This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI contributor Lexie Little
Following SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, last week, the loudest and proudest among college football fans gear up for yet another season. This year, college football celebrates 150 years of athletic tradition. The tradition of preseason predictions continues with gusto, but before the 2019 Vols clash with Southeastern Conference foes on the gridiron, take a look back at others who shaped collegiate football history, including some who continue to do so in “This Week in UT Sports History.”
July 25, 1978
On a Tuesday in 1978, Andy Gibb topped the Hot 100 Billboard charts with “Shadow Dancing.” Bob Lemon replaced Billy Martin as New York Yankees manager. And in Mobile, Alabama, the life of a Vol for Life commenced. Former national champion and current Tennessee assistant head coach Tee Martin was born this week in 1978.
Mobile proved a much different environment to be raised than that of UT quarterback predecessor Peyton Manning’s NFL legend household. Violence scattered the streets around Martin’s birthplace, and he needed to keep his mind and time occupied to avoid tragedy.
“Growing up, we were the people that everybody thought weren’t going to do anything,” Martin said at the 1998 preseason SEC media gathering. “We were the quieter people, the people who went in when the street lights came on. Everybody was like, Nah, they’re going to be the last people to make it out of this neighborhood.’
“We were the ones to make it.”
Martin made it from Mobile to Knoxville. He played at Tennessee from 1996 to 1999, waiting patiently for his chance to shine behind Manning. Martin stepped into the QB role following Manning’s senior season and SEC Championship victory in 1997. At age 20, he took the national stage, leading the undefeated Tennessee Volunteers to another SEC Championship and the 1998 BCS National Championship title, beating the Florida State Seminoles 23-16 in the Fiesta Bowl. His 22-3 career record (.880 winning percentage) as the starting quarterback remains the best in Tennessee history.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Tennessee’s No. 17 in the fifth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. He donned the black and gold for two years before joining the Oakland Raiders. He later spent two seasons in the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Despite his abilities as an athlete, Martin retained a mind for coaching. In 2006, he began his coaching career as the passing game coordinator at Moorhouse College. Today, he holds the same role along with the titles of assistant head coach and wide receivers coach at his alma mater.
Head coach Jeremy Pruitt hired Martin after he was let go from Southern California in January, adding him to his staff for the 2019 season, Pruitt’s second as head coach. Martin coached at USC from 2012-2018, working his way up to offensive coordinator for the Trojans in 2016, the same year 247Sports named him National Recruiter of the Year. At USC, he developed wide receiver talent like NFL star JuJu Smith-Schuster, who holds several league records including distinctions as the first player to score five touchdowns before age 21 and the youngest receiver to reach 1,500 receiving yards (picking up 1,426 in a single season in 2018).
“It’s the perfect time to come back home,” Martin said upon his hire. “With Coach Fulmer’s support, Coach Pruitt is taking the Tennessee program in the right direction, and I’m excited to be a member of this outstanding coaching staff. I truly love this university and I bleed Orange and White. My time here was the greatest four years I could’ve ever imagined on and off the field. It’s my goal to help our Tennessee football student-athletes have the same experiences I had when I was a student here. It’s great to be home.”
Martin hopes to bring mental and physical toughness back to the wide receiver position at Tennessee. With four senior wide receivers including Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, he looks forward to practices and play to come.
“We’re going to play fast, we’re going play tough,” Martin said in an interview for UTSports.com. “We’re going to make plays.”
Martin will run through the T for the first time as a UT coach Aug. 31, 2019 when the Vols take on Georgia State. The game will be televised on ESPNU and kicks off at 3:30 p.m.
July 22, 2005
Five years after Martin’s departure from Tennessee, his successors in orange and white earned a season opening rank in the top 10 for its 109th season and added 10 Vols to the preseason All-SEC lists, nine more than Tennessee earned this year.
A season prior, then head coach and current athletic director Phillip Fulmer led the Vols to a convincing victory in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M, 38-7. Tennessee entered the 2005 season at No. 3 in the AP Poll as announced July 22nd and decidedly appeared to be a contender for the national title.
“We have a chance to be a great football team,” Fulmer said, optimistic with eight starters returning on offense and seven on defense. The full roster included names like Erik Ainge, Arian Foster, Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain, Ramon Foster, James Wilhoit, Britton Colquitt, and Inky Johnson.
The Vols then prepped for the season opener against the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB). Tennessee beat the Blazers in one prior meeting, 37-13, in the 1998 homecoming game won by the undefeated national champions and QB Tee Martin.
The 2005 match-up a little over a month later proved less stellar. The Vols barely scraped out a win against UAB in a 17-10 win with Neyland Stadium packed – a sellout of 107,529.
“If we don’t play better we’re going to struggle especially the next couple of weeks,” Fulmer said. “So I’m expecting us to go back to work and correct our mistakes.”
The preseason ranking did not hold. Fulmer’s words did.
The Vols struggled through October, losing to Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Notre Dame. Fans may remember the bizarre top 25 Bama clash in which the only points came from field goals with a final of 6-3. Tennessee, once thought to finish with another national title, finished the season with a losing 5-6 record, barely avoiding a last place finish in the SEC East with a 27-8 win against Kentucky.
“The tendency is to be relieved that the season is over, but I really wish we had another two weeks of practice, a bowl game and the young guys some more experience,” Fulmer said after the Kentucky game. “You take whatever lessons you learned and try to make the most of them.”
Following that five-win season, Tennessee earned a record of 9-4 in 2006 after Fulmer rehired former offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe to the same role. The Vols earned wins against Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, teams that plagued the orange swarm just a few months prior.
The 2018 Vols only won five games last season, and Jeremy Pruitt’s staff and players look to repeat history in this instance, improving from one year to the next.