There is a Plot Afoot
We lost something amid the fortuitous tricks of fate, teamwork, and glory of Tennessee's completely wonderful and miraculous national title.
What we lostat least for a momentwas the familiar and comforting complaint that the national media (Yankee) cabal of plotters has it in for the UT football program and will never give us our due. This time around, the Vols became media darlings. The heart-stopping Cinderella title march earned fawning articles in USA Today, The New York Times ("A True Team Effort"), and every other national publication. The victory over Florida State earned Peerless Price the Holy Grail: the cover of Sports Illustrated. For a wrinkle in time, the injustice of Peyton Manning's being media-mangled out of his Heisman Trophy was dispatched to the back rooms of our collective paranoia.
But Whoa Nellie! The conspiracy theory was savedand watered, and nurturedby the swan song (Oops! Not a swan song at all!) of ABC's iconic Keith Jackson during the championship game. Didn't it seem as if Jackson spent a lot of time swooning over Bobby Bowden? Didn't he seem to be giving short shrift to the genius of Phillip Fulmer, the winningest coach in college football? Was this some kind of over-60 old boys club that our 48-year-old leader wasn't invited to?
"Jackson kept making excuses for Florida State," says ultra-fan Walt Bearden, who was in the stands in Tempe on January 4 but taped the game at home and has studied it closely. "Jackson kept talking about FSU's inexperienced quarterback," says Bearden, "and he sounded disappointed every time Tennessee did something good." Jackson never noted that UT's defensive backs had Florida State's receivers covered like Glad Bags on a picnic of peanut butter sandwiches, even as the camera showed the Seminole Peter Warrick, described as "unstoppable" and "uncoverable" in the pregame show, stomping up and down the sideline expressing his displeasure with the close company of the UT cornerbacks. "Get the ball to me!" he snarled, jerking his thumb toward his chest.
This wasn't helped by the overdone, saccharine tribute to Jackson's retirement, climaxed by Bob Griese pouring packing peanuts over Jackson's head in the we-love-you-coach manner of the Gatorade-and-ice routine. All this while they should have been analyzing the first half of the national championship football game!
As the game drew to a close, Jackson gave Tennessee its due, "but only because he had to," says Cleo Norman, another savvy fan. Griese, on the other hand, was objective, notes Norman, as he was covering his own son's playing days at Michigan.
Was Jackson rooting for Florida State? Was he rooting against Peyton Manning back in '97? Isn't it true that "media-connected" schools like Notre Dame, Michigan, Penn State, and USC always get better treatment than we do?
Nobody's doubting that Jackson belongs among the gods in the college football pantheon, but he touched a nerve by siding with the Seminoles. And now he comes back and announces he isn't retiring at all. And now both wire service polls rank Florida State No. 1ahead of the very team that not only beat them and returns its quarterback and offensive line, but will also add one of the premier running backs in the nation, Jamal Lewis, who is back from a knee injury. Sports Illustrated even put the Vols No. 4, more or less admitting that they deserved higher but hinting that the slight would do the team good. "Here you go, then," concluded SI's scouting report, dripping with condescension, "a Number 4 ranking, and the best of luck proving everyone wrong again." Would all those Princeton alums talk like that to Nebraska?
Like Hillary Clinton, UT fans have their reasons for believing in a vast conspiracy,
and it will take more than one national title and a few magazine covers to douse
our suspicions. Take note, scribes and editors and broadcasters and tassel-loafer-wearing
lizards of midtown Manhattan! We're watching you!
It should be noted that a year ago in this space, vegetarian financial guru David Moon made some rather prescient observations.
Moon, an ex UT-lineman, had met quarterback Tee Martin on a couple of occasions and gotten a palpable sense of his leadership qualities. "Watch what happens on the field," said Moon a year ago. "You'll see things happen because he's a natural leader. People just do what he wants them to do."
What's pertinent about this season is that Martin's maturity and leadership qualities have helped keep the team in focus and on track. The biggest lesson learned last year was thatwhat do you know?football is a team sport. If you play together, you can beat the teams filled with stars.
There have been no team-splitting media campaigns on behalf of individuals like Martin, or super tailback Jamal Lewis. SI is right: it is a blessing that Florida State was picked No. 1 in the polls, sparing us the early-season hubris and ruination that inevitably befalls the front-runner.
The Vols are described as confident, but not cocky. Over the summer the teamon its own and led by defensive captain Darwin Walker, a 290-pound tackleadhered to a Nebraskan weight room regimen.
Tailback Jamal Lewis endured the unenviable fate of watching the national championship from the sidelines. "Sitting out makes you more hungry for the game," he says. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders says he is the fastest runner to ever come through Knoxvilleand he's a power runner. Of course, UT also has the luxury of two other proven tailbacksthe two TravisesHenry and Stephens. There was talk early on that Travis Henry might serve as fullback, which would make for a speedy tandem indeed.
During much of last season, as Tee Martin got used to running the offense, Tennessee's coaching staff played it safe with their play selectionfocusing each game on a relatively small number of plays to keep Martin out of trouble. This strategy workedMartin completed 57 percent of his passes and threw only six interceptions all year. Now he's mastered every part of the playbook. Behind his veteran offensive line, he might pick defenses apart (remember 23 straight completions against South Carolina?), he might throw deep (remember those unstoppable fade patterns?), he might use his 4.4 speed (remember those runs when it mattered against Syracuse?).
Or he might give the ball to Jamal.
Once again, the tale is told earlyon Sept. 18, in Gainesville. Florida will have tuned up with Western Michigan and Central Florida on September 4 and 11. Tennessee plays Wyoming on Sept. 4. Although UT hasn't won in the Swamp since the Nixon administration, strong evidence points to this being the year the Vols win big-time.
The Gators' defense seems tailor-made to launch a Heisman march for Tee Martin or Jamal Lewisor both. Nine starters goneor make that 10, after strong safety Rod Graddy was kicked off the team for being involved in unscholarly conduct in a night spot. Furthermore, a new defensive coordinator, Jon Hoke, replaces Bob Stoops, who took the head job at Oklahoma.
Doug Johnson has given up playing baseball for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to lead the offense, which Spurrier conveniently sabotaged in Neyland Stadium by trying to switch him and Jesse Palmer in and out like the marionettes in The Sound of Music while a chorus of 107,653 made Neyland Stadium sound a little more like the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan.
A year ago coach, Jim Donnan wore a poker face that pretty much fooled everyone. He said all alongeven to his wifethat he wasn't sure who would quarterback the Bulldogs. In fact, he knew that Quincy Carter, returning to football after two years in the Chicago Cubs organization, was "special." Carter is no secret this season. Last year he kept the Bulldogs in the UT game by completing passes under pressure. In fact, he completed a 20-yarder while he was basically on his backand 60 percent of his passes during the season for close to 2,500 yards.
Donnan is an excellent coach, especially aided by ex-Vol assistants Kevin Ramsey and Rodney Garner, and he's still mad at Tennessee for appearing to run up the score several years ago.
Dustin McKay-Dillard Bonner, a redshirt sophomore who throws right-handed but writes left-handed, has stepped into the cleats of Tim Couch, now hurling for the Cleveland Browns.
There was doubt about the succession from the unit that was second best in the nation in passing and third in total offense, but Bonner did so well in spring and summer drills that coach Hal Mumme decided to redshirt quarterback Jared Lorenzen, a 6'4", 240-pound freshman from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, hailed as the next Tim Couch.
Bonner will be the squadron leader for "Air Raid '99: The Next Mission," behind an entirely new offensive line and without leading receiver Craig Yeast or senior receiver Jimmy Robinson. In line with the Wildcats' tragic history during the recent past, Robinson is out with a gunshot wound.
Senior linebacker Jeff Snedegar, who may have lost some short-term memory making 202 tackles last year, leads the "Black Flag" defense. (That's Black Flag, as in, "Never Surrender," not "Death to Cockroaches.")
This is the stellar defense against whom Tee Martin completed 23 passes in a row. "We couldn't complete 23 straight passes if we stood out there with no defense," observed the Gamecocks' new coach, Lou Holtz. At 62, Holtz is a little old to take on a rebuilding job like this one, but he's got the help of his son, Skip, the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.
The Gamecocks, devastated by the return of 16 starters from the corps that went 1-10 last year, will be buoyed by Holtz's endearing wisecracks and the 4.4 speed of tailback Boo Williams.
Dale and Myra Rothenberg of Farragut are planning a big party for Nov. 27, when their son Darren will start at left guard against the Volunteers in Neyland Stadium.
Vandy has basically everyone back from the team that ranked dead last in the conference in total offense and total defense last year, but several excellent recruiting years will pay off. Cornerback Jimmy Williams, who speaks both French and Japanese, is the next big two-way playerthe plans are for him to carry the ball up to 25 times a game.
"Trust issue a big problem for DuBose," reads a recent headline. Of course, this is a perfect allegory for Washington's comic opera of the past year. Mike DuBose wags his finger in denial of "unfounded rumors and innuendoes," then gets his salary cut by $360,000 over the next three years to pay off the poor Alabama employee he harassed, then admits he's done wrong and asks forgiveness.
"I don't really care what he's done off the field," says Tide zealot Micki Parris, in line with the nation's approval ratings of the president. "If he beats Arkansas, then Auburn at Auburn, no one will ever mention this again." With nine starters back on offense and seven on defense, DuBose will probably endure.
As with the presidency, there is a grand tradition of philandering in college football coaching. There was always talk that Bear Bryant was not exactly a saint off the field, and there was a dandy triangle at Oklahoma during the wild and woolly Barry Switzer years. But in the old days it was all guarded with the discretion given to Hugh Sidey's JFK-era nude swims with Fiddle and Faddle in the White House pool.
Like the boys of Delta house, the randy DuBose is certainly on Double Secret Probation, and Micki Parris' opinion appears to be University policy. "I suspect that if he goes 11-and-zero this season, most of this can go away to a degree," says Sid McDonald, president of the Alabama Board of Trustees.
In a parallel set of negotiations, back in June receiver Eric Locke decided to transfer to Tennessee. DuBose decided not to "release" him to another SEC team, which means that, in addition to sitting out a year, Locke cannot receive a scholarship. Locke's family appealed, but the University said tough luck. In a similar manner, earlier this month DuBose refused to release another player, linebacker Travis Carroll, inside the SEC. At the SEC media days, DuBose, ever the ethicist, spent some time arguing that players who transfer within the conference should be required to sit out two years.
Sophomore Andrew Zow will start at quarterback, with redshirt freshman Tyler Watts coming in off the bench. After rushing for 1,178 yards last fall, tailback Shaun Alexander completed a marketing degree in the spring. This year he's working on a second undergraduate degree, in advertising, while pursuing his candidacy for the Heisman Trophy.
Has there ever been a classier performance than Clint Stoerner's post-UT comments last November? After the gaffe of a lifetimethe fumble in the final two minutes that set up Tennessee's go-ahead touchdownStoerner stood before his interviewers and calmly accepted the responsibility.
Stoerner, a senior from Baytown, Texas, is an excellent field general and the most efficient returning passer in the SEC. Senior safety Kenoy Kennedy made 95 tackles last year.
The ups and downs of football were tragically placed in even greater perspective this spring when Brandon Burlsworth, the Razorbacks' all-everything guard, a model citizen in every way, was killed in an auto accident after being picked in the fourth round by the Indianapolis Colts.
Coach Houston Nutt inspired the Razorbacks to unforeseen heights last season, and continues to work magic with the Arkansas program.
In setting up shop as coach at Ole Miss, longtime UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe threw Tommy Tuberville's offense out the window and replaced it with his own flashy system. Hotshot quarterback Romero Miller, who completed 56.4 percent of his passes for 2,273 yards last year, has learned Cutcliffe's offense and stands to put up even bigger numbers this fall.
Seventeen starters return from the team that went to the Independence Bowl and beat Texas Tech 35-18.
Cutcliffe, mentor to Peyton Manning at Tennessee, is now coaching Peyton's younger brother, Eli, a freshman quarterback at Oxford who, says Cutcliffe, "has all the tools."
You gotta love a kid named Pork Chop. At 6' 3", 336 pounds, Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack is the heaviest member of the Bulldogs' offensive line, followed closely by 6' 7" Wes Shivers and 6' 8" Paul Mooney, both weighing in at 325. Only Womack and sophomore quarterback Wayne Madkin return to the offense. Seven starters return to the defense, including the entire secondary. Senior cornerback Robert Bean, you might remember, ran an interception 70 yards for a touchdown in the SEC title game.
Which quarterback was almost as highly recruited as Peyton Manning a few years ago? Why, Josh Booty. Like Georgia's Quincy Carter, Booty is another refugee from pro baseball. He spent five years as a third baseman in the Florida Marlins organization and now joins the Tigers, where he can pass to his younger brother, junior split end Abram Booty.
In Gerry DiNardo's fourth season in Baton Rouge, the Tigers fell apartlosing seven games behind the 11thranked overall defense and the 12th-ranked pass defense in the conference.
After a 1-5 start last fall, Terry Bowden abruptly resigned, sparking all kinds of rumors, which he denied. The team went on to notch a 3-8 record, its worst since 1952.
"This is an embarrassed football team," said coach Tommy Tuberville, who in December moved over from Ole Miss, where he'd shown a remarkable ability to succeed despite NCAA-sanctioned scholarship limitations.
When he was first hired, Tuberville told everyone it would be a tough off-season, and he's held true to his promise. In April he cut six players, giving various reasons, not all related to football. "This is a business," he explained. "We wouldn't have recruited these players." Auburn AD David Housel ended up offering the players jobs.
Of course, if it's a business, then the "employees" should be able to switch employers, as coaches do.
The defense, led by All-SEC defensive end Leonardo Carson, returns eight starters. The offense, led by scrambling quarterback Gabe Gross, returns nine. Gross was impressive as a freshman, dealing well with pressure and starting six of the last seven games.
Another bright spot is Tuberville's decision to drop the Florida State gameoriginally set up as a father-son matchup between Bobby and Terry Bowdenfrom the schedule.
It hurts that, along with players in various legal predicaments, at least four freshman signees couldn't qualify academically.
Brooks Clark was a college football writer-reporter at Sports Illustrated for 10 years. He is a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated for Kids and the author of The Kids' Book of Soccer (Citadel Press, $9.95), available on Amazon.com.