This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
The Tennessee Volunteers opened the 2019 season with a historic loss against Georgia State in front of a crowd of 85,503 on Saturday. Prior to kick-off, a 42-foot cabin cruiser caught fire and sank, taking the wind out of the sails of Vol Navy. The Pride of the Southland Band, which celebrates its 150th year this year, commenced halftime festivities with one member collapsing. And on the field, the Vols lost their first home opener since 1983.
As per usual, sports pundits and analysts gathered stats and facts from the game to make comparisons with prior teams and current rivals to predict the potential (or lack thereof) of Jeremy Pruitt’s current squad. With nearly 128 years of Tennessee football tradition, ample sources for comparison exist.
This week in UT sports history, take a look back at facts and figures from football as SEC mania continues its permanence in news cycles.
Sept. 6, 1980
A new decade brought an old rival. With the desire for a win, the Vols faced the reality of a loss. The Georgia Bulldogs opened their national championship campaign by defeating the Tennessee Volunteers 16-15 in Knoxville on Saturday, Sept. 6, 1980 in front of a crowd of 95,288.
Johnny Majors led the team onto the field in a newly expanded Neyland Stadium. The stadium became a bowl in 1980, enclosing the field with the completion of the north end lower deck. The addition allowed for around 10,500 more seats. That season, the average attendance equaled more than 94,000 for each of seven home games.
A large crowd chomped at the bit for a win, but the Bulldogs’ bite equaled their braggadocious bark thanks to a seemingly timid young pup. Eventual Heisman hoister, then-freshman Herschel Walker, led the Dawgs to a come-from-behind victory in miraculous fashion.
“Slot with an ‘I’…Tennessee crashing off one side, we pitch it to Herschel…HERSCHEL…HERSCHEL WALKER!”
Larry Munson’s radio call climbed in pitch and volume as Walker tore through the Tennessee defense with a little more than 11 minutes left in the game. Tennessee held on to a six-point lead before the young Bulldog barreled through. Heading to Knoxville, Walker had been Vince Dooley’s third choice to hold down the backfield. But Dooley had to call the fledgling Dawg to enter the game, down 9-0 at halftime.
“When he got in the game in Tennessee in the opener in 1980, we saw a guy we didn’t see during the preseason,” former Georgia quarterback Buck Belue recalled in a later interview. “We knew we had a competitor, and we knew he was a talented guy. He had the whole package, and really, it just excited the whole team.”
A back-and-forth scramble for a loose ball on a kickoff eventually gave the Dawgs two points from a safety. But Majors’ Vols, outfitted in orange jerseys and orange pants, held on until Walker ran into the endzone, running over any man who stood in his way.
“I looked into Herschel’s eyes and realized he wasn’t going to make a move,” former Tennessee safety Bill Bates said, as recounted in a 2015 article from ESPN. “The next thing I knew, I had footprints on my chest and turned around and saw No. 34 running into the endzone for a touchdown.
“It was a big deal and something I’ll always remember.”
The fortuitous recruitment of Walker ultimately gave Georgia the one-point advantage in that game and the definite edge against all other opponents on the way to the national title. All anyone could do was watch the man who “drove right over orange shirts just driving and running with those big thighs,” as Munson said.
The Vols, however, earned striking wins later in the season against Auburn, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Tennessee trounced the Tigers 42-0 in a shutout win and handled the Cats and Dores, winning 45-14 and 51-13, respectively. Despite those wins, Tennessee finished the season 5-6 overall, a losing record initiated by a freshman in red and silver britches.
Sept. 5, 1998
Eighteen years after the home opener loss to Georgia, the Tennessee Vols commenced a national championship season of their own. The 1998 squad, which earned a perfect 13-0 record, escaped a near upset against Syracuse on the road with a 34-33 win to open the season.
A crowd of 49,550 filed into the Carrier Dome at noon for the season opener between two top 25 teams. Tennessee jumped out to an early lead as Tee Martin, now assistant head coach at UT, connected with Peerless Price on a 12-yard touchdown pass. Syracuse did not answer until 9:49 remained in the second, tying the game at seven-all before Martin snuck into the endzone with 53 seconds left in the half.
A back-and-forth scoring battle ensued. With 2:38 remaining in the fourth quarter, Syracuse kicker Nate Trout hit a 19-yard field goal to make the score 33-31. The Vols drove down the field, going 72 yards in nine plays to set up for what would be the final play.
No time left on the clock. Twenty-seven yards out. Jeff Hall squared up. The snap. The hold. The kick.
Hall’s last-second kick lifted Tennessee over Syracuse 34-33 to kick off the undefeated season.
“When I went out there, I just thought, ‘Well, I’ve done my prayer time, I’ve done my Bible study,’ and I just knew I had such a peace going out there,” Hall said in a postgame interview via WBIR. “It just went so quick. You know, I just gotta give all the glory to God. He put me out there, he put me in that position, and then he put the ball through the uprights. So, all the glory be to him.”
Divine intervention or not, the Vols won that game before hosting the Florida Gators in Neyland two weeks later. Tennessee needed some prayers during that match-up, too. Fire stirred in the hearts of 107,653 in attendance for a hot kickoff, 86 degrees at 8:10 p.m. The game would last well into the night, with the Vols leaving as victors 20-17 in overtime. But that’s another story for another week.
The narrative of Tennessee history continues this week as the 2019 Vols face BYU in Knoxville on Saturday, Sept. 7, at 7:00 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN. The narrative recorded in history: TBD.