With his left arm thrown around the shoulder of his 13-year-old daughter, Brittany, and a fistful of victory cigars clutched in his right hand, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer surfed through a rolling orange sea of worshipers until he reached the mouth of the narrow walkway through which his players would exit the field. One by one the Volunteers squeezed free from the on-field celebration of their 20-17 overtime victory against Florida last Saturday night, an eruption that brought down the goalposts at Knoxville's Neyland Stadium in under a minute, and one by one they embraced Fulmer before plowing inside to their own private party.
How many times had Fulmer and his players heard the question, sometimes phrased politely, sometimes not: When are you going to beat Florida? A year ago, after falling to the Gators for a fifth straight time, Tennessee recovered to win the SEC title, but the inquisition persisted. "We've lost three SEC games in three years," Fulmer said early last week, "but people only want to talk about Florida. I share their passion, but it gets frustrating."
The streak ended dramatically, in the first overtime football game in either school's history. Tennessee's Jeff Hall kicked a 41-yard field goal on the first possession of OT, and Florida's Collins Cooper hooked his get-even attempt from 32 yards wide left, after which the stadium thundered as if it were rolling down the hillside toward the Tennessee River. Fans stormed the field, foraging for souvenirs. Two small boys fought viciously over one of the orange-and-white strips that had flown atop the north goalposts before they reached a truce, ripped the banner in half and ran off joyfully in opposite directions.
Fulmer waited until the last of his players had escaped before he followed them to the dressing room, soaked with sweat. In the first season of the post-Peyton Manning era, the Volunteers are now a robust 2-0, loading the Florida victory onto the back of a last-second win at Syracuse. They are No. 4 in the nation, and Fulmer is ready at last for anyone who mentions the Florida troubles of years past. "Screw 'em," he said after the game, his whisper brimming with satisfaction. "Screw 'em if they bring it up."
The plan was hatched last winter, not long after the Volunteers' conference championship season had ended in a crushing 42-17 Orange Bowl loss to co-national champion Nebraska. In late January the Vols gathered for the start of their off-season conditioning program, during which teams across the country attempt to set a tone for the year ahead, and noticed the glaring absence not just of Manning but also of corner-back Terry Fair and wide-out Marcus Nash—both of whom would also go in the first round of the NFL draft—plus nine other Vols who would be either drafted by the NFL or signed to free-agent contracts. A theme was assigned for 1998: no stars. "The captains and seniors got up and talked about it," says senior middle linebacker Al Wilson. "For the last few years we've been relying on a few people to win games for us: Peyton, [running back] Jay Graham, [linebacker/defensive end] Leonard Little. It was time for us to become a team."
Unspoken but understood from the start was that the no stars mantra would be most crucial when Florida came to Knoxville. Curiously, over the last three seasons Tennessee's greatest strength, Manning, became its biggest flaw when the Vols faced Florida. It wasn't that Manning played poorly against the Gators but simply that his role in the game became outsized. "There was all this pressure on one guy's shoulders," says Fulmer. The rest of the Volunteers seemed content to watch Manning's quest to conquer the Gators. Manning is such a Tennessee icon that there's a wax statue of him in the Vols' indoor football complex (it looks just like Peyton's older brother, Cooper), and a street near the stadium is named after him, yet for the purpose of beating Florida, Tennessee might have been better off without him.
Manning's Volunteers tried to outscore opponents with a high-powered passing game that covered for a timid, read-and-react defense. That approach has been turned on its head. "Our players bought into the notion that you could win football games with more than a couple of heroes," says Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. The defense attacked Florida all night, holding the Gators to minus-13 yards rushing, forcing five turnovers and sacking Florida's rotating quarterbacks, Jesse Palmer and Doug Johnson, five times. "Our defense was balls to the wall for four quarters," said Tennessee center Spencer Riley, "and what a thing that was to see."
On offense Vols junior quarterback Tee Martin attempted only 20 passes, completed only seven and threw for only 64 yards. One of the completions, however, was a 29-yard touchdown pass to senior wideout Peerless Price in the third quarter that gave Tennessee a 17-10 lead. The Volunteers also rushed for 171 yards and committed but one turnover. It was a physical game decided by field position and mistakes, a game Cutcliffe characterized as a heavyweight fight. Tennessee was the tougher fighter.
As for the no stars business, that may require some reassessing. From his linebacker spot Wilson forced three of Florida's four fumbles with tackles of a running back at the line of scrimmage, a wide receiver in the open field and a quarterback in the pocket—a hat trick of mayhem. The 21-year-old Wilson's permanently furrowed brow and battered nose make him look like a man of 50, but his relentless enthusiasm makes him seem like a child of 15. It was Wilson whose impassioned halftime speech ignited the Vols' SEC title-game victory over Auburn last December, and it's Wilson who fiercely lobbied his teammates to accept the all-for-one, one-for-all theme.
Another stellar nonstar is running back Jamal Lewis, who spent most of last year's 33-20 loss to Florida on the sideline. A true freshman at the time, the six-foot, 220-pound Lewis was anchored to the Tennessee bench, dying to play but paying dues instead. "I remember watching that game and wanting so badly to get on the field," Lewis said last week. After that loss he became, in quick succession, a starter, rushing for 155 yards against Mississippi in the Vols' next game, and then a standout, with 1,364 yards in a season that began three games late. Last Saturday, Lewis gained 82 yards on 21 carries as a reliable ground option, something Florida lacked.