In TheSportsNotebook’s tour of the modern era (1976-Present) looking for the best sports cities in any individual year, I’ve stuck with a consistent ground rule. A team’s championships must take place within a one sports calendar year, which runs from the Final Four through the Super Bowl. 1999 makes it tough to adhere strictly to that rule and still choose an area that experienced at least one championship. Hence, I’m going to cheat a little bit. TheSportsNotebook will honor the state of Tennessee—they got the Titans to the Super Bowl that year, but for our championship, we’re sneaking in college football and the Tennessee Volunteers. January 4, 1999 saw the Vols seal a national title run that’s in the books for the 1998 schedule. So let’s look back on what it was to root for the Vols and Titans through the falls of 1998-99
The Volunteers gathered in the fall of 1998 for what looked to be a year of re-tooling. The previous four years had seen a quarterback named Peyton Manning at helm, but with his departure for the Indianapolis Colts, a new signal-caller had to be found. And while the Vols had won the SEC title the prior year and gone to the Orange Bowl, they did have a bugaboo to overcome—they’d lost to Florida five straight years and this at a time when the Gators and Vols dominated the SEC East. The ’97 season had seen a stroke of good luck happen when Florida lost twice, but if Tennessee wanted to get over the hump—just in the division, much less the conference or the nation, they were going to have to find a way to beat Steve Spurrier’s Gators. The game was set for September 19 in Knoxville.
A big test awaited in non-conference play and that was a trip to Syracuse. The Orangemen rivaled Virginia Tech as the top program in the Big East at this time and their own quarterback was one headed for NFL fame—Donovan McNabb had led the ‘Cuse to a conference championship the prior year and was hoping for more this time around. Tennessee game into the game ranked 10th, while Syracuse was 17th, and the game was everything college football fans hoped. McNabb was razor-sharp, hitting 22/28 for 300 yards, while Tennessee had a ground game behind freshman Jamal Lewis—another player with a tremendous NFL future ahead of him, mostly with the Baltimore Ravens—who gained 140 yards. Syracuse led 33-31 late in the fourth quarter and it was time for Manning’s replacement Tee Martin to prove his mettle. Martin moved the Vols into a field goal range, where Jeff Hail nailed a 27-yarder on the last play for a one-point win. Tennessee moved up to seventh in the polls and after a bye week and a little more attrition, nudged to #6 as they got ready to host #2 Florida.
If anyone had questions about Tennessee’s offense, the events in Knoxville wouldn’t have persuaded them otherwise. The Vols attack was essentially non-existent, but their defense stood tall. A unit led by All-American linebacker Al Wilson, on his way to five Pro Bowl seasons with the Denver Broncos, shut down the Florida running game and the Gators made mistakes. Tennessee collected four turnovers and forced overtime at 17-17. Hall kicked a field goal on UT’s possession. Florida lined up to answer, but missed. It wasn’t the most authoritative of wins, but Tennessee had beaten its nemesis and had firm control of the SEC East.
Georgia was hoping to upend the applecart and after Tennessee beat Houston and what was then a lousy Auburn, the Bulldogs were waiting in Athens, ranked #7. It was no contest, at least for the Volunteer defense. Tennessee chipped its way to a 9-3 lead, scored 13 points in the third quarter and coasted to a 22-3 win. By this point they were settled in at #3 in the polls. Ohio State and UCLA held the top two spots. If this scenario would have occurred just one year earlier then Tennessee would have needed a double dose of help, as the Buckeyes and Bruins would have been headed for the Rose Bowl. But 1998 was the first year of the BCS Championship Series, and the Fiesta Bowl would host the top two teams regardless of conference affiliation. Only one of the Big Ten-Pac-10 combo needed to lose for head coach Philip Fulmer and the Vols to get their shot.
That help came one year later although not in the form of an outright upset. UCLA was unimpressive in a four-point win over Stanford, while Tennessee met Alabama at home. The Crimson Tide was not a great team, but they were a club that would win seven games and reach a bowl. Tennessee built a 14-3 lead and controlled the ground game behind running back Travis Henry. Then, after a ‘Bama touchdown, wide receiver and return man Peerless Price, another future NFL starter, took a kickoff 100 yards to the house. Tennessee never looked back and won 35-18, moving up to #2 in the polls. They controlled their own destiny for a title date with Ohio State, who was seen as the clear team to beat on the national stage.
Tennessee beat South Carolina and UAB, and on November 7 the Vols got even more help. Ohio State was stunned at home by Michigan State. With the Vols moving to #1 in the country, it was essentially unthinkable that anything other than an outright defeat could deny them their place in Tempe on January 4.
One week later in Knoxville, Arkansas nearly pulled the shocker. They led the Vols 21-3 and still clung to a 24-21 lead in the latter part of the fourth quarter while holding the ball in Tennessee territory. Arkansas fumbled. With a second chance handed to them on a silver platter, Martin led the offense down inside the 5-yard-line, when Henry scored in the closing seconds. The Tennessee offense was still disrespected and the reason they weren’t seen as an overwhelming #1, but against both Syracuse and Arkansas—teams who would end the season in the Orange and Citrus Bowls respectively—Martin’s unit had come through. The win all but secured a perfect regular season, as blowouts of Kentucky and Vanderbilt by a combined 100-21 were all that followed prior to Championship Saturday.
FIRST THE SEC, THEN THE NATION
On December 5, it was Tennessee and Kansas State who controlled their destiny to play for the national championship, with UCLA in third. All three were undefeated and controversy was looming, even if the Vols had nothing to worry about. It turned out the controversy wouldn’t be about undefeated teams. By the time Tennessee took the field in prime-time against Mississippi State, K-State had lost the Big 12 Championship to Texas A&M and UCLA dropped its season finale at Miami. The Vols played for three quarters like they wanted to make it a trifecta, trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter to an 8-3 Bulldog squad that would unlikely have finished in the top half of the SEC East. Martin again responded at the key moment, throwing one touchdown pass, then turning a turnover into another quick strike. Tennessee prevailed 24-14, giving Fulmer his second straight conference title and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl (from 1998-2005 the championship game was played in the bowl itself, not given a separate championship game title as it is today).
Florida State would be the opponent and while Bobby Bowden had coached some great Seminole teams this wasn’t one of them. The offense was no more fearsome than Tennessee’s, even though Bowden’s reputation and the lack of respect for the Tennessee offense—including by yours truly, in the interests of full disclosure—led FSU to be the favorite, in spite of having one loss against an inferior schedule. In retrospect the underrating of Tennessee that so many of us did looks just plain stupid. As mentioned, Syracuse and Arkansas had gotten juicy bowl slots. Florida rolled to a 9-2 record and an Orange Bowl bid. Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi State were all quality opponents, and the Vols had met all comers, winning in blowouts, winning in close ones, winning with defense, but being able to call on their offense.
What I personally remember about the Tennessee-Florida State battle is being stuck in a train most of that day, as a snowstorm turned a ride from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee into an 18-hour affair and then having to trudge back to my apartment through the drifts, exhausted and the game having started. It took a quarter for any action to happen but early in the second period Tennessee scored first. They kicked a field goal, but Florida State was called for roughing. Rather than adhere to the dumb adage that you never take points off the board, Fulmer chose to keep the drive alive and got seven points instead of three. Then cornerback Dwayne Goodrich picked off a pass intended for Peter Warrick and went to the house. It was 14-0. Warrick was a star receiver who would take over the championship game one year later for Bowden. Tonight he was rendered useless by Goodrich and the Tennessee secondary. It was 14-0 at half.
Florida State came back in the third quarter and made it 14-9, with a missed extra point keeping the margin at five points. It was into the fourth quarter when Martin made the play of the game, hitting Price on a 79-yard strike and opening the lead to 20-9. The Vols added a field goal. It looked over, but Florida State had one more push left in them. They got into the end zone and cut the lead to 23-16. Then Henry gave Vol Nation a collective heart attack when he fumbled it away, but defensive back Steve Johnson preserved the game with an interception. Tennessee was national champs, and it was a heckuva way to start 1999.
TENNESSEE MAKES ITS HOME IN THE NFL
If college football had seen a traditional power and the heart of the sports community in the state get over the hump, the NFL story was different. The Titans were in just their third year in the state after moving from Houston and 1999 would be their first year going under the name “Titans”, having decided that “Tennessee Oilers” didn’t exactly fit. Whatever city they played in, and whatever they were called, the team was settled in comfortable mediocrity, having gone 8-8 three straight seasons and 7-9 in 1995.
Jeff Fisher was coaching the team and had the offense built around running back Eddie George, who ran behind an offensive line that included All-Pro left guard Bruce Matthews, one of the best to ever play his position. Another Pro Bowler was tight end Frank Wycheck, although he would later make his biggest contribution to the Super Bowl run by methods not usually ascribed to his position. The team ranked 7th in the NFL in points scored and a defense built around a strong four-man pass rush did enough to get by. Rookie end Jevon Kearse rang up 14.5 sacks, and Henry Ford provided solid pressure on the other end.
The Titans were in the old AFC Central. Prior to the realignment of 2002 this division consisted of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Baltimore. The Titans opened with wins over the lowly Bengals and Browns and then went to Jacksonville. Coached by Tom Coughlin and led by Mark Brunnell, the Jaguars were the division favorite and seen as a serious Super Bowl threat. Tennessee pulled a 20-19 upset, rallying from a 17-7 deficit after three quarters. Neil O’Donnell, formerly the starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers on their Super Bowl team of 1995, was the Titan insurance policy for starter Steve McNair, and O’Donnell threw for 216 yards, while the defense picked Brunnell three times.
Tennessee suffered a letdown with a two-point loss to San Francisco—at the time this loss looked okay, as the 49ers had been in the playoffs every year since 1991, but ’99 was the beginning of the end for the Steve Young era by the Bay. The Titans came back and won a tough home game over Baltimore 14-11. They trailed 9-7 in the third quarter when O’Donnell found Yancy Thigpen—another Pittsburgh castoff—for the go-head score in the fourth quarter.
October 31 marked a visit to St. Louis, with two non-traditional powers having only one loss. The Rams had electrified the league early behind previously unknown Kurt Warner, who’d taken over the offense and turned it into a prolific passing machine, with versatile running back Marshall Faulk and explosive receivers Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt. The Titans were ready, as McNair threw two early touchdown passes and helped build a 21-0 lead. Warner came storming back and threw three scoring strikes of his own in the second half, but buried in between them was an Al Del Greco field goal for Tennessee that ensured the Titans got out of town with a 24-21 win.
Prosperity again proved difficult to handle, with a loss at Miami 17-0. The Dolphins were in their final year under Jimmy Johnson’s coaching and Dan Marino at quarterback, although Brock Huard got the nod for the Dolphins in this game. Huard picked apart the Titan secondary, at 15/25 for 210 yards and zero mistakes, while McNair tossed three into enemy hands. The loss was all the more crucial, because Jacksonville hadn’t lost since their September 26 game with Tennessee.
After rolling through Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland (the Steelers were going through a three-year period, 1998-2000, of mediocrity), the Titans got set for a trip to Baltimore. The Ravens were on their way to an 8-8 season, but were becoming competitive and this was a rivalry that would define the entire NFL just one year later. Tennessee wasn’t ready. While the trailed only 17-14 at half and 24-14 after three quarters, the Ravens pulled away with 17 fourth-quarter points. Tennessee’s defense was picked apart by Tony Banks, who threw for 332 yards and running back Priest Holmes got 100 receiving yards on just nine catches.
The loss at Baltimore relegated Tennessee to wild-card status, even though they played well the rest of the way. A Thursday night win over Oakland was keyed by George’s 199 yards on the ground and on the day after Christmas, Tennessee again beat Jacksonville, and this time it wasn’t close. The Titans jumped out to a 17-0 lead behind two TD passes from McNair, and the defense picked Brunnell three times yet again. The final was the same 41-14 score they’d lost to Baltimore by. Because of the Titans’ other losses, it only delayed Jacksonville’s clinching of the AFC Central and #1 seed by a week, but Tennessee was a dazzling 13-3 and headed into the playoffs as the #4 seed in the AFC.
MIRACLES, MANNING & MATCHUP EDGES
Prior to the 2002 realignment the top wild-card got a home playoff game, as there were only three division winners, so Tennessee’s fans filled up the stadium on January 8 to watch a Saturday afternoon game with Buffalo, one the Titans were expected to win. After a scoreless first quarter, the game seemed to go according to script in the second quarter. Kearse sacked Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson for a safety, McNair snuck a TD in and Del Greco hit a field goal. It was 12-0, but that was the last thing about this day that would go according to script.
Buffalo took a 13-12 on two touchdown runs by Antwoain Smith who rushed for 79 yards on the day. George rushed for 106 and helped overcome an incompetent game by McNair and Tennessee got a fourth-quarter field goal from Del Greco to make it 15-13. Buffalo answered with a kick of its own fro Steve Christie with just seconds on the clock. It was 16-15 and the upset was all but sealed.
When the squib kickoff game, Wycheck was the one who fielded it at his own 25. He turned and threw the ball back across the field to Dyson. The Buffalo special teams were caught completely off guard and Dyson raced into the end zone. Buffalo was sure Wycheck had thrown it forward and instant replay was called in. The delay seemed to take forever, as it seemed you could look at the play from any angle and see what you wanted. What the officials saw was a legal lateral and a stunning touchdown. The Music City Miracle was now an integral part of NFL lore, and the Titans were moving to the divisional playoffs.
A face familiar to Tennessee football stood in the way the following Sunday. Peyton Manning was making his first playoff appearance as a pro, and there were questions about his ability to win the big one—after all, he’d never beaten Florida and then his alma mater rolled to a national title behind a quarterback with considerably less skill, but perhaps more clutch mojo. It was a reputation that would chase Manning until he got his ring in 2006 and not until the Colts completely came apart at the seams after his neck injury cost him the 2011 season, did that reputation get its final deserved burial. Peyton’s postseason miseries started on this day. George put the Titans up 13-9 in the third quarter with a 68-yard scoring run and piled up 162 yards on the day, keying a 19-16 road win.
Next up was the AFC Championship Game and the Titans had to complete the sweep of Jacksonville, who’d gotten the first-round bye and then annihilated Miami to send Johnson and Marino into retirement. Jacksonville drew first blood on a touchdown pass by Brunnel to his tight end Kyle Brady. McNair found Thigpen to answer. In the second quarter, the Jags found the end zone again and the Titans could only answer with a Del Greco field goal. It was 14-10 at half.
Tennessee drove it for a touchdown to take the lead and then sacked Brunnel for a safety to take a 19-14 lead. They had the momentum, but what happened next clearly swung the game for good. Derrick Mason took the free kick after the safety on his own 20 and ended up in the end zone. It was now 26-14 and the Titans were rolling. They would intercept Brunnel twice in this game—eight in the three-game swing against their rival and a man who was then one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. The final was 33-14. Tennessee was the only team in the NFL to beat Jacksonville all year, but they left no doubt about who owned this matchup.
THE LONGEST YARD
1999 was a rare year where the NFL decided to play the Super Bowl the week right after the conference championship games, denying the fans, coaches and players of both sides a few days to just celebrate and let it out of their system, before refocusing. At least the foe was familiar—St. Louis had gotten the #1 seed in the NFC, blown out Minnesota and then survived a tough fight against Tampa Bay to get Warner and veteran coach Dick Vermeil to the game’s biggest stage.
Tennessee didn’t come quite as strong as they had in the October 31 meeting. St. Louis was the only team to score in the first half, getting three field goals from Jeff Wilkins for a 9-0 lead. If you were a concerned Titans fan you looked at the last four quarters against the Rams and noted you only had three points. If you were a concerned Rams fan you looked at this game in light of the NFC Championship battle and noted that your high-powered offense had found the end zone one time in six quarters of football at the highest level. Someone had to find a way to move the ball.
At first that was the Rams, as Warner found Holt on a nine-yard scoring play to make it 16-0. On the verge of putting a lot of us to sleep, the Titans decided to awake. By early in the fourth quarter, George had rushed in for a pair of short touchdowns and cut the lead to 16-13. Then a Del Greco field goal tied the game. Could the Super Bowl trophy being joining the BCS trophy in the state of Tennessee? Warner wasn’t ready to yield that quick. He rifled a 73-yard strike to Isaac Bruce down the sideline and the Rams had the lead with less than two minutes to play.
Tennessee got the ball on its own 10 after a penalty on the kickoff return. 1:54 was on the clock. McNair pushed the team down the field. With time for one more play they were now on the Rams ten-yard line. The play was a slant to Dyson who needed only make one man miss to reach the end zone. The man was linebacker Mike Jones. It was a play the receiver wins more often than not, but not this time. Jones wrapped. Dyson reached. The ball landed at the one-yard line. Play-by-play man Al Michaels made immediate reference to the movie The Longest Yard now having a sequel.
Unfortunately for the Titans, this was as close as they’ve gotten. In 2000, they had the best team in football and were #1 in the AFC. Like Jacksonville the year before they had to play a hot wild-card from their own division in Baltimore. The Ravens won the game and went on to win the Super Bowl. Though the Titans-Ravens game took place in the second round, I believe it was the de facto Super Bowl. Tennessee was the only team who even stayed on the field with the ’00 Baltimore team. In 2002, Tennessee lost the AFC title game in Oakland. In 2008 they had a #1 seed and lost at home…to Baltimore.
The Super Bowl trophy hasn’t come to Tennessee, but at least the AFC title has. And the fact it came right on the heels of the state’s beloved college football program winning a national title made the seventeen months from September 1998 thru January 2000 a great time in Tennessee football history.