New RTI contributor Noah Taylor is the author of this article
Fred White almost missed it.
In the most important moment in the game, with Tennessee’s 1998 campaign already hanging in the balance in the final seconds of their season opener against Syracuse, White was heading to the locker room.
The heat in the not-so-aptly named Carrier Dome coupled with defending Heisman candidate Donovan McNabb for almost an entire game had White needing IVs.
“It was loud, and it was hot,” White recalled. “When I say hot, I mean hot and humid. You would not expect that in Syracuse, New York. They play in the Carrier Dome. Carrier is one of the biggest air conditioning companies in the world, but it was so hot in that place it was ridiculous.
“Every starter on defense had to get an IV. Every starter. That’s how hot and dehydrated we were.”
On the field, Vols senior place kicker Jeff Hall was in a familiar spot. In his three-plus seasons at Tennessee, he had been in this situation before. In 1995, Hall needed a field goal to beat Georgia in the waning minutes of the game. He came through. The Vols needed him again against Syracuse three years later.
“I don’t know how I presented myself to the fans or on TV, but I was a nervous wreck before every kick,” Hall said. “Whether it was an extra point or a field goal, I was pretty wound up on the inside. In a situation like that, I knew what was on the line, so I was maybe a little more focused.”
As White was being led by trainers to the visitor’s locker room, he stopped. He needed to see Hall’s kick first. He needed to know how it ended.
“We got the stop and I was going (to the locker room),” White said. “I started cramping so they were going to stretch me out in case we went into overtime or something. I was sitting there thinking, ‘man, I need an IV right now.’ But we drove it down field and got in position to win the game.
“Before they took me into the locker room I told them to hold on. I had to see this kick first. If he hit it, I was going to be happy. If not, it was going to be a bad ride home.”
For Hall, he hearkened back to something another former Tennessee kicker told him when he was faced with kicking the game-deciding field goal nearly a decade earlier.
“Fuad Reveiz defined it as a ‘calm rage,” Hall explained. “I think being my senior year, you’re used to those situations. You’re in an opponent’s stadium, you’ve got to have points, you know it’s on television. You’re just kind of used to the whole environment that comes with college football.
“I would always prepare the same way, which was to expect that any game could come down to a field goal, and it just happened that the Syracuse game ended up that way.”
Minutes before Hall’s kick, it took a defensive stand by the Vols to get junior quarterback Tee Martin and the offense back on the field. Then it took a pass interference call on the Orangemen on fourth down and UT trailing 33-31 to keep that drive alive with 1:43 left.
With a fresh set of downs, Jamal Lewis picked up a first down to the Syracuse 43-yard line. The next play, Martin hit Peerless Price on a 16-yard pass to set up another first down inside the 30-yard line.
By this point, Tennessee was well within Hall’s range, but Lewis and Martin tacked on some insurance with a pair of runs to pull the Vols inside the 10 with four seconds left.
There was no doubt about Hall’s 27-yard boot, which gave Tennessee a 34-33 lead as time expired.
White could finally get the IVs he needed.
“As soon as he kicked it, I heard the thump, I could see it going in,” White said. “It went in and we won the game. I said, ‘alright, let’s go.’ I didn’t even get a chance to celebrate on the field or shake their hands. I needed that IV, I was cramping so bad.”
Hall, the man of the hour, did get to take part in the on-field celebration.
“I remember everybody running on to the field and hugging me,” Hall said. “I was swarmed by the team. It was just crazy, it all happened kind of quickly. Once everybody was done with the celebration, I just kind of got to enjoy the moment. I just took my time walking off the field knowing we had just beaten a good Syracuse team.”
For Tennessee, it meant a 1-0 start to a season with tempered expectations, at least outside of the program.
The Vols were less than a season removed from Peyton Manning leading the offense at quarterback. The future Hall of Famer was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick to the Indianapolis Colts in the 1998 NFL Draft — a deserved payoff following a record-setting career in Knoxville.
But despite the laundry list of accolades in his four years at Tennessee, Manning didn’t win a national championship. With a void at quarterback and a number of other positions that were poached by senior departures and the NFL, no one was expecting the Vols to win one in 1998 — no one except themselves.
“You’ve got to remember, we lost 16 seniors the year before,” White said. “We lost four first-round draft picks. We lost Peyton Manning, Marcus Nash, Terry Fair. On defense and on offense, we lost a lot of people. No one expected us to win a national championship. It was all about one thing: proving everybody wrong.”
Even though the confidence in themselves was there, the Vols weren’t exactly expecting that close of a game against Syracuse. It wasn’t until the following week when the Orangemen traveled to Ann Arbor and beat No. 13 Michigan 38-28 in the Big House that Tennessee’s players realized how good Syracuse was and how good of a win it was for them.
“We didn’t really know how good Syracuse was,” White admitted. “To be honest with you, we thought they couldn’t hang with us. Once we were in the game, we realized that these guys were really good. It made us realize that we had to step up our game. The next week we watched their game at Michigan, and they beat them. They went to Michigan and beat them the week after we beat them on the road. We knew we had to be pretty good then.”
As for national championship expectations, the Vols’ own expectations were heightened two weeks later in their home opener against No. 2 Florida at Neyland Stadium when Tennessee broke a five-year losing streak to the Gators in a 20-17 overtime win.
“We had the thought process that we could win a national championship and take it to the next level,” White said. “But I’ll say, the real moment that made us a realize that we were going to win a national championship was that Florida game.
Hall was one of the heroes again, kicking the go-ahead field goal in the first overtime before Florida’s Collin Cooper missed his to preserve the win.
“We beat Syracuse, but that was one game,” Hall said. “It was the season opener, and that can be a toss up because you’re not in mid-season form. But the Florida win was critical because we had not beaten them in a number of years, and knowing that typically whoever won that game was in the driver seat for the SEC Championship game.
“It gave us a lot of confidence. We realized we had something special.”