By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
Phil Fulmer coached a lot of great football teams during his time at the University of Tennessee, but only one of those squads brought home the national championship.
Fulmer took some time during a visit to Johnson City last Friday morning for the Salvation Army Souper Bowl for the Hungry to reflect on the Tennessee team that won the inaugural BCS National Title in 1998. It was 25 years ago that the Volunteers entered the season without a whole lot of fanfare and shocked the world by completing an undefeated season with a victory over Florida State in the championship game.
“That team was really special,” Fulmer said. “We had just lost the class of ’97 – three first-rounders and 12 guys total drafted.”
One of those first-round NFL Draft picks was Peyton Manning, who wrapped up his career in 1997 before embarking on a Hall of Fame career in the NFL.
As fate would have it, the man who stepped in and took the starting quarterback job in 1998 was Tee Martin, and his teammates rallied around him in a way that still puts a smile on Fulmer’s face. Martin had a game for the ages to help the Vols upset Georgia, and the rest, as they say, was history.
“They weren’t going to let Tee Martin fail,” Manning said of the ’98 team. “That’s one of the memories I have, how he took control of that football team. We were already a close group, but they really bonded together.”
Fulmer said the lifelong relationships he formed in football have made his life richer. He recounted coaching former Elizabethton Cyclone Jason Witten and Science Hill’s own Aubrayo Franklin. Franklin enjoyed a long playing career of his own in the NFL. Both men went on to have long careers in the NFL, but Fulmer is quick to point out both also developed into good men.
Fulmer even admitted to being close friends with Johnson City’s Steve Spurrier despite the fierce rivalry between Tennessee and Florida in the 1990s. “I think Steve’s a great guy until somebody put a microphone in front of him,” Fulmer said with a laugh. “But he’s a wonderful guy. I always wish him and Jerri well.”