COACH: PHILLIP FULMER
ALL-AMERICAS: AL WILSON, LB; RAYNOCH THOMPSON, LB
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS: 2 (1951, '98)
SOMETIMES a national title is an unblemished work of art, a portrait of class. Other times it's a patchwork of courage and opportunism that's somehow stitched together, big play by big play, into perfection.
The last of Tennessee's big plays in the 23-16 Fiesta Bowl defeat of Florida State on Jan. 4, 1998, that gave the Volunteers the national championship came with slightly more than nine minutes left in a grinding game of field position, punts, amateurish miscues, costly penalties and seven turnovers. With the Vols leading 14-9, quarterback Tee Martin threw a fluttery spiral toward wideout Peerless Price. On the sideline linebacker Al Wilson watched the ball descend as if it were dropped down a chimney. "I knew Peerless would catch it," Wilson said. As the pass fell, Seminoles cornerback Mario Edwards leaped and missed. Price caught the ball and ran joyfully into Volunteers history.
Tennessee's championship rewarded a team steeped in the workaday precepts of selfless play and glamourless labor. The Volunteers had conceived a No Stars theme last winter that carried over to their practices in Arizona last week, when they broke their offensive huddles with the chant "One, two, three...underdogs!"
You could trace a map of the Volunteers' gritty path to the national championship on the face of 295-pound center Spencer Riley. Sprouting from Riley's chin is a scraggly beard that he vowed not to shave off until Tennessee lost a game or won the national title. Riley's whiskers were an apt symbol for a season in which the Volunteers won three crucial games in grungy fashion. In its opener Tennessee was assisted by a questionable late-game pass interference call on fourth-and-seven in beating Syracuse 34-33. Two weeks later Florida lost four fumbles and missed a short field goal in overtime in a 20-17 Vols win. In November, Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner fumbled with 1:43 to go to give Tennessee the possession it needed to pull out a 28-24 victory. The cumulative effect of these escapes was to make the Volunteers feel that they were destined and to make others feel that Tennessee was lucky.
In Arizona the Vols embraced the former belief more passionately than ever and used the latter as motivation. Said Riley, "We'd rather earn respect than have people give it to us."
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, January 11, 1999