Best and Worst Times to be a Tennessee Football Fan

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The Vols' greatest eras from Neyland to Manning

The Vols' greatest eras from Neyland to Manning

Maybe it’s because Tennessee fans sing it so many times during the course of one game, but it’s easy to forget Rocky Top wasn’t first played at Neyland Stadium until 1972.

Now, just imagine how many times the coach Gen. Robert Neyland would have inspired the band to kick into Rocky Top during his time as the Volunteers’ coach.

His tenure included Tennessee’s rise to prominence, a national championship season, an entire regular season full of shutouts. Certainly, Neyland’s eras were among the best in Tennessee history. Like many teams of their era, they were powered by grinding running backs and linemen who played on both sides of the ball.

Tennessee had pockets of success after Neyland, but reclaimed national power status under Philip Fulmer. By then, Tennessee had one of the greatest passing quarterbacks in the history of the game in Peyton Manning. A decade after the national championship, though, Tennessee would reach new lows.

BEST TIMES TO BE A TENNESSEE FAN

 

1995-98
Record:
45-5
National championships: 1
Coach: Philip Fulmer
Notable players: Peyton Manning, Tee Martin, Travis Henry, Peerless Price, Shaun Ellis, Al Wilson, Jamal Lewis, Deon Grant
Alum Philp Fulmer returned Tennessee to the national spotlight with a little help from Peyton Manning. Manning started all four seasons, passing for 11,201 career yards, but the Volunteers also churned out NFL running backs in Travis Henry and Jamal Lewis, plus receiver Peerless Price. The Vols could have made a case to be the SEC’s team of the ‘90s if not for their Achilles’ heel Florida, who defeated Manning in all four meetings. Tennessee got over that hump in 1998, defeating the Gators 20-17 and then got a fortunate fumble from Arkansas’ Clint Stoerner to win the SEC. The Vols then defeated Florida State 23-16 in the Fiesta Bowl for the first BCS championship and the first title in school history since 1951.

1938-40
Record: 31-2
National championships: 0
Coach: Gen. Robert Neyland
Notable players: Bowden Wyatt, Eddie Molinski, George Cafego, Bob Suffridge
Sure, teams scored at a lower rate in this era, but Tennessee managed to shut out 15 consecutive opponents from Nov. 5, 1938 until a 14-0 loss to USC in the 1941 Rose Bowl. Linemen Bob Suffridge and Eddie Molinski earned All-America honors five times between them, with Molinski anchoring the 1939 defense and Suffridge becoming one of the best pulling single-wing guards. This era included Tennessee’s first three bowl game with the Orange, Rose and Sugar.

1926-32
Record: 61-2-5
National championships: 0
Coach: Gen. Robert Neyland (right)
Notable players: Gene McEver, Beattie Feathers, Bobby Dodd, Herman Hickman
The Volunteers put their program on the map with an upset of Alabama in 1928 in which Tide coach Wallace Wade was so confident he told UT he’d end the game early if it got out of hand. Tennessee became a national power in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s with a pair of halfbacks (McEver and Feathers), a quarterback (Dodd, who became a College Football Hall of Fame coach) and a guard (Hickman). This, of course, began the reign of Tennessee’s top coach in school history in Gen. Robert Neyland, hired in 1926. Tennessee had five undefeated seasons in a seven-season span.

1950-52
Record:
29-4-1
National championships: 1
Coach: Gen. Robert Neyland
Notable players: Hank Lauricella, John Michels, Doug Atkins
Neyland’s return from World War II didn’t get off to a great start (25-13-3), but he proved he still had it at the start of the 50s. Though Tennessee only won a share of the SEC title once during this era, it coincided with the Volunteers’ first national championship in 1951, which would stand as their only title until 1998.

WORST TIMES TO BE A TENNESSEE FAN


2008-12
Record: 28-34
Coaches: Philip Fulmer, Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley
The dysfunction in Knoxville goes beyond losses on the football field, though there was plenty of that. Fulmer was unceremoniously forced out of his job after 15 years, replaced by the young and brash Lane Kiffin. Tennessee fans loved his bravado at first, believing Fulmer had made the program stale in the increasingly competitive SEC. Kiffin bolted after one season, and his one standout recruiting class crumbled with player transfers, academic casualties and legal issues. Dooley’s watch included a 4-19 SEC record and the end of UT’s 26-game win streak over Kentucky. The basketball program also saw one of its most successful coaches, Bruce Pearl, fired amid NCAA violations. As if the bumblings in football and men’s basketball weren’t enough, Tennessee’s beacon of stability, women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, retired after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.

1958-64
Record:
34-32-4
Coaches: Bowden Wyatt, Jim McDonald, Doug Dickey
Tennessee slipped into a period of mediocrity, going seven seasons without a bowl game. These lean years still produced middle guard Steve DeLong, who won the Outland Trophy in 1964.

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