"The National Champions are clad in Big Orange!"
Those words from Voice of the Vols John Ward still ring in the ears of Tennessee fans, even 20 years later. After an amazing undefeated season, with thrilling victory after thrilling victory, the Vols took down Florida State 23-16 to win the first-ever BCS National Championship.
They've been called a Team of Destiny in the years since. But going into that season, no one really thought they would be the ones to hoist that national championship trophy. They'd just lost Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He was one of three first round draft picks the Vols sent to the NFL from the previous team.
Even Coach Phillip Fulmer wasn't sure going into that season.
"We had 3-4 teams at that time that we're probably better," he said. "But they raised the level of play and were able to win those games, rather than losing one along the way to knock us out."
Fulmer said the team had a chip on its shoulder going into the season. They'd been picked to finish third in the SEC East as he recalled, and the players wanted to prove everyone wrong.
"They knew how to get it done."
Fulmer looks back on that team very fondly, calling them a special group of young men to be around. They're still in touch, and enjoy the bond they formed that season where they overcame all the odds.
Looking back, there were a lot of games that in other seasons, they may not have won.
Take the season opener at Syracuse, for example.
At the time, no one knew how good the Orangemen would be that season, even with future NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb at the helm.
It was Tee Martin's first start at quarterback. The lead went back and forth through all four quarters.
Syracuse was up 33-31 with a couple minutes on the clock. It was the first critical test of the season for the '98 Vols.
After what would become a game-winning drive, helped by some big plays and a pass interference call that went their way, kicker Jeff Hall made a field goal with time expiring for the first win of the season.
"Nobody knew that would be the theme for the team that season. To come back," Fulmer said.
"Florida had been our Achilles heel."
The Vols couldn't enjoy the victory over Syracuse for long. They had to go home and face Florida the next week. They had lost the five previous meetings with the Gators. Even the legendary Peyton Manning never beat them.
"If we had the playoff system then that we had now, we would have been in four of them, the championship games," Fulmer said. "But interestingly enough, so would Florida. It was very unusual to have two teams like that in the same division at the same time."
With gritty defense behind the mighty Al Wilson and a couple of big plays, the Vols kept it even with Florida through four quarters.
Then it was overtime.
The atmosphere in Neyland Stadium was tense and electric as Florida's defense kept the Vols out of the end zone. Kicker Jeff Hall, with a game-winning field goal already under his belt that season, calmly put one through the uprights to take a 20-17 lead.
Then it was Florida's turn. All they needed was a touchdown to continue their dominance over the Vols. The Tennessee defense held, and the the entire stadium held its breath as the Florida kicker stepped up to even the score.
As the great John Ward said at the time, "The kick is up, and the kick is...no-sir-ree. No-sir-ree. Final score: Tennessee 20, Florida...17. Pandemonium reigns."
The ball sailed to the left of the upright, and the stadium erupted! Tennessee beat the Gators, and Big Orange Nation went into a frenzy. Fans stormed the field, ripping grass off the field and tearing down the goal posts. The goal posts, along with the CBS cameras mounted on them, were marched out of the stadium by jubilant fans. One ended up in the river, the other had a spot of honor for years in a bar on The Strip.
Fulmer said he knew after the Florida game they could win it all.
"The rest of the season we could handle," he said.
"They never flinched."
The Vols cruised by Houston next, with a four-touchdown performance by Tee Martin on the way to a 42-7 blowout victory.
The team traveled to Auburn next for the first road SEC game of the season. The Tigers were unranked, but ready for the Vols.
Tennessee's offense struggled, but the defense stood up, at one point stopping Auburn on four downs from the one inch line. And that was without defensive standout Al Wilson, who was out with an injury.
The Vols won 17-9, but lost star running back Jamal Lewis to a season-ending ACL injury. It remained to be seen if they could win championships without him.
"It was the turning point for us."
It's hard to believe now, but the Vols actually entered the game against Georgia as underdogs, even though they were ranked No 4 in the country.
The Bulldogs may have thought they got lucky, with Jamal Lewis out for the season. But his backups not only got it done, they eventually became stars in their own right.
"Travis Henry and Travis Stephens never flinched. They went out and got it done," said Fulmer, who believes that this game was the real turning point for the team.
And while it wasn't the best offensive performance of the season, Fulmer believes they finally found themselves in the second half.
"The offense was much better. Tee found his groove, and we were protecting him better," he said.
But defense won that game. Al Wilson was back, leading a defense that prevented the Bulldogs from getting anything done. Coach Fulmer said Wilson "put the team on his back" at times during that season, and this was one of those times. They won 22-3.
They were over the hump in the middle of the season.
"The rest of the schedule we could manage."
Alabama was up next, and while that rivalry game hasn't been much fun for Vol fans in recent years, we were doing all right in 1998. Tennessee was on a three-game win streak over the Tide, and with a 100-yard kickoff return in the third quarter by Peerless Price to punctuate it, the Vols defeated the Tide 35-18.
The next SEC foe to fall that season was South Carolina, who fell victim to a quarterback who couldn't miss. Martin set an NCAA record for consecutive completions with 24, leading the Vols to a 49–14 victory. The Gamecocks didn't even score until the fourth quarter, thanks to another stellar defensive effort by the Vols.
UAB came to town for Homecoming and the Blazers weren't much of a match for Tennessee who rolled to 8-0 with an easy 37-13 victory.
Then there was Arkansas, which almost ended the perfect season.
"He stumbled and fumbled."
The game at home against the unbeaten Arkansas Razorbacks was an ugly one. The Vols were down 21-3 in the first half, but battled back to get within 24-20 going into the fourth quarter.
An Arkansas mistake gave the Vols a safety in the fourth, but it didn't seem like enough as the clock ticked down.
Some fans were starting to file out of the stadium, dreams of a perfect season and a national championship dashed, when Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner earned himself a page in Vol history.
With the Razorbacks just needing a first down to run the clock down, Stoerner was bumped by his own man and stumbled, leaving the ball sitting on the field. It was unbelievable. The Vols' Billy Ratliff, who actually forced the Arkansas player into the quarterback, causing the fumble, was the one who dropped on the ball, giving the Vols possession with 1:43 left to play.
After that, there was no stopping Tennessee running back Travis Henry behind a determined offensive line, who ran five straight times and scored the game-winning touchdown with 31 seconds left.
The Vols escaped with a 28-24 victory on a day that in any other season, probably ended with a loss.
They rounded out the regular season with ease.
Tennessee won the last Battle of the Beer Barrel against Kentucky with a 59-21 win, a long tradition discontinued that year because of a DUI-related crash that killed a Wildcat player.
Vanderbilt couldn't find the end zone in the last game of the season, and the Vols cruised to a 41-0 win over the Commodores.
"Two touchdowns in 30 seconds."
The Vols were in the SEC Championship game, but going into the day, a victory alone wouldn't ensure they made the national championship game. They were one of three undefeated teams on that December 5, along with UCLA and Kansas State. If all three won and were undefeated, who would be left out of the big game?
More on that later. Tennessee still had to take care of business against Mississippi State, who came in to the game with a 8-3 record and a big win over Arkansas to win the west.
It was a defensive struggle and the Vols were down late in the fourth quarter when the offense not only woke up, they lit up!
With just over six minutes on the clock, Tee Martin threw to Peerless Price for a touchdown, finally taking the lead 17-14. But they weren't done. After a Bulldog fumble, the Vols got the ball back, and Martin threw into the endzone again, this time to Cedric Wilson. Two scores within thirty seconds on the clock. That sealed the victory, 24-14.
And remember those other two undefeated teams that started the day? Well, UCLA lost to Miami, then Texas A&M beat Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game. Tennessee stood alone with a perfect record and was heading to the Fiesta Bowl for a shot to win it all.
"We were very confident. Not cocky. But confident."
Looking back on it 20 years later, Phillip Fulmer admits confidence.
"We felt good about getting it done. We'd beat some good teams," he said, and the players were confident, "not cocky or arrogant."
The opponent was Florida State, who finished the season 10-1 and was no stranger to winning big games in those years. It was in the era they called a dynasty down in Tallahassee. Even with a backup quarterback, they were also confident.
The Vols were looking for the final win to secure their first National Championship since 1951. The game was in Tempe, Arizona, on January 4, 1999.
The game was a grind. Scoreless in the first quarter, but both teams managed to get on the board in the second, with the Vols up 14-9. They were scoreless again in the third.
Finally in the fourth quarter, the big play the Vol fans had been waiting for. Martin hit Price with a perfect strike, and somehow managing to stay on his feet, Price took it into the endzone for a 79 yard TD run. The Vols were up 20-9 after a missed extra point. Then scored three more on a field goal.
The Seminoles didn't go quietly. They scored a TD to get within a touchdown, 23-16.
They tried an onside kick, which failed. But Tennessee gave them life once again with a fumble. Time was winding down, and Florida State was driving...
Interception! With only 1:21 remaining, the Vols could run out the clock on that miracle season. With Tee Martin taking a final knee, John Ward, in his final game as Voice of the Vols, uttered those words Vol fans will never forget.
"The National Champions are clad in Big Orange!"
WBIR is planning a season-long look back at the 1998 season as we approach the 20th anniversary of that national championship. You can read a full breakdown of every game here, and watch a new story on 10News at 6 every week. We've also dug into the WBIR Vault to find some classic stories that will really take you back to the 90's!
Since that amazing season, Rocky Top has seen some rough times. Fulmer was fired a decade later after failing to live up to lofty expectations. Lane Kiffin was in and out as head coach in a year, followed by the Derek Dooley era, which most fans would like to forget. Butch Jones made his coaching debut at Tennessee in 2013, and while there were some great moments and near breakthroughs, he didn't get the job done. Now Jeremy Pruitt is tasked with taking the Vols into the future.
Who knows what the 2018 season and beyond holds. With Phillip Fulmer back at Tennessee in the role of Director of Athletics, hopes are high the Vols will be back. Let's hope it's not another twenty years before they bring home another championship!