saying that would feel “futile.” He said he hopes to educate Americans about the humanity that exists even in their enemies.
“What I’m going to do with this after this year, I’ve got no clue,” Leaverton said. “We’ll be homeless and unemployed, but we’ve got a really nice RV and we can settle down wherever we want to. I really don’t know that the future holds.”
The future will surely hold one thing for Leaverton, tales of his favorite play as a Vol.
“To this day, this punter that you’re talking to is not known for punting but for tackling and that’s fine,” Leaverton said.
Leaverton even found an opportunity to tell his favorite story during his recent tour. It took place when he met a couple in Alaska. The man was wearing a Florida State hat. The woman had donned a Tennessee cap.
“I went in and told them that I was involved in making his day sad and her day happy,” Leaverton said of that memorable day in Jan. 4, 1999.
The Vols will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1998 National Championship team during the weekend of the Florida game. Among the throng of RV’s housing fans to see the game, one will be manned by a tackling machine.
Chapter 10: ‘I got my brother back’
Dwayne Goodrich was determined to change his legacy. He just needed some help from his friends. Turns out, a friend needed the same.
The former Tennessee cornerback served six years in prison following a traffic accident in which he was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and failure to render aid in the deaths of two men. By his own choice, once in prison, Goodrich disappeared.
“It was tough because we tried to set up a thing to go see him and visit him and he said ‘no,’” former UT safety Fred White said. “I remember him saying ‘I don’t want you all to come see me because when you all leave I have to stay.’ He didn’t need that emotional situation.
“I’m not going to lie. That hurt. That’s a brother. You want to be there for your brother and we couldn’t. You know the person. You know the man he is.”
Goodrich had been convicted following a 2003 incident in Dallas in which two men he hit were killed while trying to rescue a man from a burning car. Even while accepting all blame, the burden was incredible to bear. However, Goodrich chose to do so on his own. Other than his closest family members, no one could contact Goodrich directly. All correspondence went through his mother.
“For me, I had to mature mentally and understand how to deal with that first before I had guys reach out to me,” Goodrich said. “I pushed a lot of people away, just until I understood what I was going through. I had to understand how to forgive myself first. … I was embarrassed. I didn’t really know how to deal with the negative attention.”
Goodrich was released from the Wallace Unit of the Texas Correctional System in Colorado City, Texas in 2011. He decided to reach out to his fellow defensive back. Willing to cover his back White helped out his former teammate.
“I was so happy to have him back,” White said. “It was amazing. My boys are my family. That was my brother. I got my brother back.”
The two shared a one-bedroom apartment in Knoxville. Goodrich slept on the couch until they could find something more suitable. Goodrich came back to Knoxville with a purpose. He was determined to finish his degree. As he rearranged his life on White’s couch, Goodrich knew he had support.
“My entire Vol family, they’ve always been there — even for me getting back to school and finishing up,” Goodrich said. “Those guys were 110-percent supportive of my journey, the good and the bad, over the last 20 years.”
Goodrich wasn’t the only former Vol in that one-bedroom apartment who was thinking about the future. His determination rubbed off.
“If he had not come back to Knoxville, I don’t know if I would have gone back to school. I had given up on the notion of going back,” White said. “People say I helped Dwayne. I didn’t help Dwayne. We helped each other. He lit a fire under me and changed my thought process.”
Goodrich and White graduated from UT following the spring semester in 2014. The two were joined by former teammate Jermaine Copeland in the commencement.
“That right there was one of the best feelings ever,” White said. “I got a chance to walk across that stage 13 years from when I could have with two of my brothers.
“That was amazing.”
Chapter 11: Where are they now?
It’s no surprise that several Tennessee football players from the 1998 national championship team went onto the NFL after their college careers were done. There was too much talent for the NFL to ignore.
However, the NFL only lasts so long. Here is a look back on most of UT’s 1998 starters and where they are now:
QB: Tee Martin
1998: Martin stepped into former UT quarterback Peyton Manning’s position and handled it quite well. With a strong arm and the ability to run the football, Martin turned in key plays that would help the Vols to their perfect record.
After: Martin is currently the offensive coordinator at Southern California. Martin was considered for at least two coaching positions in which he could have returned to UT, but the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement.
LT: Chad Clifton
1998: Clifton was in charge of protecting Martin’s blindside on passing plays and helping the Vols’ dominant running game.
After: Clifton went from protecting Martin in college to protecting Brett Favre in the NFL. After being selected in the second round of the 2000 NFL, Clifton was selected to two Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers. Clifton was the victim of a violent hit by former NFL defensive lineman Warren Sapp that caused a severe pelvic injury. Clifton eventually returned and the NFL expanded the “unnecessary roughness” rule to include hits like Sapp’s.
LG: Mercedes Hamilton
1998: Hamilton was the quiet mauler of UT’s 1998 offensive line. Like his fellow linemen, he was key in opening running holes for UT’s talented corpe of running backs.
After: Hamilton is currently a Machine Tech at Bridgestone in Atlanta, according to his Linkedin account.
C: Spencer Riley
1998: In addition to handling the middle of UT’s offensive line, Riley was always the funny member of the offense and always good for a quote for assembled reporters. Riley was the overachiever of the group but he handled that role well.
After: Riley climbed his way up the high school coaching ladder before he was named the head coach of his alma mater, Jefferson County High School, in 2016.
RG: Cosey Coleman
1998: Coleman was probably the most physically gifted of UT’s 1998 offensive linemen.
He was also a key signee for the Vols. He was part of an incredible trio of Atlanta-area recruits the Vols signed in 1997, along with running back Jamal Lewis and safety Deon Grant. Coleman was named first-team All-SEC and second-team All-American.
After: Coleman was selected in the second round of the 2000 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He would play five seasons for the Bucs and two for the Cleveland Browns to finish his career.
RT: Jarvis Reado
1998: Reado would have been the starting left tackle on most other teams had the Vols not had Clifton. Instead, Reado manned the right side of UT’s offensive line.
Me back in day. pic.twitter.com/csMhWjOf
— Jarvis Reado (@Big_Scoob72) February 16, 2012
After: According to his LinkedIn profile, Reado is a trustee in Knox County.
WR: Cedrick Wilson
1998: Wilson was an underrated receiver after he moved from quarterback, where he played in high school. Overlooking Wilson was understandable considering he was playing next to Peerless Price, who would go on to star in the NFL. Wilson also followed former UT standouts Marcus Nash and Joey Kent. However, Wilson was a master of getting in and out of his breaks at full speed.
After: After seven years in the NFL, Wilson became a high school coach. He was named the head coach at Hamilton High School in his hometown of Memphis in June.
WR: Peerless Price
1998: Price was the deep threat that the Vols needed to keep defenses honest in 1998. His chemistry with Martin was sublime on deep-passing routes.
After: Price played nine season in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons.
FB: Shawn Bryson
1998: Bryson, according to former UT head coach Phillip Fulmer, embodied the selflessness of the Vols in 1998. Bryson had the ability to play tailback but with a crowded backfield, he assumed the role of a consistent blocker and explosive runner at fullback.
After: Bryson immersed himself in coaching. He’s the head coach at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. He was recently selected to the National Football League Bill Walsh Diversity Fellowship Coaching Program.
RB: Jamal Lewis
1998: Lewis was the focal point of UT’s offense until he went down with a knee injury in the Auburn game that would end his season.
After: After returning from his knee injury, Lewis showed his freakish athletic ability was still intact during the 1999 season and in workouts for the NFL. He was picked fifth overall in the 1999 NFL Draft. Lewis ran for 10,607 yards during his NFL career, including 2,066 yards in 2003. He is currently the president of Southeast Exhibits and Metro Retail Solutions.
RB: Travis Henry
1998: Henry stepped in for Lewis and helped the Vols stay dominant in the running game. Henry’s hard, physical style wasn’t quite as explosive as Lewis but it punished defenses. The Vols barely missed a beat with Henry in the lineup.
After: Henry rushed for 6,086 yards for the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos after being selected in the 2001 NFL Draft. After his career, he moved back to Florida.
DE: Shaun Ellis
1998: Nicknamed “Big Katt”, Ellis recorded 105 tackles and 12 ½ sacks during his career at UT. His incredible talent was probably a bit overlooked in college, as evident by what he did in the NFL.
After: Ellis went to the New York Jets with the 12th overall pick in 2000. He registered 73 ½ sacks in 12 seasons and was selected to the Pro Bowl twice.
DE: Corey Terry
1998: Terry was a quick-footed defensive end with good hands. That made him a perfect candidate to be an inside pass rusher.
After: Terry played two seasons in the NFL.
DT: Jeff Coleman
1998: Coleman was one of a handful of defensive tackles that stayed fresh by rotating in throughout UT’s 1998 championship run. The Vols’ usual starter, Coleman was suffering from cramps and was receiving an IV treatment when Billy Ratliff went in and caused Clint Stoerner to fumble, setting up the Vols’ winning drive against Arkansas.
After: Coleman currently works in corporate community outreach.
DT: Darwin Walker
1998: Known for his soft-spoken demeanor, Walker was one of the strongest Vols on the 1998 team. He was a nearly immovable force on the line of scrimmage. He was also pretty strong in the classroom. Walker graduated with a degree in engineering.
After: Walker was a third-round pick by the Arizona Cardinals before playing 10 years in the NFL for various teams. During his time in the NFL, he began his own engineering firm.
OLB: Eric Westmoreland
1998: Westmoreland was a steady force in UT’s linebacking corps with the ability to turn in fantastic plays when needed. He may have not been the consistent leader that Al Wilson was nor had as much athletic ability as Raynoch Thompson, but Westmoreland was a force to be reckoned with.
After: Westmoreland is currently an assistant coach at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. Westmoreland played four seasons in the NFL.
MLB: Al Wilson
1998: Wilson was the leader the Vols needed in 1998. He demanded hard work, did so himself and was the emotional force behind UT’s national title run.
After: Wilson is currently an investor in small businesses and lives in Atlanta.
CB: Dwayne Goodrich
1998: Goodrich will forever be known for his interception return for a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl to help the Vols secure a national championship. His lockdown ability at cornerback was something the Vols could depend on all season.
After: Goodrich is living in Texas and is a “full-time dad” and a motivational speaker to college and high school football players.
CB: Steve Johnson
1998: Johnson’s late interception against Florida State put the game away in the Fiesta Bowl. Known for his speed, Johnson was an overlooked cog in the Vols’ defense because of all the defensive star power on the roster.
After: Johnson is the owner of Pizza Bar Camp Creek in Atlanta, Ga.
SS: Fred White
1998: White was the prototypical hard-hitting safety that symbolized UT’s toughness in 1998. Many forget he ran a 10.2-second time in the 100-meter dash in high school where he played cornerback. However, he was asked to add weight and play safety at UT. Willingly, he did so – and did so very well.
After: White works in pharmaceutical sales in Atlanta. He also appears frequently on various sports broadcasts across the southeast.
FS: Deon Grant
1998: Grant was the last line of UT’s defense for the Vols’ national title run. The rest of UT’s defense allowed Grant to roam the middle of the field like a center fielder in baseball. It was a perfect fit. Grant’s one-handed interception against Florida will forever be one of the season’s most memorable plays.
After: Grant played 12 seasons in the NFL, for the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks before retiring as a New York Giant in 2011. It was a remarkable career considering Grant suffered what was described as a Bo Jackson-like hip injury during training camp before his rookie season.
PK: Jeff Hall
1998: Hall was as clutch as any kicker the Vols have had in recent history, especially against Syracuse and Florida. Hall’s consistency affected UT’s gameplans and in-game decisions. Most often, the Vols would play conservative thanks to special teams and a stout defense.
After: Hall is currently a financial advisor in Knoxville, according to his LinkedIn account.
P: David Leaverton
1998: Leaverton’s strong leg and consistency was a hallmark throughout the majority of his career. However, he’s long said he’s most proud of tackling Florida State star Peter Warrick in the openfield during the national championship game. Had Leaverton not made the tackle on the punt return, Warrick would have almost certainly scored. That could have drastically changed the course of the game.
After: “My wife and I quit our jobs, sold our house and are pouring our lives into a dream we have to see America become a nation united,” Leaverton wrote on his Linkedin page. Leaverton is currently the founder and president of Undivided Nation. Leaverton and his family of five packed in an RV on a 50-state tour to be “a catalyst for reconciliation and unity in America” via fundraising and community events.
Head coach: Phillip Fulmer
1998: After years of knocking on the door of a championship, Fulmer’s legacy was defined in 1998. Strong recruiting and a strong pair of coordinators, which Fulmer trusted, set the stage for the Vols – and Fulmer – to finally break through.
After: Fulmer returned to Tennessee as athletic director last offseason and hired Jeremy Pruitt to restore the Vols’ football program.
Offensive coordinator: David Cutcliffe
1998: Cutcliffe rebuilt the Vols offense after Peyton Manning’s departure but left for Ole Miss just before the national title game.
After: Cutcliffe was named Duke’s head coach in 2008 and is No. 3 on the Blue Devils’ all-time wins list (59).
Defensive coordinator: John Chavis
1998: Chavis did a masterful job of placing his players in the perfect position in 1998. With a team built on speed instead of size, Chavis used an aggressive scheme to consistently pressure opposing offenses.
After: After stints as a defensive coordinator at LSU and Texas A&M, Chavis joined Arkansas’ staff following the 2017 season.
Chapter 12: 13 things I learned about the champs
Even though I covered Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team, I had plenty to learn as I shared their various stories during a series of stories commemorating the 20th anniversary of those very special group of Vols.
Here are the 13 most significant things that I learned about the 1998 Vols:
1. Tennessee’s players were tattletales (in a good way): I never would have imagined that UT’s football players had so much power and weren’t afraid to wield it. If a player on the 1998 team wasn’t working hard enough in practice or offseason workouts, the team leaders would tell their coaches those players shouldn’t play. And the coaches listened.
2. The Vols held full practices during what was supposed to be summer workouts: Former UT quarterback Peyton Manning was known for his dedication to offseason workouts and coercing teammates to participate. However, with Manning and other leaders gone from the 1997 team, the Vols upped the intensity with full workouts without pads or coaches all summer. According to several Vols, that made preseason camp easy.
3. Al Wilson became a leader during the 1997 SEC Championship Game: Wilson had never won a significant championship when the Vols trailed Auburn at halftime in the 1997 SEC Championship Game. The fiery middle linebacker wasn’t going to let that one slide by. Wilson challenged Manning and defensive end Leonard Little that night and, subsequently, assumed the leadership role that would define him for the 1998 season.
4. David Cutcliffe was very concerned about UT’s offense: Cutcliffe, UT’s offensive coordinator, never said he was worried about UT’s offense in public before spring practice or again before fall camp, but he was. Cutcliffe knew a Manning-like approach wouldn’t work, so he had to adapt. He eventually decided to field a power running football team. It worked. Tennessee actually increased its scoring average to 33.2 from 32.9 from 1997,
just in a very different way.
5. Phillip Fulmer thought the Georgia game was a key turning point: I would have thought the Florida game was the early season game in which the Vols began to believe. However, Fulmer thought the Georgia game as significant or even more so. The Vols hammered the Bulldogs 22-3 in Athens to get to 5-0. In retrospect, Fulmer’s thoughts on the game makes sense. UT won a rival game on the road just one week after losing their offensive focal point, tailback Jamal Lewis, to a knee injury for the remainder of the season.
6. Al Wilson wasn’t afraid to fight teammates on national television: There is intensity. Then there is Wilson intensity. Wilson challenged safety Fred White to a fight if he ever slowed up on a play after White had done so early in the season. White never did that again. That intensity permeated through UT’s defense in 1998.
7. The Arkansas fumble should have never happened: Admittedly, defensive tackle Jeff Coleman said the infamous fumble against Arkansas would have never taken place had he been in the game because he was gassed. That opened up the door for Billy Ratliff to take Coleman’s place. The rest is history.
8. The Arkansas game bonded the Vols immensely: Tasting potential defeat and rising from the ashes changed the Vols’ mindset in the Arkansas game. They hoped and thought they could be a national championship team before beating the Razorbacks in dramatic fashion. The Vols absolutely knew they would be champions after escaping with a victory against the Hogs.
9. The Vols knew Cutcliffe would be hired by Ole Miss before the SEC Championship Game: Coaches like to say distractions don’t affect them, but that’s not really true. UT’s offense started slow against Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game perhaps because of Cutcliffe’s pending departure, which was almost common knowledge to the team. Still, the Vols persevered and beat Mississippi State 24-14 to win their second consecutive SEC title and a chance to play for a national championship.
10. Randy Sanders wasn’t sure he’d be called on to replace Cutcliffe for the Fiesta Bowl: This seemed like a no-brainer at the time, but Fulmer had a decision to make. He could have chosen someone else to take Cutcliffe’s place or Fulmer could have assumed game-plan and play-calling duties himself, but he trusted Sanders. That turned out to be a great call.
11. Dwayne Goodrich didn’t speak to any teammates during his jail stay: I expected Goodrich, UT’s standout defensive back, to tell me that his teammates helped him get through his 8-year jail sentence. That wasn’t the case. Goodrich withdrew from his teammates because he was ashamed of his actions. The Vols welcomed Goodrich back with open arms when he was released.
12. Ratliff still thinks about Brandon Burlsworth every day: Ratliff’s son is now 22. That’s the same age that Brandon Burlsworth was when he was killed in a car accident in 1999. That further reminds Ratliff of Burlsworth, who was Arkansas’ All-American offensive guard. According to several former players, Burlsworth beat up on UT’s defensive line in the Arkansas game. Ratliff didn’t hold a grudge and has always kept Burlsworth and his family in his heart.
13. Wilson’s son is cured and doing well: Wilson’s son was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was 15-years-old. That wouldn’t stop the young man. Carrington Wilson has graduated from Triveca University where he is still a baseball player pursuing his master’s degree.
Photos courtesy of University of Tennessee Athletics.