By Trey Williams
Phil Stuart prevailed against Randy Sanders’ Morristown East Hurricanes while at Science Hill and was teammates with Sanders when Tennessee upset the Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl after being flooded with attention since childhood due to his force-of-nature stature.
Stuart’s daunting dimensions and larger-than-life personality made him the big man on campus at Science Hill (class of ’84), where he was an All-State football player recruited heavily by the likes of Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Kentucky, North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Sanders, an All-State quarterback, helped recruit the 6-foot-5, 280-pound Stuart, who eventually committed to Kentucky.
“During the recruiting process I think he actually may have been going to go to Kentucky,” Sanders said. “I kind of got wind he might be trying to decide between Tennessee and Kentucky. I can remember calling him before Signing Day and saying, ‘No, no, no. You need to come to Tennessee. We’re gonna be teammates. I need your big butt up here blocking for me.’”
Science Hill defeated Morristown East, 19-14, at Burke-Toney Stadium during Sanders and Stuart’s senior season.
“I still kid Randy about Science Hill beating Morristown East our senior year, but he always has a comeback on how he threw for 400 yards and ran for 200,” Stuart says with laughter. “I knew he was going there (UT) and he was like, ‘It’d be great if we would go there together. I was like, ‘Well, you know, I’d already committed to Kentucky and I didn’t want to stab Jerry Claiborne or Greg Nord in the back.’”
Enter Phil Fulmer, then Johnny Majors’ offensive line coach, who Stuart said helped seal the deal.
“He was my position coach,” Stuart said. “But more than that, I can tell you Coach Fulmer’s an awesome person.”
Stuart had been recruited by another that went on to become an East Tennessee State head coach. Carl Torbush was an assistant to Billy Brewer at Ole Miss when he recruited Stuart.
Science Hill alum Billy Wise, a former starting tight end at Ole Miss, and Dobyns-Bennett graduate Bruce Tranbarger, a Rebels basketball player, tried to help court Stuart to Oxford. But Stuart immediately felt at home at Tennessee, where he was always at risk of pranks being pulled by teammates such as Sanders and Carlos Reveiz.
“Randy had this thing – him and Carlos Reveiz – whenever I’d go somewhere I’d always leave my dorm room unlocked, and when I came back from some friends of mine one night, they had taken everything out of my room, even my pencils, and put it somewhere else,” Stuart said. “And I thought, ‘Did I just get kicked out of college?’ They did several things. They not only emptied out my dorm room, they’d move my car. They were practical jokers.”
Tennessee football is no joke these days thanks to first-year coach Josh Huepel.
“He definitely has the program on the right track,” Stuart said.
The Vols’ next opponent is top-ranked Georgia, which will visit Knoxville on Saturday. Stuart had an unforgettable clash against the Bulldogs in Athens.
“We were 17th in the polls and we just got outmanned,” Stuart said. “They were fast on both sides of the ball, not to mention the horrible rainstorm during the game. I broke my left hand that was caught between a nose guard-tackle twist and the nose man happened to be (future pro wrestler) Bill Goldberg.”
The injury came in the season opener of his senior season after concluding his junior year with a satisfying performance in a 27-22 defeat of Indiana in the Peach Bowl. Playing right tackle, he made a key block on Reggie Cobb’s 6-yard touchdown run that opened the scoring against Bill Mallory’s Hoosiers.
“We were going back and forth, rotating tackles because we were gonna wear them down,” Stuart said. “And we were near the end zone and we called a trap to the back side and I just busted open a hole and Reggie Cobb was able to score and we went ahead and beat Indiana. And that was one of the last ballgames that was ever played in Fulton County Stadium.”
Although he was a spectating, red-shirt freshman, the win against Jimmy Johnson’s second-ranked Miami Hurricanes in the 1986 Sugar Bowl was probably just as exciting. Miami entered hoping to win a national championship with a victory and a Penn State loss to Oklahoma, and appeared well on its way to holding up its end of the bargain when Vinny Testaverde capped the Hurricanes’ opening drive with an 18-yard TD pass to Michael Irvin.
But that was it for Miami, which was stunned, 35-7, by the No. 8 Volunteers, who had lost athletic quarterback Tony Robinson earlier in the season.
“Most people had written us off,” Stuart said. “Miami was looking up to see if Oklahoma was (winning) so they could win a national championship. I remember we were all in suits and ties and they all show up in fatigues, even Jimmy Johnson.”
Stuart recalls being on the opposite end of such a swag-on-substance matchup when Science Hill visited Sullivan South his senior season. The Hilltoppers were in their first season under bug-eating, baldheaded coach Mike Martin, whose distaste for convention included having the Hilltoppers referred to as Razorbacks.
Science Hill was 6-1 and had beaten South, 17-0, the previous season, and Martin let the players ride the bus into Sullivan South’s stadium with boomboxes blaring.
The South players and coaches weren’t pleased, and evidently not unnerved. They shut out Science Hill, 21-0.
“We got our butts whipped by South,” Stuart said with hearty laughter. “But we learned a lesson – you want to be loose, but not too loose – and rolled from there.”
Stuart enjoyed playing for Martin after the ‘Toppers had sputtered each of the final two seasons of Tommy Hundley’s stint.
“We probably had more talent my sophomore and junior seasons but went 5-5,” Stuart said. “Then Martin comes in and we beat (Dobyns-Bennett) and go 8-2.”
Martin couldn’t believe what he was inheriting when he sized up Stuart.
“He’s got size, strength and foot quickness,” Martin told the Press-Chronicle’s Keith Kimberlin after Stuart made All-State. “He’s the best offensive lineman I’ve ever coached.”
Assistant football coaches Bob May and Mike Voitleinmade positive impacts on Stuart, as did basketball coach Dennis Greenwell.
“Guys like Coach May and Coach V (Voitlein) and Dennis Greenwell were a big part of my growth,” Stuart said.
May and youth basketball coach Terry Crowe were the two biggest influences among coaches for Stuart.
“Terry Crowe, who I played basketball for, was always there for me as I grew up,” Stuart said. “Terry pushed me as a youth to be tough because all the kids picked on me because I was bigger than they were (laughter). The other person was Coach Bob May. Coach May was the father I didn’t have growing up. He always gave me great advice and always made me see things in a different way. Coach May was a major factor in helping me choose to attend UT.”
Stuart has worked 30 years for the Department of Energy in Oak Ridge. His sons Alex (Oak Ridge/Middle Tennessee) and Zach (Knox West/Lamar/Austin Peay) were exceptional football players.
Stuart’s father, Larry “Butch” Woods, played on ETSU’s Sweet 16 basketball team in 1968 and his uncle Tommy Woods was ETSU’s first African-American scholarship athlete.
Stuart’s uncle, Sammy “Dee Dee” Stuart, is in the Hall of Fame for football and basketball at Bluefield State after a Hall of Fame two-sport career at Science Hill. Another uncle, Science Hill Hall of Famer Charlie Stuart, scored 1,217 points at ETSU. And Stuart’s brother Robbie was a starting running back at Science Hill.
Stuart plans to come home to watch Sanders’ Bucs when they host Mercer on Nov. 20. ETSU is tied for first in the Southern Conference with the Bears and Chattanooga, which comes as no surprise to Stuart.
“Randy is one of smartest football-minded people I have ever been around,” Stuart said. “I always knew he would be successful as a head coach.”
And as Sanders seemed to know, Stuart ended up blocking for the Volunteers.
“He ended up coming to Tennessee and had a good career,” Sanders said. “We had a lot of good times together on the field, practice, games, in the dorms. Phil’s a good one.”