What Once Was… Could It Be Again?

By Mark Nagi

What were you doing 23 years ago?

I know what I was doing. I was in Tempe, watching Tennessee win its first consensus national championship in 47 years. Their 23-16 victory over Florida State capped off a 13-0 season, putting Tennessee at the top of the college football world.

I spent every frequent flyer mile I had and slept on top of an air conditioning until while crashing in a hotel room with 8 other people. But it was worth it.

Like Andy Bernard said in the series finale of “The Office,” I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.

A lot has changed for all of us since that magical Arizona night. I’m 49 now, not a bright eyed and bushy tailed (does math) 26-year-old. Today I’ve got daughters, college funds, a mortgage, a 401K, and a pension that I’ll be calling on before I know it.

My Dad was a big Tennessee fan, watching that game from afar in Albany, New York. He’s gone now, but I’m blessed to still have my Mom at 90 years young.

It’s tougher to get up in the morning these days. The joints don’t spring to attention on a moment’s notice like they once did. The pounds that I used to be able to shed with ease now stick around longer than I’d like.

It’s true that time waits for none of us. But anniversaries remind you what once was, what will never be again… but what could possible return someday.

This is a long and drawn-out way of saying that Tennessee football will likely never return to those glory days of the late 1990s/early 2000s… but that doesn’t mean that happy days aren’t on the horizon.

Tennessee had a ridiculous amount of success during that time I just mentioned. Between 1995 and 1999, the Vols went 45-5 with two SEC championships and the 1998 BCS national championship.

Here’s how good they were. In 1997, Tennessee finished the year 11-2.  They were third in the country at the end of the regular season. They saw quarterback Peyton Manning, defensive back Terry Fair and wide receiver Marcus Nash selected in the first round of the following April’s NFL draft. Defensive end Leonard Little was picked in the third round and played 12 years in the NFL.

Even missing all that talent, the Vols went out and won the national title the following season.

Tennessee’s hasn’t been to the mountain top since the win over the Seminoles. They were close in 2001, before being upset in the SEC championship game by Nick Saban and the LSU Tigers. That loss still haunts the Vols football program to this day.

Most of the past 23 years has been spent in the college football wilderness, watching their biggest rivals have the success they so crave. Florida has won two national championships. Alabama has won six. Georgia has played for the title twice, including tonight.

The college football landscape has changed a great deal since Phillip Fulmer was dominating in recruiting and on the field of play.

After year one of the Josh Heupel era, you get the feeling that Tennessee isn’t as far from making a return to the national and conference conversation as they have been. It’s an exciting style of offensive football, and the kids play hard for Heupel, two things that didn’t happen under the previous administration.

In 2022, the Vols bring back quarterback Hendon Hooker, leading receiver Cedric Tillman and top running back Jabari Small. 9 regular season wins isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Maybe it’s ok to dream a little bit. 1998 doesn’t just have to be a memory…

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