The raging party on the floor of Sun Devil Stadium tried to
swallow Al Wilson whole, but he'd have nothing of it. He wanted
only solitude. So, as his Tennessee teammates smoked fat cigars
and let the repeated strains of Rocky Top wash over them after
the 23-16 Fiesta Bowl defeat of Florida State that gave the
Volunteers a 13-0 season and their first national championship
in 47 years, Wilson, the senior All-America linebacker and
locker room preacher who was the soul of the Vols, ran into a
tunnel and then walked briskly toward the Tennessee locker room.
"I just knew, I just believed," said Wilson. "So many times we
needed to make something special happen, and we always did.
Always." He bowed his head and tears fell at his feet.
Sometimes a national title is an unblemished work of art, a
portrait of irresistible 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 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, junior quarterback Tee Martin threw a fluttery spiral
toward senior wideout Peerless Price. On the sideline Wilson
watched the ball descend as if it were dropped down a chimney.
"I knew Peerless would catch it," Wilson said. He just knew.
The play was called 69 All Go, meaning that three wideouts ran
straight down the field. "Their defensive backs had been having
trouble jamming us all night," Tennessee flanker Jeremaine
Copeland, one of those who ran deep, said after the game. As the
pass fell, Florida State cornerback Mario Edwards leaped and
missed. Price caught the ball and ran joyfully into Volunteers
history. It was a perfect throw by a quarterback who came to
Tennessee from a horrible Mobile slum and had the unenviable task
of following in the footsteps of folk hero Peyton Manning.
"It wasn't pretty early this year for Tee," said Manning after
the Fiesta Bowl, which he attended with girlfriend Ashley
Thompson. "He kept plugging and plugging. He's gotten
confidence." The two quarterbacks, as different in background as
could be (one from privilege, the other from poverty), remain
close. "We roomed together on the road," said Manning. "A couple
of times he got phone calls telling him that friends had been
killed. I'm thinking, Jiminy, this is unbelievable, but Tee is
such a strong person, mentally and spiritually."
January 11, 1999
Late Monday night Martin walked the length of the field from
Tennessee's locker room toward the team bus. After spoon-feeding
him offense for much of the year, Tennessee's coaches had dumped
the entire playbook on his shoulders for the Fiesta Bowl, and he
threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns. "I told Peerless I'm
going to miss him next year," said Martin, wearing just a
T-shirt in the chill desert night. He'd worn a white wristband
on his left wrist during the game, on which he had written MOB,
for Mobile. "Death was a part of my life in Mobile. I lost 12
friends, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think
about them. This one was for Mobile."
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!" This was in dramatic contrast to the Tennessee teams
of the recent past, which stocked NFL rosters like a farm club
but couldn't ride their star power to victory over Florida, much
less to a national title game. Five players from the 1997 team
were taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, including
Manning, who, despite a sensational college career, became the
poster boy for greatness falling short.
This year's Volunteers were talented too, but, in the subtle way
that often distinguishes a championship team, that talent was
blended like batter until it was difficult to tell the excellent
players from the merely good ones and the good ones from the
merely mediocre. Wilson took control of the team by launching
into a tirade at halftime of the 1997 SEC championship game, an
episode that endured through '98 for the Volunteers who
witnessed it. Tennessee's best running back, Jamal Lewis, a
gifted player with a Heisman candidacy in his future, was lost
for the season with a knee injury four games into the season and
replaced by sophomores Travis Stephens and Travis Henry, whose
nickname is Cheese because of his resemblance to a block of same.
You could trace a map of the Volunteers' gritty path to the
national championship on the face and body of 295-pound junior
center Spencer Riley. A footlong purple surgical scar on the
outside of his right arm came courtesy of an operation needed to
repair the torn triceps he suffered in the first quarter of
Tennessee's embarrassing 42-17 loss to Nebraska in last year's
Orange Bowl. That victory propelled the Cornhuskers to a piece
of the national title and the Volunteers, humbled and bullied,
to the weight room. "We got beat up, period," says Price. Riley
underwent a difficult six-month rehab, of which he remembers,
"It's not easy to wipe your butt with your left hand." That's
not a pretty image or a polite metaphor, but the Vols' final
step into the ranks of champions was similarly challenging.
Sprouting from Riley's chin is a gawdawful, scraggly beard, a ZZ
Top affectation that he began growing in mid-October and 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
season 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. On Nov. 14
Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner fumbled with 1:43 to go to
give Tennessee the last-gasp 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. "We'd rather earn
respect than have people give it to us," Riley said before the
game. The Volunteers spent most of their free time secluded in
their Scottsdale hotel, venturing out only for meals and the
occasional trip to a virtual-reality parlor. "Miami last year,
now that was a fast town," said junior defensive tackle Darwin
Walker. "This ain't Miami, and we're a different team." Price
took pride in saying that he was in bed by 10:30 on New Year's
Eve. (The once infamously raucous Seminoles were even duller;
they voted to skip Tempe's rollicking New Year's Eve Block Party.)
Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer was quietest of all that night.
He and his wife of 17 years, Vicky, declined party invitations
and ate a late dinner with another couple at a Scottsdale
restaurant. These are heady times for the 48-year-old Fulmer.
It's at last becoming widely known that his winning percentage
of .857 (66-11, excluding bowl games) is best among active
coaches. Coach of the year awards have been piling up in his
office like phone messages. Tennessee has signed him to a new
contract worth more than $1 million per year through 2004. There
are fresh signs that his program's top-level success will have
legs. Coveted New Jersey high school quarterback Chris Simms,
Phil's son, has said he will sign with the Vols. Yet Fulmer has
struggled to embrace his varied riches. "I'm not very good with
personal satisfaction," he said before the Fiesta Bowl. "I'm
trying, but I'm not naturally good with it."
In turning Tennessee into a champion, Fulmer had an invaluable
asset: the six-foot, 238-pound Wilson, who seemed to scare his
teammates into succeeding. He rose from his seat during halftime
of that 1997 SEC title game and berated the most celebrated of
his teammates, calling for Manning and All-America middle
linebacker Leonard Little to step up their play. He threw chairs
and wept openly. "It was an incredible moment," recalled Manning
last week. "It's hard to be a vocal leader in college. It gets
embarrassing to stand up and speak. I'm a huge fan of Al
Wilson's. He's got talent, and he's got a look in his eyes. We
need him on the Colts right now."
Wilson, who made nine tackles on Monday, came to the Vols as a
big-time recruit from Jackson, Tenn. Tennessee was doubly lucky:
Wilson nearly went to Notre Dame, and he nearly chose to pursue
boxing instead of football. Working under trainer Rayford Collins
at the Jackson Boxing Club from age 11 to 14, Wilson showed
uncommon gifts in the ring. "He could see punches coming," says
Collins. "Incredible peripheral vision. You see it on the
football field, too." He quit boxing when an older club member
died in the ring of a head injury. "Al could have been a very
good fighter," says Collins.
After three good years at outside linebacker, Wilson moved to
the middle for his senior season. "He's been as good as or
better than Leonard [Little] was," said Vols defensive
coordinator John Chavis last week. Wilson was the reason a solid
but not dominating Tennessee defense never folded. On Monday
night junior cornerback Dwayne Goodrich intercepted a pass and
returned it 54 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. Even in the
four games Wilson missed with shoulder and groin injuries, he
was seen--and heard--every day. "He's got this high-pitched,
loud voice, and it goes right through your ears," says sophomore
safety Deon Grant.
The voice is a memory now, the soundtrack to the Vols' highlight
In a narrow stadium hallway near the Tennessee locker room,
Fulmer stood among his gathered family members. His was not an
easy pull to the top. A former Vols' offensive lineman
(1969-71), Fulmer replaced Johnny Majors after the 1992 season,
only to have Majors and some prominent boosters accuse him of
causing Majors's downfall. Fulmer was guarded and suspicious for
years thereafter. "There was an awful lot of 'Who is this guy?'
going on," he said before the Fiesta Bowl. "I felt I had to
prove myself every day, and I was careful about what I said." He
worked long hours and watched his back.
Much changed this season. Vicky and Phillip talked about their
relationship, about how it works best when they spend lots of
time together and about how Phillip used to take their three
daughters, Courtney, Brittany and Allison, out for pancakes on
Friday mornings when they were younger and how the girls, aged
12 to 15, are getting old so fast. "Phillip started to say no to
things that weren't necessary," said Vicky. He loosened up. It
was a delicious by-product that his team benefited from his more
relaxed demeanor. The Vols played looser. They beat Florida. Won
the SEC. Won the national title.
On Monday afternoon Fulmer told his players a story that
reflected his newfound approach. "The vice president [Tennessee
native Al Gore] is going to be there tonight," he said. "The
governor is going to be there tonight. But never mind all that.
I got a call today from Ace Clement [a member of Tennessee's
national championship women's basketball team], and she told me
to tell you guys that the Lady Vols are behind you." There was
laughter. Tension was broken.
In the final seconds on Monday night, Fulmer's head filled with
memories. He thought of his father, James, who worked two jobs
his entire adult life and died in 1989, and of his 73-year-old
mother, Nan, who still lives in Winchester, Tenn. "So many
people help you get here," said Fulmer. The air was thick with
cigar smoke. A championship trophy sat nearby on an orange
storage crate. Fulmer wrapped both arms around Vicky and held
her as though the night would never end.
"So many times we needed to make something special happen, and we
always did," says Wilson. "Always."
The cumulative effect of the Vols' three narrow victories was to
make them feel destined.