Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Majors’
[Note: This post is exceptionally long—even for me—and I apologize for this. I simply felt that a lot of these things needed saying, and I really haven't heard them elsewhere. Thus, if you'll forgive my long-windedness, I promise there is a point to this. I just felt this that this isn't a simple issue, and thus I needed to explain. -Lawvol]
Of all the posts I have ever written as a blogger, all the comments I have ever posted on message boards and other blogs, all the public professions I have ever made regarding the Tennessee Volunteers, this one is by far the most difficult one for me. I’d really rather not be in the position of feeling it necessary to write this. To fail to address the issue, however, would be to ignore the giant looming cloud over the heads of all of the Vol-faithful, regardless of their thoughts or position.
For the record, I am a Phillip Fulmer fan. I believe that he has done more for the Tennessee program than anyone else over the last fifteen years. I credit him with taking Tennessee from the mish-mash of the middle tier of college football and propelling the Vols to the very pinnacle of success. I credit him with bringing the program into the modern era. I credit him with making many of the things to which we as Tennessee fans have become accustomed possible. I like Coach Fulmer, or the “Great Punkin” as I routinely refer to him (with no slight or insult intended).
I guess that makes me a homer…
To the best of my recollection, the only time I have ever openly criticized the Tennessee coaching staff was during the past off-season when off-field incidents involving Vol footballers were escalating alarmingly, by my mind calling into question the integrity of the program and the University of Tennessee itself. Aside from that, I have always refrained from going after the coaches like so many seem to want to do. I wrote a little about this after the UCLA game, stating:
… I would say that I am more appropriately a Homer for all coaches across the landscape of college football who are constantly questioned, rebuked, and derided by tens of thousands of come-lately armchair geniuses.
It is a peculiar characteristic of so many fans that they believe that simply being a follower of a team for a given length of time makes them an expert on how things should be done. Make no mistake, as a sports blogger, I am as guilty of this offense as anyone—at least to some extent. There are things that anyone with a brain can assess and analyze based purely upon common sense, life experience, and the fluff that resides between our ears.
* * * * *
These sorts of basic truths are fairly and frankly within the grasp of us all, and thus the rightful ability to comment on such profundities resides with each and every person who follows college football. In much the same vein, I think it is reasonable for many (note, I did not say “all”) long-term fans of the sport to comment on what a given team does, or in most cases, did.
Beyond that, however, it seems to me that trying to profess what the best way to coach a football team—a team to which most have no access except through their televisions—is an endeavor which necessarily makes the speaker feel smart and important, while simultaneously making them look foolish and arrogant.
I have absolutely no idea about what it takes to coach a major college football team. I’m completely clueless. Furthermore, I have no idea what it is like to play on such a team. Again, clueless. I am also willing to bet that most who are attacking Phil Fulmer and the Tennessee coaching staff at present share my level of experience and insight. So, at a minimum, I guess I am among equally-ignorant equals when it comes to assessing the coaches.
Unlike many others, however, I am not going to attack the Great Punkin, Dave Clawson, John Chavis, or any of the other coaches. I am simply going to speak about what I do know and speak from the heart:
Though I first watched Tennessee under Coach Majors, most of my life as a Tennessee fan, student, and alum has been during the tenure of Coach Fulmer. I think he is a man of integrity, a man of honor, a skilled and adept football coach, and a great leader and teacher for the young men he coaches. I have such deep respect for what he has done. In his 17-year career as Tennessee’s head coach, Fulmer is 148-47-1 (.759), he has won 10 or more games in a season nine times, he has won or tied for the SEC East title seven times, he has won 2 SEC Championships, and the 1998 National Championship. I remember all of these “good old days” like they were yesterday.
Coach Fulmer has done a lot, a whole lot…
By the same token, things simply have not been good for the Vols for some time now. Here are a few statistics:
- Last SEC Championship: 1998 (No Coach in UT history had a longer drought and retained their job)
- Last BCS Game Appearance: 1999
- Only one Top-10 finish this decade (2001)
- Last 50 Games 32-18 (.648) [Johnny Majors was 39-9-2 (.780 wins only / .820 wins & ties) over his final 50 games]
- Failed to finish in the Top-25 twice this decade in any poll and finished 25th in the AP in 2000 (unranked in Coaches Poll)
- Signed a recruiting class outside the Top-20 in two of the past three seasons
- 5-12 versus Florida all-time
- 14-13 in the last 27 SEC Games
- 28-27 (.509) versus Current SEC Coaches
- 0-4 versus Urban Meyer (Florida)
- 1-2 versus Les Miles (LSU)
- 3-4 versus Mark Richt (Georgia)
- 1-3 versus Nick Saban (LSU & Alabama)
- 5-8 versus Steve Spurrier (Florida & South Carolina)
- 3-3 versus Tommy Tuberville (Ole Miss & Auburn)
- Coach Fulmer has a winning record of 15-3 against Rich Brooks (Kentucky), Sylvester Croom (Mississippi State), Bobby Johnson (Vanderbilt), and Houston Nutt (Arkansas only)
- 1-8 (.111) at home versus Top-10 Teams
- 17-23 (.425) versus ranked teams
- 13-21 (.382) versus Florida, Georgia, Auburn, LSU, and Alabama
Statistical Analysis Courtesy of: Tony Basilio.com
These numbers speak volumes…
Of course, I am enough of a realist to understand that no team—whether Tennessee, Southern Cal, or the Green Bay Packers—can have a championship year every year. Every great team has bad years. It just seems that it has been a long time since Tennessee has had a truly good year. I freely acknowledge that in 2007 Tennessee had what, on paper, looks like a good year. In 2007, the Vols went 10-4 and won the SEC East. That said, even the most stalwart Vol fan would have to admit that Tennessee won the SEC East in a highly unorthodox manner. Tennessee was beaten in the 2007 season opener versus California 45-31. Two weeks later the Vols were annihilated by the Florida Gators 59-20 and were subsequently thumped by the Alabama Crimson Tide 41-17. The only reason that the Vols made the trip to the SEC Championship Game was that—under league rules—the tie went to Tennessee since the Vols defeated the Georgia Bulldogs in head-to-head competition. In other words, the Orange and White backed into the Eastern Division title.
Prior to that, really since the 2001 season, the Vols have underperformed versus SEC and national rivals, and have—at best—been a mediocre team from a statistical perspective. During that time, I cannot recount the number of times that the Vols have barely beaten teams that were wholly inferior in terms of talent. What’s more, the Volunteers have regularly failed to meet the expectations of fans and analysts when considered against teams with similar recruiting classes and resources. Then of course there was the 2005 season, or—as Joel at RTT describes it—“The Season of Which We do not Speak” in which Tennessee recorded a 5-6 record.
It seems that Tennessee has struggled at every turn since winning the 1998 Championship…
Jump forward to this year and the UCLA game, in which Tennessee loses to a UCLA team which the Vols were projected to beat handily. As I and others have said, there is absolutely no reason that the Vols should have lost that game. To make bad matters worse, since defeating the Vols, the Bruins have gone on to lose two more games in which they failed to score a single touchdown for the first time in 44 years. (HT Get the Picture) Tennessee then managed a lackluster win over a clearly out-matched UAB team before playing the Florida Gators. As I said in my "Marching Orders" piece earlier this week, that game was one of the poorest displays I’ve ever seen from a Vols squad.
Although I cannot really recall when it all started, the Tennessee fanbase began growing restless as early as 2002. Even then, there was a small but vocal minority of fans that felt it was time for Fulmer to go. Those voices of criticism were largely ignored by the masses until now. After the Florida defeat, those voices have swelled to the point that they can no longer be ignored. Just looking at the Vol-blogosphere, there are fewer and fewer that support Fulmer and even more voices criticizing than ever before—including 3SIB’s Ghost of Neyland, SouthEastern Sports Blog, YMSWWC, Curveballs for Jesus, Basilio, MoonDog, the absurd Coacho Ocho, and Gate 21’s own HSH.
So here I am…
I have thought long and hard about this, and as HSH here at the Gate and Joel at Rocky Top Talk would attest, I’ve struggled with this. In the end, I have reached a conclusion that is sad, but unavoidable:
Those were the words that longtime “Voice of the Vols” John Ward used to announce his retirement. Ward said that he’d rather leave years too early than stay one minute too late, thus he retired while still at the top of his game in 1998. Coach Fulmer is hardly at the top of his game lately, but he is also not out of the game. The reality is that the furor among the fans is tearing the Orange Nation apart as fans attack the coaches, the team, and anything else they can think of (including the concession vendors at Neyland Stadium). All of Big Orange Country is in an uproar. As a result, the only thing anyone seems to want to talk about is whether Phil Fulmer should be fired. It’s not about the game, whether the Vols can win this weekend, or the beautiful agony that is college football season. For this and a bevy of other reasons, I am increasingly beginning to believe that it is time for Coach Fulmer to seriously consider whether it is time to step aside. I hate the thought that someone who has done so much for Tennessee would be forced out, but until some sort of resolution comes, I wonder if the program can possibly move forward.
I have reached this conclusion not necessarily based upon my personal belief that Coach Fulmer cannot and would not turn this season and future seasons around. The sad conclusion I have reached is that—in the minds of many—it does not matter what he does going forward, their minds are made up and they want something new. I for one have not yet decided whether I think Coach Fulmer can turn things around, but that is really irrelevant. This is not about my complaints on his performance. It is about the constant turmoil that has subtly, and now openly, surrounded the program for some time now.
It’s just not fun anymore…
Until the current whirlwind settles, it’s not going to be fun any time soon. Rightly or wrongly, the fan base has lost faith and along with it hope that the Vols can get back on the right track both this year and for the future. Of course, don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that a man’s career should be decided by whether or not it’s “fun” for me to go to football games. The larger issue I am pointing to is the lack of direction and the complete feeding frenzy that is currently surrounding the Tennessee program. I’m not going to pass judgment on whether the fans should be blaming Coach Fulmer because I don’t have the experience or knowledge to decide whether he or others are to blame. All I know is that something must change.
I have followed Tennessee football since I was a kid. I have closely followed the Vols since the mid-1980s. I grew up watching Coach Majors lead the Vols. I still remember wanting his autograph back then. When he was ousted as head coach in 1992, all hell broke loose and a war of words began which—to some extent—still goes on today. There was such controversy over Coach Majors being fired and Coach Fulmer being tapped as the Vols new head coach, that both sides of the issue started digging-in and flinging allegations at one another.
For the record, I believe that at that the time naming Coach Fulmer as the new coach was the right thing to do (it was, and is, rare for me to agree with the Big Dickey, but he got that one right). While I do not want to re-open the arguments surrounding Coach Majors’ dismissal, I believed then and continue to believe now that it was time for Coach Majors to step aside, not because he had not been a great coach and representative for the university, but because it was simply time for a change. Majors, however, wanted to stay. Thus, when Coach Majors did finally leave, it was as a result of his being fired as opposed to him stepping down—and his departure occurred under a cloud of innuendo and harsh words. I still remember watching him loudly complain of having been "shanghaied" as he described his firing in an interview televised during the halftime of the 1993 Hall of Fame Bowl, which Phillip Fulmer was in the process of coaching.
As a result of this debacle, to this day, little has been done to honor Coach Majors’ legacy and his contributions to the University of Tennessee, its athletic programs, its alumni, and beyond. This is a man who compiled a record of 116-62-8 (.645) as head football coach, and to this day he is spoken of very … carefully … by the athletic department, alumni, and boosters. That is just plain wrong. You know what, I still want Johnny Majors’ autograph.
I do not want all of that to happen again, this time to Coach Fulmer and his legacy…
I personally believe that Coach Fulmer rightly deserves to be counted among the greats at Tennessee—along with General Neyland and Johnny Majors—and I hope that he always will be. What I fear more than anything is that the protracted dispute over Coach Fulmer remaining as head coach will lead to another round of what played out after Coach Majors left—especially if Fulmer is ultimately fired as opposed to simply resigning. Both of these men—who have given so much to the university—deserve more than that.
We as fans deserve more than that…
Do I hate the thought of Coach Fulmer being forced—either directly or indirectly—from the head coaching position? You’re damn right I do. I am a huge Fulmer fan, but I simply do not think that the program, the fan base, the University of Tennessee, and Coach Fulmer’s legacy can survive this continued civil war. Now some would say that I am essentially talking out of both sides of my face—engaging in an attack and hero-worship. This is not a wholly unfair criticism. Still, it is what I believe.
There are other things I believe as well…
What I am not going to do is become the attacker, and I am more than willing to assertively address the actions of many of the malcontents and ne’er-do-wells in the Vol Nation. If you believe that Coach Fulmer needs to move on, that’s fine. State your case, make your argument, express your opinion, and go from there. If you have a meaningful point to add to the conversation, please feel free to do so. If, however, all you are going to do is engage in unprovoked ad hominem attacks against Coach Fulmer, then just keep quiet. Have some class. This is especially true for the "faceless" names on message boards, blog comments, and call-in shows. who are quick to pile on harsh criticism behind the shield of "user name" anonymity. It is for that very reason that, for this post, I am lifting the veil surrounding my online persona as “lawvol,” and signing this post as a “real” person—with my real name.
Regardless of what those of you so loudly attacking Coach Fulmer may think of his abilities, he is a person—not simply an item that UT has bought and paid for—and a man who has tirelessly represented the University of Tennessee for most of his adult life. He has earned the right to be treated with some semblance of respect and decency. If a Florida fan were saying some of the things that Vol boosters are currently saying, people would be clamoring for vengeance. Some apparently feel that now—with blood in the water—they can say whatever they please as they personally attack Fulmer, his staff, and the current Vol players. That is juvenile and classless.
Don’t get me wrong, I am more than willing to poke fun at sports figures here at the Gate—the Tennessee Home for the Visually Offensive is a temple to that sort of behavior. What I do not do—at least never intentionally—is vindictively attack another person simply because I can. The coaches and players are human beings—who work very hard at what they do—and though I realize having thick skin comes with the territory, putting up with asinine attacks should not have to be part of the deal. That sort of behavior by fans does nothing to help mend or meaningfully address the situation at hand.
Furthermore, there are those that are openly jubilant that the Vols have found the going so rough this year—those who have been dying to let loose on the coaches for years. To those of you who fall into that category, I simply say this: you are no true fan of anything but your own ego. No one who is truly a fan and supporter of the University of Tennessee athletics program should wish for this. No one should ever wish misfortune on an institution they profess to support regardless of the reason. Wanting change is one thing—wanting conflict, an entirely different one.
I just feel sorry for the coaches having to try to coach a team—working to find a way to get things going in the right direction—while everyone on the outside is screaming for blood. This is especially true for some of the assistant coaches who have now gotten caught up in this battle through no real fault of their own. I feel terribly sorry for them since they have gotten caught up in this by simply being here at Tennessee. In particular, I feel dreadful for Dave Clawson, Stan Drayton, and Latrell Scott—they came here this season with high hopes, wanting to help build a new future. They uprooted their families and their lives to make a commitment to Tennessee, and now they are in a firestorm. That is really unfortunate.
The same is true for the players, who give their all to make Tennessee shine. They try their hardest. Even when that is not enough, they still try. Seeing Vol fans attack them and boo them is something I never thought I would see.
To all Vol fans, speak your mind, speak your heart, speak loudly, but think before you speak…
I may end up regretting this post for many years to come. To those on the coaching staff—especially Coach Fulmer—please do not take this to be yet another fair-weather fan turning on the program when the going gets tough. I am not saying this because I hope that the current coaching staff is either fired or resigns. I am simply saying this because I care enough about the Tennessee Volunteers to speak out.
In all honesty, I hope that I am dead wrong. I hope with all that I am that the Great Punkin can work his magic, turn the season around, and go on to win a championship next year. I would never be happier to admit I am wrong—trust me, I want to be wrong. The fact of the matter is, however, based upon the experience of the last decade, I no longer think that I am wrong. I still remain hopeful that I am.
Either way, I will support Coach Fulmer and the rest of the coaching staff from here into the future. I will support this team, and all of its players regardless of what happens this season, or next, or the season after that. As far as I am concerned, it’s not a question of whether Phillip Fulmer is my coach, whether Jonathan Crompton is my quarterback, or Dave Clawson is my offensive coordinator—though the answer to each of those questions is “yes.” The only question that really matters to me is “What are your colors?”
Orange and White!
I am going to support this team and this staff no matter what. I am hopeful—as I always am. Who knows what the future holds?
In the meantime, I’ll keep pulling for the Big Orange and looking forward to the day when Tennessee is once again at the top of the heap.
For when that day comes—and it will—I can say that I was there all along…
Images Courtesy of: TennesseeFansite.com • The VIB
Check out the Roundtable Round-up with Joel's Thoughts on our efforts (or lack there of) for this week...
This Week’s Roundtable Host: Rocky Top Talk
Onward and Upward!
At present the roundtable includes: 3rd Saturday in Blogtober, Fulmer’s Belly, Gate 21, Rocky Top Talk, Loser With Socks, the World According to MoonDog (a/k/a MoonDog Sports), The Power T, Your Mother Slept With Wilt Chamberlain, and the SouthEastern Sports Blog. If you’d like to join, feel free to let us know. If you want more information on how the roundtable works, you can check out Ghost of Neyland’s wonderful introduction over at 3SIB.
Anyway, here are my thoughts for the week:
(Questions in Sort-o-Teal-like color)
1) For some inexplicable reason, Phillip Fulmer invites Urban Meyer, Mark Richt, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Les Miles, and Tommy Tuberville over to his palatial estate for a dinner party. At 2:00 a.m. the next morning, The Papa discovers that Smokey IX has been murdered. Who did it, with what, and where? Think Clue. You know, Mr. Mustard in the parlor with the candlestick?
After dinner, Fulmer gave Smokey a few hot dogs from his private stash before heading upstairs with his bride, Vicky. After making it to the bedroom, Phillip decided that he wanted to grab a quick doughnut from his other private stash. While heading back toward the kitchen, he was confronted by the ghost of Bear Bryant who warned him that Smokey was in danger.
Shocked and frightened, Fulmer rushed downstairs to find Smokey lying on the floor, a half-eaten hot dog left lying by his side. Fulmer immediately called Lieutenant Columbo to investigate (after he ate the rest of the hot dog).
Once on the scene, Columbo began interviewing the others. Mark Richt claimed to be admiring himself in the mirror in his favorite bright red thong. Tubberville said he was adding another coat of shellac to his hair before retiring for the night. Saban claimed to be counting all the money he had fleeced from Alabama donors in his room. Meyer stated that he was siting with his legs crossed offering a burnt offering before his statue of Tim Tebow. Les Miles had been carefully placing his hat in its protective case for the night. Finally, Spurrier claimed that he had been on the phone with a local sports-talk show under the pseudonym "Homer from Sequatchie County."
At first Columbo was stumped considering that all the alibis checked out. Then the case turned. Columbo discovered that Nick Saban had accidentally left his webcam running while counting his money on the bed. It had recorded sounds in the background which, at first seemed unrecognizable, but then when played at 300 times normal speed became understandable as a human speaking.
Columbo rushed downstairs, the others right on his heels, to find Ed Orgeron hiding in the bushes pretending to be a Maple tree. Fulmer grabbed Orgeron while Tubberville tied his hands, and Saban stole his wallet. Columbo put it to him straight.
"So, it looks like we caught you..."
"I say, I say, I say, it war an assidunt. I’s was a jest a’chomin heah to talk to dis heah fine group ah koaches whahn I come up-pon da little puppah. I’s was ah jest a talkin’ to heam and a scrahathin’ heahs eaahs whan alla-da-suddin’ heah just collapsas. I say, I say I dohn’t know whaht heppened!"
All of the sudden, Vicky Fulmer screamed... "Look!"
"Hey now, I wasn’t taking any money from anybody. I mean I was just standing here minding my own business..."
"Not you, Nick, look, Smokey’s back up and walking!" Vicky pointed to a dazed and groggy Smokey staggering from side to side.
"Hallelujah, Tim be praised! The omnisicent Tebow has looked down on this animal's plight and blessed him. He has been raised from the dead!" Meyer exclaimed as he fell to his knees.
"I don’t think so sir. Exactly how long were you talking to the dog, sir?" Columbo asked
"Wheall, lessee... I’s ah’suhppose it was abaht fie-to-tenh mannutes. Yehsir." Orgeron replied.
"I think I’ve solved the case." Columbo nodded to himself. "Mr. Foghorn ... Orgeron here came to see about getting a job with these here coaches, but got distracted by the cute dog, and set upon lamenting his tale to the pooch. At first, Smokey was enjoying the attention, but then things started to get fuzzy and he collapsed. You see, all of the hot-air coming from Orgeron caused Smokey to temporarily lose consciousness from lack of oxygen. He wasn’t actually dead. His body just entered a state of suspended animation to avoid any more damage to his brain from what Ogeron was saying. There was no murder here..."
"Well that’s a relief, I had just assumed it was some of my players, and was trying to think up a lie to tell the media." Spurrier chimed in.
"Well, how do you explain the ghost of Bear Bryant that I saw upstairs?" Fulmer asked.
"That was no ghost, that was Johnny Majors. He’d polished off a bottle of bourbon and was -- well, overcome by a multitude of circumstances -- which led him to think he was Bear Bryant. I’ve seen it before. Likely as not, he was just looking for some eggs to throw on your car." they all nodded to themselves knowing this to be true.
"Well, I suppose that wraps up my business here. You folks have a nice evening." Columbo said as he shut his notebook.
"Thank you so much Lieutenant, is there anything we can do to repay you?" asked Vicky Fulmer.
"Just one thing ma’am -- tell your husband to leave a few in the racks next time he and the coaching staff hit Krispy Kreme. The beat officers would appreciate it..."
2) Who between Eric Berry for the defense and Gerald Jones for the Clawfense will have the biggest impact for the Vols in 2008?
Well, it is hard to say on this one at present, mainly because Gerald Jones is still somewhat of an unknown in terms of his ability to perform over an entire season. Be that as it may, Jones impact will definitely be felt as the season progresses, especially with Jonathan Crompton running the offense. I expect great things from these two on the "Clawfensive" side of the ball. By the end of the season, it would not surprise me for the phrase "Crompton to Jones" to take on the same character as "Manning to Kent," "Martin to Price," or "Clausen to the Sidelines" (okay, maybe not the last one...).
All that said, I still think that Eric Berry has the potential to be the single most significant contributor on the 2008 Tennessee Volunteers Football squad. Berry is a holy terror on the defensive side of the ball, and I simply don’t think there is anyone with more talent than he across the board. I could try and explain why I feel this way, but the fact is that Will over at SESB has already done a much better job than I could.
Suffice it to say, I agree with him wholeheartedly ...
3) You devise a way to harness the Lost island’s temporal displacement properties. The island will allow you to change one thing, but one thing only, in the history of the Tennessee Volunteer football program. What do you change? By the way, Ben warns that if you try to say "2005" or any other entire season, the mysterious clicking black smoke will sound its wailing siren, shoot from the earth, grab you by the ankles, and pound you to a pulp against a palm tree. So change only one thing. Unless, of course, you like that sort of thing.?
Well, I hate to be a bum and flame a bit, but my "do-over" selection would be easy. Four words:
Randy Sanders, Offensive Coordinator...
Now I don’t mean to imply that I wish Sanders had never been affiliated with the program because he was a longtime quarterbacks coach, and was as loyal as anyone when it came to the Tennessee Football program -- I wish him nothing but the best in his current endeavors.
That said -- in my opinion -- the biggest mistake ever made by the Great Punkin was promoting Col. Dandy Sanders to offensive coordinator. Therein lay the genesis of all of the problems of the early-to-middle part of this decade. While I appreciate and respect Coach Fulmer’s desire to "dance with the one who brung ya" and promote from within -- rewarding those who have stood beside you, when David Cutcliffe left to take over the Ole Miss Rebels in 1998, he should have let Sanders coach the National Championship game, and then started looking for a new coordinator outside the program.
Col. Dandy Sanders
It took Cutcliffe the better part of two years to begin re-building the offense after Sanders left. Considering the hiring of Dave Clawson, it appears that Fulmer has learned from the mistake.
4) What about the future? What is your worst fear for this upcoming season, the turn of events that would send you into a blind rage?
Injuries, plain and simple...
While Tennessee has some great potential this season, there are a few key positions where an injury could spell disaster. Most notably at quarterback and defensive tackle. The quickest way for the Vols to go from hopefuls to hopeless would be injuries in these key positions, where there is remarkably little depth.
Thus, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed and hope for the best...
The Rest of the Roundtable:
Having wasted your time on my largely meaningless and insignificant thoughts for this week, go check out what the other roundtablers (who actually know what they are talking about) have to say (in no particular order):
- 3rd Saturday in Blogtober
- World According to MoonDog
- Fulmer’s Belly
- Loser With Socks
- The Power T
- Rocky Top Talk
- SouthEastern Sports Blog
Well, as Joel pointed out, the News Sentinel’s Dave Hooker recently came out with his Top 10 games in Tennessee football history. It is an interesting list, but (like Joel) I’m not so certain I agree with all of the games on Hooker's list.
Given the fact that I am still making my way through my "Great Games" series, it seems appropriate for me to chime in with my thoughts on this. At the risk of rendering some of my future posts in this series futile (not that they aren’t already), here is my top 10 games in Tennessee football history (with comparison to Dave Hooker’s ranking):
Gate 21’s Top 10 All-Time
Tennessee Football Games
No. 10: 1989 - Tennessee vs. UCLA
The Rose Bowl | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
I know that some will question this one, but this game still stands out to me as one of the best. I toyed with ranking the 1985 Auburn win at No. 10, but I have to go with the Vols 1989 trip to Pasadena to take on the Bruins. This game was early in the season, and at that point UCLA was highly touted. Tennessee had been beaten in both their prior trips to the Rose Bowl to play the Bruins (1975 and 1967), and many thought they would repeat that trend as the Vols came off of their worst season in recent memory, and a close call in their season-opener versus Colorado State. The Vols, however, stepped-up to the challenge and proved that their 5 and 6 record for 1988 was only a bump in the road as they came out gunning for the No. 6-ranked Bruins. The Vols completely shutdown the UCLA offense with their own brand of SEC defense, en route to a 24 - 6 victory. That game set the stage for the rest of the season -- one which included 10 more wins and only a single loss. The Vols would go on to win an SEC Championship, beat Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl that year, and end with a No 5 ranking.
Still, by my mind, it all started in California...
No. 9: 1999 Fiesta Bowl - Florida State vs. Tennessee
Sun Devil Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 1
Dave Hooker had this game as No. 1, but I cannot in good conscience give it that distinction. While the 1999 Fiesta Bowl did give Tennessee its first Consensus National Championship since 1951, the game itself was not nearly as spectacular as others that season.
First of all, both Tennessee and Florida State played very sloppily throughout the game as a result of the more than 4-week layoff leading up to the contest. Second -- in fairness to Florida State -- they were playing with a back-up quarterback, Marcus Outzen, who (to my knowledge) never started another game after the championship, due to the injury to Chris Weinke.
Finally, the game was exciting, but probably only if you were a Tennessee or Florida State fan. The reason for this is that the two teams were extremely closely matched at most positions. All of that said, I have such amazing memories of this game and of finally seeing another championship for the Big Orange, that I have to include it in the Top 10, regardless of its flaws.
After all, a championship is a very special thing...
No. 8: 1939 - Alabama vs. Tennessee
Shields-Watkins Field | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
Obviously, I did not attend or watch this game. Still, the legendary status of this game lingers even today -- as does pretty much everything about the 1939 squad. I know this is hard to imagine in the modern era, but the 1939 squad not only went undefeated, but they also completed the entire regular season without being scored upon. Think about it this way, from the third game of the 1938 season until the conclusion of the 1939 season, Tennessee played 71 consecutive quarters without allowing a single point -- a record which stands to this day. The 1939 game against Alabama was but one of the legendary battles of this era between, then, Col. Robert Neyland’s (he would be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General during World War II) Vols and the Crimson Tide. In the minds of some, however, this is the game that truly cemented the rivalry and led to the designation "The Third Saturday in October."
Led by Johnny Butler and George Cafego, Neyland’s Vols managed to out-run, out-block, and out-wit the Tide in a 21-0 victory. The "feather in the cap" for the day came on Johnny Butler’s 56-yard run to the endzone in the 2nd-quarter. This was the last Tennessee-Alabama game that Neyland would coach until his return from military service in 1947.
No. 8: 1992 - Florida vs. Tennessee
Neyland Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
For all the reasons I described in my post on this game, I really feel this was an extremely important game in the history of the program. Ignoring all of the side issues surrounding this contest -- the Faxgate affair, Johnny Majors' heart problems, the deluge of water that fell during the game, etc., I really feel this was a watershed game (no pun intended). First of all, it was the first of real battles between Tennessee and Florida during the Steve Spurrier era. Second, it was the first conference home game ever coached by Phillip Fulmer.
By my mind, this is the game that ushered Tennessee football into the modern era, and set the stage for all of the excitement during the 1990’s.
No. 7: 1996 Comp USA Citrus Bowl - Tennessee vs. Ohio State
Citrus Bowl Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
Some might think this game an odd choice, but as I made clear in my article on this game, it really was one of the best games for Tennessee in the history of the program. Tennessee and Ohio State both came in ranked 4th (albeit in different polls) and both were disappointed that they did not manage to make it to a top-tier bowl. Both teams had a chip on their shoulder as they battled throughout a rain-soaked game. Tennessee held Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George to a season low, and fought to the end to win the day. This win, propelled Tennessee to a No. 3 final ranking -- putting them ahead of the Florida Gators who had given the Vols their only loss of the season.
This game established the momentum of the program for the seasons to follow. In my opinion, this game was a key step toward a national championship.
No. 5: 1959 - LSU vs. Tennessee
Shields-Watkins Field | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 6
I agree with Dave Hooker that the win against Billy Cannon and the LSU Tigers ranks among the all-time greatest games. No one thought Tennessee really had a chance in that game, and -- on paper -- they were right. Billy Cannon was the man-beast running back of his day, and was fearsome for his ability to shred defenses. On most days, when the 1959 Tigers played they put on a clinic. The iron wall of orange-clad defenders , however, shut LSU down and did a little teaching of their own. After fumbling the ball on their own 2-yard line, and giving the Tigers an easy six points, the Vol defense found a way to save the game. Their goal-line stop as the Tigers tried for the 2-point conversion probably ranks as one of the all-time greatest defensive plays in Tennessee history (See stop-frame image, right).
Here’s former Voice of the Vols George Mooney with the call.
(click play to hear audio)
When it was all said-and-done, the Vols came out on top in a 14-13 thriller.
No. 4: 1982 - Alabama vs. Tennessee
Neyland Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: Unranked
This game was the final step in Johnny Majors’ rehabilitation of the Tennessee program from the doldrums of the late 1970’s. Before that win, the Vols had not beaten Alabama in 11 deplorably long years. After more than a decade, Tennessee finally managed to beat the Tide in the 35-28 Victory. The fact that it occurred during the waning days of the 1982 World’s Fair made it all the more special. This also marked then end of the Bear Bryant era, at least as far as Tennessee was concerned, as Bryant would never again coach a game in Neyland Stadium -- passing away in 1983.
This game single-handedly returned Tennessee to its position as a year-in-year-out contender in the SEC, and re-asserted Tennessee’s tradition of winning.
Before this game, Tennessee was a second-tier team in the minds of most, that changed on "The Third Saturday in October," 1982.
No. 3: 1986 Sugar Bowl - Tennessee vs. Miami
Louisiana Superdome | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 5
Ahh, the Sugar Vols. No one thought the 1985-86 Tennessee squad really had a chance against the No. 2 ranked Miami Hurricanes. The Vols, however, decided to make everyone remember them as they pounded Vinny Testaverde and the Hurricanes on both sides of the ball. While this game was played in a neutral venue -- the Superdome -- it really amounted to being played in "Neyland Stadium South" as the Big Orange faithful traveled by the thousands to cheer on their underdog Vols. This game single handedly elevated Tennessee to a "national" status as Tennessee destroyed Miami 35-7, in the Big Easy.
Here’s John Ward calling "yet another" great play by Tennessee -- namely Chris White’s 4th-quarter interception for a touchdown.
[audio:/Sugar Vols 01.mp3]
(click play to hear audio)
No. 2: 1991 - Tennessee vs. Notre Dame
Notre Dame Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 7
There really isn’t much that needs to be said the game referred to simply as "The Miracle at South Bend." It still stands as the single most significant non-conference regular-season game the Vols ever played. While some would point to the victories over Penn State in 1971 and 1972, those were played in Neyland Stadium, which gave the Vols the huge benefit of a home crowd. In 1991, however, the Vols had to go on the road and play the No. 5 team in the country. The reality is that Tennessee was beaten in this game by the end of the first-half. The fact that the team and the coaching staff never gave up and kept fighting stands as a testament to the 1991 squad’s character. It still stands as the greatest comeback in Tennessee football history, and serves as a monument to Winston Churchill’s adage "Never, Never, Never Give Up!"
Furthermore, the final play of the game as called by John Ward stands as one of the greatest (albeit somewhat botched) calls of his storied career.
(click play to hear audio)Don't you just love John Ward?
No. 1: 1998 - Florida vs. Tennessee
Neyland Stadium | Dave Hooker Rank: No. 2
Having just written about this game (reliving it in my mind along with the voices in my head) I still come to the conclusion that there has never been a more exhilarating and exciting game played at Neyland Stadium -- at least not in the modern era. This game was an absolute defensive slugfest from start to finish, and after the game was over, I was physically and mentally exhausted -- I cannot imagine what the players felt like. While I do have the 1999 Fiesta Bowl listed in my Top 10 as well (No. 9) in my opinion this game was the high-water mark for the 1998 team. This was the game that defined the team and the season. Winning the game against Florida completely changed the mindset of everyone in Orange Nation -- suddenly we all believed that a championship was possible.
Thus, even though you don’t get a trophy for winning a home game during the regular season, in my opinion, this was the Vols’ finest hour.
Well, there’s my list. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong (as I so often am)...
Images Courtesy of: The VIB • Knoxville News Sentinel
Audio Clips Courtesy of: The Vol Network, Host Communications, and the University of Tennessee.
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The next in my series of flashbacks -- this time to 1992...
19 September 1992
(4) Florida 14 • (14) Tennessee 31
When I rolled into town for the contest between the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers in September of 1992, things were abuzz. Johnny Majors was in the hospital recovering from heart surgery. "Temporarily" at the helm was a longtime assistant coach who was -- at the time -- untested as a head coach. His name was Phillip Fulmer. As if that were not enough, tensions were still high after the 1991 "fax-gate" incident where disgruntled former Tennessee assistant coach Jack Sells was caught faxing the Tennessee playbook to Steve Spurrier and then Florida defensive coordinator, Ron Zook.
Needless to say there were a lot of questions swirling around as to exactly what could be expected when the Vols and Gators faced off in Neyland Stadium that Saturday afternoon. As uncertain as the situation was, Mother Nature had a few ideas of her own which would push the game farther into the realm of the unknown (and borderline absurd).
This gameday began rather inauspiciously for me -- I didn’t have any tickets. After declining several offers for tickets at $150 a piece (which was an even more absurd price in 1992 than it is today), my Father and I found one "kind" soul who was willing to sell us two seats on the second row of the East side upperdeck on about the 35 yard line for $75 each.
My Dad and I thought we had really made out like bandits ... until we realized about 15 minutes later while getting ready to enter the stadium that the tickets we bought were student tickets and required a student ID -- which neither of us possessed. Undeterred, our plan was to wait until there was a big crowd at the gate, split up, and then try to just slide on in without the ticket-taker noticing we had student tickets.
It worked for my Dad, who handed over his ticket, and walked right on in ... my situation was somewhat different.
I handed my ticket over, and then heard the dreaded words, "Student ID, please?"
I could see my Dad -- 10 feet away, but already in the stadium -- drop his head, knowing that I was caught. Instinctively, however, I reached for my wallet and pulled it out.
"Sure, one sec..." I took my time waiting for the line to get a little longer behind me. "Hmmm, it’s in here somewhere ... hold on. Damn! I must have left it back at the dorm. Do you want me to go run back and get it?"
He looked at me, then to the growing crowd, then to me, then to the crowd.
"Just remember to bring it next time, okay."
"Yessir! I promise I won’t forget it next time..."
And a young boy began the path down the road to a shameful and reprehensible career as an attorney ... (sigh)
In the stadium, we made our way to our seats which were great, except for the fact that "Mister Two-Bits" from Florida was about 15 feet away where the upper level visitor’s section met the student section. While his constant cheerleading did quickly grow old, the ... pointed comments of some of the students -- (along with their friends Jack, Jim, and George) were highly entertaining.
During the first half, Tennessee struck first with an 11 yard run by Heath Shuler, which they would follow-up with a scamper by James Stewart to make it 14-0. When the teams hit the locker rooms at the break, however, Tennessee's lead had been cut to 7, with a score of 17-7 and momentum seemingly swinging Florida’s way.
During the halftime, Col. Tom Elam was honored for his $1 million dollar donation to the university by having the press box at Neyland Stadium formally named after him.
When the teams came back on the field, there was great tension due to the fact that Florida had appeared to "find" itself late in the second quarter, and there was uncertainty in the hearts of many Vol fans as the second half approached.
Then the dynamic changed...
Since the morning, the skies had looked a bit ominous -- heavy clouds hanging in the air. Early in the second half I remember looking over the single deck of the North endzone to see Clement Hall (a place I would call home a few years later), and all of the sudden, I saw the light colored concrete edging the roofline become dark -- and fast. The rain was headed straight toward us.
The rain that hit the stadium came down with such force and intensity, that the upperdeck drains simply couldn’t keep up. Within about 5 minutes after the rain hit, I was standing in water half-way up my calf and the first row had water to their knees. I am not exaggerating when I say that I could not see the west side upperdeck at all -- the only sign of its continued existence was the glow from the powerful stadium lights that had been on throughout the game. I later learned that the ABC broadcast was actually knocked off the air by the storm. Without a doubt, that storm was the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen two teams try to play through. I can also say that I have never been that wet, and not actually been in the bath or a pool.
More importantly to the Florida coaching staff was the fact that -- with the Tartan Turf surface -- all of the water drained to the sidelines. Apparently the Neyland Stadium grounds staff had "forgotten" to pull the drain covers off of the drain grates on the Florida sideline. Thus, a small lake began to rapidly grow in the middle of the Florida bench. I got a great laugh out of watching one of the grounds crew members in his rain coat pointing to a spot obscured by about 2 feet of water while one of the Florida assistant coaches got down on his hands and knees feeling for the cover. ("Yeah, it oughta’ be somewhere in that area .. just feel around. It’s a real shame that you’re getting your nice clothes all messy like that...")
Two points to the grounds crew...
With the amazing volumes of rain, everyone in the stadium assumed that no one would possibly throw a pass -- not only would it be nearly impossible to catch, but the sheer force of the rain would kill the momentum of the ball making the act of aiming immensely difficult. Heath Shuler and Phillip Fulmer, however, had another idea.
Heath Shuler threw a short swing pass out to Mose Phillips who proceeded to run as flat-footed as a duck for a 66 yard touchdown.
Florida was deflated and never got close again -- Tennessee had bested the No 4 Gators. Final score Tennessee 31 Florida 14.
Images Courtesy of: The VIB • Orange & Blue Online / Gainesville Sun • Knoxville News Sentinel • Jack Daniels • Jim Beam • George Dickel • the University of Tennessee
In case you haven’t noticed, with their win over the Butler Bulldogs, the Tennessee Volunteers recorded their 31st victory, further distancing themselves from the prior record of 26. This is a feat which, only a few years ago, would have seemed as laughable and unlikely as learning that Bear Bryant was secretly a transvestite with a love child by Johnny Majors. Now, the BasketVols have accomplished what seemed impossible: an SEC Championship and back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances ...... but it’s obvious that’s not the ultimate goal.
After the win over Butler (I’m still on round-the-clock EKG monitoring to ensure there wasn’t any permanent coronary damage), Coach Pearl discussed his maverick decision to change up his point guard -- giving J.P. Prince the starting nod -- for the first time during the NCAA Tournament with the media. Among other things, Pearl said:
The deal is this: I just thought that the point guard play we were getting wasn’t going to win a national championship. So, if we make the decision and it doesn’t pay off and I’m sitting here in front of you and explaining why I made that choice and we lost the game, I could go to bed going, it’s okay. I don’t think this is going to help us advance. Watching tonight gives us a better chance to win Thursday.
It’s not a panacea, but we got five guys out there with J.P. in that position. I was able to do some different things offensively. I was able to do some things that Butler hadn’t seen. And that was fun. Actually, it was fun.
Excuse me? Did I read that correctly? Did Bruce Pearl use the phrase “National Championship” in reference to the Tennessee Vols Men’s Basketball program?
I, as much as anyone else who has followed the BasketVols … well … ever, appreciate that this team is in uncharted waters in terms of success. This season, the Vols have completely rewritten almost every record for Tennessee basketball. It’s obvious, however, that this team -- and more importantly this coach -- are not satisfied with simply raising the bar a few notches over the Tennessee teams of the past (ala Jerry Green and his “What do you people want? We made the tournament!” mentality). Bruce Pearl wants to rip the bar completely off the wall.
Even I have been guilty of the “We’re better” mentality of judging the BasketVols’ successes in relative terms against how they compared to the performance of teams of the past. Bruce Pearl, however, -- without fanfare -- has completely changed and elevated the benchmark at the University of Tennessee to one where the BasketVols are now assessing themselves in “absolute” terms. No longer is the question “Are the Vols better than the teams of Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neill, Jerry Green, Buzz Peterson, Don DeVoe, and Ray Mears?” Now, the question is simple:Are the Vols better than EVERYONE? That is the mark of a true winner.
Along with this change on the part of the team and the coaching staff, the Orange Nation is changing its perspective as well. Gone are the days of hoping -- just hoping -- that the BasketVols will be competitive, and maybe win a big game every now and then. Heck, I remember in the 1994-95 season -- as Kevin O’Neill tried to pick up the pieces of the train wreck that was Wade Houston’s tenure -- just hoping we would win more than 5 games. Now, Tennessee fans expect to win every game.
All of this comes from Pearl and his in-your-face style of leadership. From the very first day he came on campus Pearl knew he had a big task ahead of him. All he asked of the Tennessee faithful (and to suffer through some of the seasons between 1988 and 2005 you had to be really faithful) was to give the BasketVols a chance, come to a game and let us try and win you over. To date, no one has been disappointed. Pearl now is dead-set to push the Vols to the next level of success.This speaks volumes on Bruce Pearl’s drive, dedication, and character.
I would welcome anyone in Orange Nation to name a single coach which has been more openly and enthusiastically embraced by the Tennessee fanbase than Bruce Pearl. The fact is, there isn’t one. I have never seen the notoriously fickle orange-clad fans so overwhelmingly support and fall in love with a coach like they have with Bruce Pearl. He is approaching the level of Peyton Manning in the minds of many people.
So let’s be honest, with that kind of support, Bruce could play his cards close to the vest -- publicly talk about how good the Vols are and his desire to win that mythical “next game” and nothing more. That would be easy -- keep the standard right where it is in the eyes of the fans, and win a whole lot, with the understanding that you won’t win them all. What that does is make it easy for a coach to meet the expectations of the backers, and be successful, but not raise the level of those expectations and invite the uncomfortable feeling that accompanies falling a bit short. I am willing to bet that, if Bruce Pearl could only win an average of 20 games a season and go to the tournament 6 or 7 years out of 10, he could stay at Tennessee until he is older than Joe Pa. That would be very easy, and that would be “safe” for Pearl.Bruce Pearl is not known for playing it safe ...
Rather than ride the wave and keep the expectations reasonable, Bruce Pearl is not only accepting an increase in expectations, he’s actively encouraging it. Forget just wanting to win the “next game” -- Pearl has drawn the line in the sand: he wants the whole shooting match. Bruce Pearl has acknowledged what all of the Tennessee faithful have been too afraid to say:We want the Championship!
Now, I know, that statistically speaking, the Vols probably have about a 50% chance of winning an NCAA Championship, maybe less than that. In all likelihood -- purely looking at probabilities -- the BasketVols will not win the title. Bruce Pearl, however, has acknowledged that it is out there, and Tennessee wants it. The only way you slay that dragon, is to know it. The only way you reach that pinnacle, is by claiming it as your own. You may fall short. You may not reach that goal. You may not make it all the way…... but, then again, you might. I, for one, firmly believe that if it is ever in the cards for Tennessee to claim that prize, Bruce Pearl is the one to take the team, the university and the fans there. Either way, Bruce Pearl has made it “absolutely” clear ... ... Come Hell or High Water, that’s where Tennessee is heading.
Quotes Courtesy of: UT Sports.com • Image Courtesy of: GoVolsXtra