This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
As the world closes out yet another decade, the biggest names in American football commemorate much bigger milestones as college football celebrates 150 years of play and the National Football League celebrates 100 years. Last Thursday, ESPN named former Vol defensive lineman Reggie White, the “Minister of Defense,” first-team All-Time All-American in celebration of 150 years of college football — 15 years to the day after his death. Peyton Manning also made ESPN’s list on the second team. Both White and Manning also made the NFL’s Official All-Time Team.
Vols retain a reputation for setting records, excellence that endures through centuries on the gridiron, on courts, on fields, in classrooms, boardrooms, broadcasting booths, and beyond. As the orange and white bid farewell to another decade, Tennessee Volunteers ready themselves for yet another, using the examples of their predecessors to succeed.
Take a look back at the end of years past in “This Week in UT Sports History.”
Jan. 2, 1939
Routing Oklahoma in bowl appearances is a Southeastern Conference tradition, one dating back to 1939 for the Vols. In its second bowl appearance, then Maj. Robert Neyland’s stingy defense shut out the Sooners 17-0 in the Orange Bowl in Miami on the second day of the last year of the 1930s. The Vols held a perfect record and the national title.
Knoxville Journal sports editor Tom Anderson described the end to Tennessee’s best season to date as a finish fit for fairytale lore:
“Tennessee’s unconquerable Vols, as splendid a football machine as ever yanked off a sticky sweat sock after a day’s work well done, completed the most successful campaign in the school’s history appropriately here this afternoon by subduing the Oklahoma Sooners…” Anderson wrote. But outbursts of poor sportsmanship “considerably marred” what could have been a “great contest.”
The crowd of 32,191 booed as officials chalked up penalties while the Vols and Sooners continued “slugging, kicking, heckling, and wrangling with the officials.” Anderson noted no member of the crowd could fairly assign blame for the fiasco, but “it was the observation of those in the press box that virtually all of the unpleasantness was instigated by members of the husky, bruising Big Six championship contingent.”
Officials ejected two Sooners for unnecessary roughness as the Vols caught “[knees] in the ear or a foot in the pants” on every tackle. The rough-and-tumble match even led to the Vols taking out one of their own cheerleaders.
“Pretty Thelma Guinn, 20, cheer leader for the University of Tennessee, was caught on the field when her own team started a steam-roller touchdown sweep—and swept her along with Oklahoma players,” the Associated Press reported. “The girl, unconscious, was carried to the first aid station and then to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where it was said she suffered multiple bruises.”
The 1938 team started a streak of three consecutive Vol squads with undefeated regular season records and conference titles before Neyland left for service in World War II. The 1939 team shut out all opponents in the regular season, the last team to go undefeated and unscored upon in NCAA history. The shutout streak began at the end of the 1938 season and included 17 total shutout games. Had it not been for a 14-0 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl, the Vols would have likely repeated as national champions in 1939. They redeemed themselves as national champions in 1940 (split championship claimed off two selectors).
Jan. 4, 1999
Sixty years later, the national champions were yet again clad in Big Orange — this time with no doubt about No. 1. The Vols clinched their sixth national title in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona—the first BCS National Championship — beating Florida State 23-16 to close out a perfect season and claim a unanimous title.
Peyton Manning had graduated following the 1997 season, and many fans wondered whether the Tennessee squad could survive without the Heisman runner-up. Tee Martin, Peerless Price, head coach Phillip Fulmer, and others knew it could.
“Ever heard of the Painted Desert?” Tennessean senior writer David Climer asked following the game. “As of this morning, a select portion of the Arizona desert has been painted orange.”
The 1998 Vols always found a way to win, whether it be by breaks in the game, tenacity, will of fans, will of players, or just dumb luck. Tennessee had outlasted Florida on a Gator field goal gone wrong and stumbled toward victory as Arkansas fumbled it away. And as the Seminoles threatened in the fourth, only down by seven with 3:42 on the clock, the Vols crushed their opponents’ hopes in the desert dust before a crowd of 80,470 — more than 30,000 coming from ranks of the Tennessee southern constituency.
“This team has consistently found a way to win,” Fulmer said. “Our defense has led the way…It wasn’t just one or two guys, but a whole football team believing it could get it done and working hard to get it done.”
After 47 years, the national championship trophy for football headed to Knoxville to forever fill a case in Tennessee Athletics. Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols had placed their own national title trophy in the case just months prior.
“We knew we were going to take it home, baby,” quarterback and current Tennessee assistant coach Tee Martin said.
Tennessee closed out the end of a miraculous run on the field. And up in the broadcast booth, late legendary Vol announcer John Ward uttered his last call after 31 years calling Tennessee football.
“Coach Fulmer has been doused with Tostitos…you can count it down with us…The national champion is clad in big orange.”
Though this year’s champions will not be clad in Pantone 151 orange, the Vols will continue bowl tradition on Thursday, Jan. 2 in the 2020 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against Indiana. The game begins at 7:00 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.