No Peyton, No Problem.
If a T-shirt was going to be made about the 1998 Tennessee football team, the above slogan may have perfectly described the squad that went on to win the national championship one year after Peyton Manning left for the NFL. But who needs a T-Shirt when you have Tee Martin?
Jamal Lewis, the eventual Super Bowl Champion and single-season 2,000-yard NFL rusher, was a sophomore on that Tennessee team and was close to its starting quarterack, Martin.
"Tee was my mentor and helped bring me along,” Lewis says. "He was like my big brother. I always knew he could play. He had a big arm, and he could use his legs to get out of tough situations. I came off a great freshman season and we had planned to rely more on the running game after Peyton left to help get Tee more comfortable."
When Manning was quarterbacking the team, both Lewis and one of the team's captains, kicker Jeff Hall, say that during his tenure, it always felt like everything was riding on his shoulders. After Manning, there was a palpable sense that everyone on the following year's team knew they'd have to do their part and stay loyal to each other to win.
"Every successful football team has that 'us against the world' mentality," Hall says. "Whether it's camaraderie or chemistry, we had a little bit of that. There were not a lot of high expectations because of all the guys we lost to the NFL after 1997."
In addition to Manning, Tennessee cornerback Terry Fair and wide receiver Marcus Nash were also taken in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft. Leonard Little, Jonathan Brown, Trey Teague and Andy McCullough were selected by NFL teams too. Yet plenty of NFL-level talent still remained in Knoxville.
"Lots of guys had their breakout years in 1998,” Hall says. “Peerless Price had his best year, and Al Wilson was the life and spirit of our team and he got better every year.”
Tennessee's season opened against a Syracuse team led by Donovan McNabb. Though the Vols entered the season ranked 10th, and the Orangemen weren’t ranked at all, the game was extremely close, forcing Hall to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired.
After that, Tennessee hosted SEC rival Florida, the No. 2 team in the country and a team that Manning failed to beat while on campus.
“That game was about pride,” Lewis says. “We hadn't beaten Florida in a while, and the rivalry between Coach Spurrier and Coach Fulmer was there. It was a home game and we just knew we had to come away with that one.”
"Our defense played lights out that game and Tee was making some great plays," Hall says. "We thought, 'OK, we're onto something.' After that win the momentum started to build."
Coach Phillip Fulmer used a unique approach to keep his team focused that year as expectations rose. As Hall describes it, Fulmer bolted a ladder to the wall outside of the locker room. Each rung had a team on it that the Vols were playing that year in order of their schedule. Then there was a plate that simply said "one at a time." Each time the Vols won, the plate moved up to the next team. At the top of the ladder were rungs for SEC championship and national championship.
"I don't know if that gave us the mentality to keep winning, but in order to win at a high level, you have to focus on one game at a time,” Hall says. “You can't play down to your opponent or take a week off. You just can't do that. Each week we see these massive upsets because emotionally and mentally teams aren't prepared."
Over the coming weeks, UT beat Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina on the road, while taking down Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky at home. Lewis sustained a season-ending injury during the Auburn game. But echoing the team-over-individual ethos that his team is remembered for, he looks at his injury as a turning point for Tee Martin.
"We had gotten through a tough part of our season and then I got injured, and that's when the team really became a team,” he says. "They lost Peyton to the draft, then me, the starting running back, and now it was riding on Tee. That's where he stepped up to the plate. He knew this thing was on his shoulders at that point and it was just an awesome feeling being around that team the rest of the season, even though I was injured. Seeing the passion, the togetherness and the camaraderie that everyone was displaying ... that's what makes a championship caliber team."
Future NFL Pro-Bowler Travis Henry filled in for Lewis and played well as the team continued to improve all the way to the national championship game against Florida State.
"We had some healthy respect for Bobby Bowden and Florida State," Hall says. "Also, a lot of guys that were recruited to play at Tennessee were also recruited to play there, so this wasn't a challenge that we took for granted."
Hall missed a field goal early, but the Vols would end up winning 23-16 for the national championship behind a long touchdown pass from Martin to Price and an interception return for a touchdown by Dwayne Goodrich.
"Peyton was there, and he was congratulating everyone,” Lewis says. “He’s part of the family. Even though he didn’t win that title, he laid the foundation for us years before.”
And of course, the celebration on campus was unforgettable.
"The community and the fans and the whole state celebrated," Hall says. "It's 15 years later and people still really enjoy reliving those moments."
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.
The Vol From Oz