Tennessee football found path to greatness 30 years ago; can it again? – Knoxville News Sentinel


Mike Strange, Shopper News columnist
Published 5:00 a.m. ET April 17, 2019

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Clips from the Tennessee spring football game
Knoxville News Sentinel

Another Tennessee spring football practice has concluded with the usual twin takeaways: optimism and inconclusiveness.

Fans want so badly to see signs of promise. Yet they wonder how the small sample they witness for a couple of hours on an April evening can possibly translate to October when a hostile opponent won’t be second-stringers and walk-ons.

Spring practice usually no harbinger    

I subscribe to the theory that not too much should be drawn from spring practice. At least not by us mortals who don’t attend every practice, staff meeting and video session. I’m sure Jeremy Pruitt has a better idea about the Vols’ prospects for 2019, but I don’t.

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A decade ago, Lane Kiffin was finishing his only spring at Tennessee. The hope was that 2008’s failure would be corrected and the Vols would again compete for championships. It hasn’t turned out that way.

But let’s go back three decades to a spring practice that did prove to be a turning point.

By spring 1989, Vol football was on a roller coaster. A sublime 1985 season was followed by retreat in 1986. The ’87 Vols rebounded to 9-2-1 only to fall off a cliff and open 1988 with an 0-6 start.

Coach Johnny Majors stopped the carnage midseason, finished with five wins to take a 5-6 record into spring practice.

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Oh, my, there was work to do.

Quarterback Jeff Francis, a three-year starter, was gone. So were three starters on the offensive line, albeit a line that had struggled.

Offensive coordinator Walt Harris got a head coaching job. Majors promoted offensive line coach Phillip Fulmer to replace Harris.

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The defense, a sieve the first half of 1988, was more problematic. All-America linebacker Keith DeLong departed. Doug Mathews, the erstwhile running backs coach who took charge of the defense midway in ’88, was starting his first full season as coordinator.

The real-time reviews of that 1989 spring have faded from memory. Surely Francis’ successor was a hot topic. (Sterling Henton, then Andy Kelly, it turned out). And projections were no doubt made about two touted redshirt freshmen, Chuck Webb and Carl Pickens.

University of Tennessee running back Chuck Webb (44) celebrates after scoring a 79-yard touchdown in the Cotton Bowl against Arkansas, Jan. 2, 1990, in Dallas. Tennessee won, 31-27, and Webb was the offensive player of the game. Webb shared SEC all-freshman team honors with gifted receiver and dual threat Carl Pickens, who had a team-high four interceptions in only four games at free safety. Pickens scored that season by interception return, kick return and reception. The Vols went 11-1 and reached a No. 8 ranking. (AP Photo/IK) (Photo: IK, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

What a year … and what a decade ahead for Tennessee football    

But an exit poll at the 1989 Orange and White Game – even allowing for typical spring optimism – could not have predicted the heights the program was about to hit and sustain.

The 1989 Vols went 11-1, losing only to Alabama, shared an SEC title, won the Cotton Bowl and finished tied for fifth in the final Associated Press poll.

More important, the good times stayed good. No more roller coaster.

Over the 13-year span from 1989 to 2001, the Vols:

Went 128-29-3 (82 percent) in all games and 81-21-2 (78 percent) in SEC play (counting championship games).

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