Oral history of the 1998 Tennessee-Arkansas game

Phil Fulmer led the Vols to the 1998 BCS championship.

Mike Zarrilli WireImage

Tennessee had some close calls on its way to winning the 1998 BCS National Championship.

Nothing that matched what happened on Nov. 14 at Neyland Stadium.

The Vols led Arkansas for 28 seconds that day. Fortunately for Tennessee, it was the last 28 seconds.

We got the player, coach, media and fan perspectives on one of the most memorable games in the history of each football program.

So sit back, grab a beverage of choice, and find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start thinking about risking arrest to re-enter a stadium.

Unless otherwise noted, positions listed are those held by the interview subjects on the day of this game.

Part I:  How Tennessee got here

Tennessee came into the 1998 season expected by many to finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC East.  The previous year the Vols won the SEC Championship, with future NFL players all over the roster.  The Vols had plenty of returning players ready to pick up the slack, and make names for themselves at UT.

Phillip Fulmer: Tennessee head coach

We probably had a lot better team than people thought and rightfully so. We had 12 guys go in the draft (eight Vols were drafted, others got free agent deals) and three in the first round, and bunch of good players leaving the team off an SEC championship.  But we as coaches thought that if we matured and our quarterback came through and things fell right, we could have a good football team.  When you have as many guys coming back on defense as we did in our league at that time?  That was a good place to start.  Losing a guy like Peyton Manning, who would have thought we could overcome that with a young man named Tee Martin?  What a great story it turned out to be, but back then who knew what it would turn out like.

Jeff Coleman: Tennessee defensive tackle

I’m a senior, I see myself as a leader.  Fulmer looks around says, “I don’t see Peyton Manning, Leonard Little, Marcus Nash, Terry Fair … Guys, I don’t know what we are gonna do this year. 6-5?  7-4?  I don’t know.”  Later he said he did it to motivate us but I think he was serious.

Eric Westmoreland: Tennessee linebacker

We always thought that the season would be special with the defense that we had and the players that we had coming back, and then the offensive players that we had. The biggest thing was to gel together at camp and as the season went on. We kinda took the motto of take it one game at a time and don’t look ahead.

Following a season opening win at Syracuse (thanks to a game winning field goal as time expired by Jeff Hall), the Vols upset Florida in overtime at Neyland Stadium.  That win ended a five game losing streak to the Gators, and put Tennessee on the road to a historic season.

Here is video of the end of the OT win over Florida.

Tee Martin:€“ Tennessee quarterback. Currently, wide receivers coach/pass game coordinator at Southern Cal

It was a long time coming.  We were tired of it.  We had group of guys that couldn’t stand losing to them.  We felt like they dominated the SEC East for a while and it was our turn to win that game and have a chance to win the East.  It was really about that.  There was some bulletin board material out there but we didn’t care about that.  We just wanted to beat them.  We wanted to prove it was our turn.

Billy Ratliff: Tennessee defensive tackle

Florida was our game.  We circled that game every year because we couldn’t beat Florida.  Plus there was the whole Spurrier thing, that whole “You can’t spell Citrus without U-T” thing. When we finally beat Florida? That is when our team just excelled.  Can’t no one beat us.  We beat Florida and we are on top of our game and we are on top of the SEC… at that point we thought we would be on cruise control rest of the season.

Willie Miles: Tennessee defensive back

We had back to back close games that we had to show intestinal fortitude and play like a Phillip Fulmer led team.  We came out of those games with victories.  We stayed calm and remained patient and we played together as a whole team.

Part II: How Arkansas Got Here

Like Tennessee, Arkansas was not the favorite to win their division in the Southeastern Conference in 1998.  The Razorbacks had gone through a coaching change following two seasons in which Arkansas finished last in the SEC West.

Clint Stoerner: Arkansas quarterback. Currently, SEC Network analyst.

We had just fired Danny Ford and hired Houston Nutt after going 4-7 for two straight years.  The program itself was in the dumps.  Ford started firing and hiring assistants, bringing in new offensive coordinators… and our personnel didn’t fit our coordinators.  All in all for coaches, players, the timing of the program… it was a bad situation.  When Nutt took it over, one of his major strengths was motivating.  Ford was recruiting well and he had talent in the locker room but just couldn’t get them to play for him.  We knew we had a chance to be better.  We knew we were talented but just found ways to lose. But we didn’t know if it would be another 4-7 season, or if we had a chance to make a run.

Scott Cain: Beat writer for Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Expectations were really low. When Houston got the job the biggest question from fans was, “Can we beat SMU?”  They always scheduled them thinking that’ll be easy and SMU would slip up on them.  They got SMU early and did beat them.  The bar was one inch off the ground at that point.  No one expected anything out of them.  They were picked 5th or last in the SEC West going into that season.

The schedule set up nicely for the Razorbacks in the first two months, with six of their first eight games either in the state of Arkansas or just across the border in Memphis.  There was only one ranked opponent in that stretch as well.  On September 26th the Razorbacks pounded 22nd ranked Alabama 42-6.  Much like Tennessee’s win over Florida, the Razorbacks win over the Crimson Tide gave them some much needed confidence going forward.

Cain:  They had more talent than we thought at the time… and week to week you’d see that gain traction. The Alabama win was huge.  It wasn’t just a victory.  They pummeled those guys.  They actually took a page out of Alabama’s book and were physical.  You thought then that they had something going and would make some noise in the conference.

Part III: Undefeated Matchup

Heading into the Tennessee/Arkansas game, the 8-0 Vols had risen all the way to number 1 in the polls, and in the brand new Bowl Championship Series standings as well.  The visiting Razorbacks were also 8-0, and were ranked 7th in the BCS.  But most of the national attention was pointed squarely towards Knoxville, and not Fayetteville.

Stoerner:  By time we got to Tennessee not only did Houston Nutt motivate us, we came together as a team.  We had experienced a couple of big wins along the way so we were a pretty confident bunch.  We were confident in what we were doing.  We weren’t winning by getting turnovers. We weren’t winning by a fluke.  We were beating guys handily.  By the time UT game came around we felt like we earned what we had gotten.  We felt like we belonged.

Cain: I think Arkansas had the mental edge of going in not just as the underdog, but they still realized they were not viewed nationally as a top 10 heavyweight.  There’s no question that was part of that mentality.  They saw this is an opportunity to introduce themselves to the country.  “We think we can win the whole thing, not just the SEC but the national championship.”  There’s no question.

Marvin Caston: Arkansas fullback. Currently, Associate Director at Razorback Foundation, Inc.

Coach Nutt did a great job of keeping us physical.  We knew that our personnel matched up very well with the physical style of play… the backs and receivers we had.  We felt if we played our game, and didn’t make mistakes, which we didn’t normally do, we had a great chance to win.  We didn’t get caught up so much in what Tennessee was. We just focused on the things that we knew what we could do.

Mike Griffith: Tennessee football beat writer with the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Currently, Michigan State beat writer at MLive.com and Spotlight Productions sports talk host in Lansing, Michigan.

There was hype, but not the same sort as there had been for (Tennessee’s) games with Florida, Auburn, Georgia and Alabama. The Razorbacks gaudy record and No. 10 rank (in AP Poll) was thought by many to be more a product of their schedule.

Scott Finley: Sports anchor/reeporter at WATE-TV (ABC) in Knoxville.

Both Tennessee and Arkansas were the only undefeated SEC teams remaining. There was a feeling of anxiousness that the Vols had finally earned the #1 ranking for the first time since 1956, and if I remember correctly, there had been several teams ranked #1 that had been beaten the following week. Both teams had strong offensive and defensive lines and everyone was expecting a close game.

Daryl Hobby: Sports reporter/photographer at WTNZ-TV (Fox) in Knoxville.  Currently, Assistant Sports Director at WVLT-TV (CBS) in Knoxville.

Tennessee had been ranked high much of the season, while the Razorbacks slowly climbed the polls. Arkansas was a nobody to start the year.  It was an unexpected huge game.  It was a big deal. It very well may have been the biggest game for Arkansas in 30+ years.

They were a top 10 team as well so it was kind of like, who was gonna fall out at that time. We just had to stay in the picture. Looking at our prep it was really good. Our team was focused. We had to play well, that wasn’t a choice.

Fulmer:  They were a top 10 team as well so it was kind of like, who was gonna fall out at that time.  We just had to stay in the picture.  Looking at our prep it was really good.  Our team was focused.  We had to play well, that wasn’t a choice.

Westmoreland:  We knew at the beginning of the week by watching film that it would be a physical game on both sides of the play.  Usually in those type of games the team with the best rushing attack and the fewest amount of turnovers would win the game.

Ratliff: Coach Fulmer and those guys did a great job with our scout team, showing us a lot of stuff that Arkansas had.  They were pretty good on film. We didn’t think anyone could beat us, but Fulmer always kept us humble. He said, “They are undefeated. They are ranked like you. They put on their pads the same way.”

“The Voice of the Vols” John Ward – Tennessee play-by-play announcer

I think of it as… I broadcast the game.  I show up.  I do my research and knew the stats.  It was just another game.  I know Tennessee was number one and Arkansas was number nine (USA Today/ESPN Poll).  I never got involved in all the build up for a big game.  I just approached every game the same way, and hoped that I had the final score right when it was over.

Part IV:  Arkansas punches Early and Often

A mammoth crowd of 106,365 fans entered Neyland Stadium with their ponchos in place on a rainy, 53 degree afternoon in Knoxville.  Most expected to see the Vols take care of what was perceived to be a  yet to be tested Arkansas team.  The Razorbacks had other plans, jumping out to a 21-3 first half lead, thanks to three touchdown passes from Clint Stoerner, two of them to Anthony Lucas.

The first half was the loudest environment I had ever been in. My guards couldn’t hear me talk.

Stoerner:  The first half was the loudest environment I had ever been in.  My guards couldn’t hear me talk.  Luckily we had played in those environments and we responded well.  We didn’t do anything outside of what we had been doing to get there.  We were a good team at that point in time… obviously so was UT.  We got the breaks early and it made for the right recipe for a chance to win the game.

Caston: They were so off balance on defense.  We mixed it up.  Our coaches did a great job with the game plan, and we executed in the first half to perfection.  We were balanced from a run/pass standpoint.  We knew we were physical and did the things we knew we could do.

Hobby:  Except for the season opener, this terrific Tennessee defense hadn’t allowed anyone to score more than 18 points leading up the Arkansas game. But the Hogs took it to the Vols. It was all Stoerner to Lucas.

Griffith:  Max protection, two and three-receiver routes. Pounding the ball, and not allowing (Tennessee defensive coordinator) John Chavis’ wizardry to interfere.

Finley:  All of us were amazed at how Arkansas had come in and dominated the first half. We were wondering why Tennessee wasn’t running the ball more because their defense was shutting down the Vols passing game and causing issues for Tee Martin.

Westmoreland:  It was a couple of miscues on our part in the back end of our defense.  They also made some big plays.  They had two good receivers who were very tall in a couple of jump ball situations that could have went either way, so I think those were some of the plays that people normally didn’t get on us that Arkansas was able to capitalize that night.

Coleman:  There wasn’t an underestimation of Arkansas.  We knew how good they were.  They just jumped on us.

Ratliff:  I remember looking at the scoreboard and they were up 21-3, and I thought we are getting ready to lose to Arkansas.  We always had a great players like (Linebacker) Al Wilson that would never let us forget the score.  He didn’t like losing.  You know Al’s passion, he didn’t take anything from anyone. He chewed us out all the time.  And for us to be losing to Arkansas… it was a shock.

Joe Dubin: Sports photographer at WKRN-TV (ABC) in Nashville.  Today, Sports Anchor at WSMV-TV (NBC) in Nashville.

Arkansas was one of the very few football teams that I have ever seen, up to that point, not be intimated by playing in Knoxville. It was eerily similar to 1990 when Notre Dame rolled in there. Almost same conditions, too. Raining, misting, raining again and Arkansas didn’t flinch.

Part V: Things Looking Dire For Vols

Late in the first half Tennessee found its footing.  A Tee Martin to Peerless Price TD pass made the score 21-10 at the break.  The Vols eventually cut the deficit to 24-22 in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.  Tennessee started a drive at midfield with 2:56 remaining, but after turning the ball over on downs, Arkansas took possession with 1:54 left.  

Hobby:  Being on the sidelines, despite Arkansas controlling the game from the beginning, despite the halftime deficit, I felt there was always a feeling of, “Tennessee has this. There’s a whole half to play, the Vols will wake up and take over.” I always felt Tennessee would win the game–up until they turned it over on downs with under two minutes to play and trailing. And then I knew they were done.

Finley:  When the 4th down pass bounced off of Peerless Price, I looked at the crowd and people started to leave.

Michael Greene: Tennessee student

A horde of Vol fans and drunk, irate students had been heading for the exits for a good while. Our seats were only 3 or 4 paces from being able to turn into the corridor towards the interior of the stadium.  In our flood of collective rage, neither me or my friend Brandon remembered to actually start to leave, so we stayed where we stood for a minute or so longer than we “should” have, given the circumstances.

Jim Scroggs: Sophomore at Jefferson (GA) High School. Tennessee fan.

When we didn’t convert the 4th down on what I thought would be our last possession, my Mom looked at my brother Matt and I and gave us the “Let’s Go” head nod and tap on the knee that I’d grown used to.  She just wanted to beat traffic and I didn’t blame her.

Dubin:  The fans on the front row next to the visitor’s tunnel were so fair weather. This one guy starts screaming and cussing non-stop. He says, “GDammit, GDammit!! WE WILL NEVER WIN ANYTHING???” His wife said, ‘Please calm down!” He yells at her, “WHY DONT YOU SHUT THE HELL UP!” He was so loud and Neyland was quiet that my nat mic on my camera picked up the entire exchange. It was quite surreal.

Brian Rice: Sophomore at Knoxville Catholic High School. Currently, writer for UTSports.com.
One of the things my dad taught me about attending Tennessee games is that you never, under any circumstances, ever, leave early. They didn’t give us a fourth of our money back if we left after the third quarter, so we were going to sit in our seats until the bitter end.  Tee Martin’s 4th down pass falls incomplete and the stadium starts to evacuate. We had planned to eat dinner at the brewery downtown because we had parked close by and, believe it or not with the way it is now, but that was literally the only restaurant open in that part of downtown at the time. Afraid to be stuck waiting forever, we started to pick up our things and our way down to the landing out to the concourse.

Hobby:  100,000+ plus in disbelief. Not believing what they’re seeing. In agony. In pain…but more than anything, in silence. It was so quiet. The Vols finally got over the Gator hurdle, and “We’re gonna lose to Arkansas? No way.” Complete shock.

Caston:  We felt like all we had to do was run this out and it would be ballgame.  We get a first down and let’s go home.

Ratliff:  I remember Tee coming out and he had that look, like, “I can’t believe I messed up.”  I had to give him encouragement because I didn’t want him to be down.  It wasn’t like him to be down, Tee was always smiling. I said, “Tee, keep your helmet on, I’m gonna get this ball back, don’t worry. We got this man… trust me.” I remember Tee looking at me like, whatever man…

Miles: I knew somehow, someway, we would have a chance to come back and win the game.

Ward:  As the game went along, I worked with Bill Anderson and said well, this is it.  They will lose and then finish with Kentucky and Vanderbilt.  That was the approach.  I was reporting on the game, looking ahead and that was it.  But then something strange happened.

Griffith:  Someone in the press box said, “It’s going to take a miracle.”

Rice:  My dad looks at me and says, “We’ll watch one more play.” And then it happened.

Part VII: “Stumbles and Fumbles”

Arkansas faced a 2nd and 12 from their own 48 with 1:47 to go.  Tennessee had only one time out remaining.  The best case scenario for the Vols appeared to be making two more stops, and getting the ball back deep in its own territory with about 50 seconds to go.

Caston:  I wasn’t on the field. My backup Nathan Norman was in the game.  I was actually on the sideline getting the Gatorade ready, ironically. I remember exactly where I was.  Let’s figure out which coolers to dunk the head coach with… things you shouldn’t be doing.  They say act like you have been there before, but we had never been 9 and 0.

Ratliff:  There was a player for Arkansas named Brandon Burlsworth. He didn’t look like an offensive lineman.  He had the goggles on. It was like the movie “The Program.” Alvin Mack always talking smack but the lineman never said anything.  Brandon was the same way and this whole game Brandon is kicking my butt.  I didn’t expect that.  The two players that I always said were the best offensive linemen in SEC were (Tennessee’s) Cosey Coleman and Brandon Burlsworth.  The two toughest I ever played against.  I just remember looking at sideline and Houston Nutt was kinda calm. I’m looking for clues. Well, they’ll just run so I’m just gonna get off this ball so fast and try to get in the backfield…

Stoerner:  We had just beaten UT to death with power running inside… we were beating them up between the tackles all four quarters.  In our playbook if we had a chance to run the clock out or get a first down, that was our go to play.  To keep it around the end and get 1-2 yards.  I was never a running threat.  That play wasn’t designed for me to break one. It was designed to get 1-2 yards and keep the outside guys from crashing inside to stop our “A gap” run.

Ratliff:   I remember thinking I will put hands in chest and drive Burlsworth thru the goalpost.  My hands shaking and I’m trying to keep from jumping offsides.  They snap the ball and I jump the snap.  Sure enough, I don’t know if Brandon took a play off or what because he blessed us.  I pushed him and he tripped and next thing you know I look down and I see a freaking football.  You gotta be kidding me. This play, I promise you, it looked like “The Matrix” in slo-motion when dodging bullets… all I’m thinking was push Brandon out of the way and jump on the football.

Stoerner:  Brandon was doing his job.  It’s called it a gate block, where you open the gate, you invite the defensive tackle up the field to his outside shoulder.  But instead of taking the bait, Ratliff did a bull-rush type deal and Brandon was off balance a bit.  But whether we tangled our legs or not, I have to go to the ground with both hands on the ball type of deal and protect the football.  They caused the turnover but still it should have never happened.

Brandon Burlsworth earned first team All-SEC honors twice, and was named first team All-American following the 1998 season.  He would be selected in the 3rd round of the 1999 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.  But 11 days later, Burlsworth was killed in a car accident near Alpena, Arkansas.  His #77 jersey is retired at Arkansas, only the second Razorbacks player to receive that honor. Brandon Burlsworth was 22 years old.

Martin:  I was on the phone with (Tennessee offensive coordinator) Coach Cutcliffe talking about situational preparation.  In terms of, if we get the ball back it is not gonna be with a lot of time left, and preparing to run a 2 minute drill to go down and score situation.  I literally was hanging up the phone and heard the crowd screaming.  That’s when I look out and see that we recovered the fumble.

Griffith:  It was like slow motion, seeing Burlsworth knocked back by Ratliff, and then Stoerner comes stumbling out, the ball suddenly loose on the ground. You’re thinking, “Did that just happen?”

Greene:  As we finally stepped towards the corridor we had not made it 2 paces down the concrete towards the interior when then the Walls of Jericho themselves would have crumbled at the explosion of sound just behind us. Alas, I had my back turned (live) to the play. As we fought our way back to our seats we saw the frenzy of our sidelines.

Scroggs: We left the stadium through Gate 24 or 25 and after taking just a few steps out of the stadium, I hear this loud roar and then the sounds of Rocky Top so my instincts were to turn around and see what was going on, not realizing how far out we actually were. I take a step or 2 and see a policeman at the gate so I had to stop myself from running past him or else I thought I’d get arrested or something. I was furiously trying to get a signal on my giant radio headset so I could get an update but to no luck. I then spot a huddle of people down around Gate 1 and sticking out of the group was a small portable TV with a giant antenna. I immediately head down there, leaving the rest of my family, to try to see what happened.

Hobby:  Nick Paranjape was the Sports Director at the time at FOX 43. He enjoyed shooting games. So usually I would shoot the first half, and then he would shoot the second half–up until the final couple of minutes. He would then hand the camera back over to me so he could prepare for postgame interviews and what-not. So after Tennessee turned it over on downs for the last time, (again, we’re all thinking game over), he hands the camera back over to me. So now I’m shooting… and then here it comes. I’m following the play like normal. And then Stoerner stumbles… fumbles. Watching this all unravel through the viewfinder I remember my eyes getting big, but trying to stay composed to make sure I got the play. It was one of those moments where you knew what happened, but you didn’t believe it did happen. But I remember staying calm…I still had to shoot the play and capture the moment. Couldn’t have earthquake video. So Ratliff falls on the ball, runs off the field, and I’m following him. Like any good photographer, I then let Ratliff get out of frame. Play over. Quit recording. I was shaking. I admit my fandom was still very thick in my blood back then. I was just one year removed from graduating from Tennessee. Now again, normally I’m gonna finish shooting the game, so Nick could prep for interviews, I couldn’t do it. I handed the camera back to Nick and told him, ‘Sorry, but I can’t shoot this.’ Nick finished shooting the game.

Dubin: I had the perfect shot of Stoerner fumbling and the Vols pouncing on the football. I don’t think 80% of Neyland knew what had happened. So as a photog, we want crowd shots immediately and I turned around and the guy who had just screamed at his wife to “Shut the hell up,” was now making out with his wife.

Part VI: “Give it to number 20”

Even after that turnover there was still work for the Vols to do.  They had to move the ball to get into field goal range, and on a wet field there were no guarantees.  Tennessee decided to keep it simple.

Ward: After he stumbled and fumbled I told Bill Anderson, just give it to number 20 and let him carry it. That is what I remember the most.  Henry carried it 5 straight times.  It was basically the same play 5 straight times.  That’s how I approached the games.  I never got too excited.  But that is what happened in the game.

Fulmer:  Our offensive line and Travis Henry took over.  There was some conversation about throwing the football because it didn’t seem probable that we would run it all the way down the field.  But their defense was on their heels, and probably in shock that they were back out there.  Whether it was people flying around or knocking people back, our running back wouldn’t go down. (Henry) got the ball high and tight while falling forward and was getting every inch he could, every ounce of effort to drive and win the game. It was one of those really impressive things that you are glad to be a part of.

Travis Henry – Tennessee running back (Quotes via Mike Griffith of the Knoxville News-Sentinel)

We huddled up and Tee and the offensive line told me to take it to the promised land… We had faith, and by the grace of God we got the ball back… The holes were there, and I just hit them.  I got stronger as the game went on.

Martin:  We had made an adjustment at halftime.  We saw something in their defense in terms of our running game that we could use at right time and it presented itself then.  It was nothing cute, we didn’t throw the ball.  We ran because it was working.

Travis Henry finished the day with 197 rushing yards on 32 attempts.  He carried the ball on each play of that game winning drive.  5 carries for 43 yards.  Tennessee would improve to 9-0 with a 28-24 victory, their dreams of a National Championship still alive.

Finley:  There was a good vibe afterwards (in the Tennessee locker room), but it was workman-like, which had become the sign of this team. They never got too high or too low that season, so there was excitement, but they carried themselves like it was another win and a feeling that they worked hard to come back and deserved to win instead of having a feeling they dodged a bullet. That was the way this team was all season.

Rice: My dad was hoping the crowd would rush the field again. The Florida celebration had proved quite convenient for our ability to exit the stadium and beat the crowd to the postgame meal.

For Arkansas, the loss was something it would come to terms with.

Clint Stoerner had an infamous moment against Tennessee.

Tom Hauck Getty Images North America

Stoerner:  At the end of the day it was the #1 team in country and it was on the road.  We weren’t expected to win.  Even in that fashion, in the moment it hurt because I felt like I gave it to them.  But when you get guys that have been beaten down 2-3 years, that was a walk in the park, relatively speaking, for what they dealt with before…

Cain: I’ll always remember Clint being the ultimate standup guy.  Not only willingly addressing the media at his locker but doing so with contrition. A very straight forward approach. Not sobbing and letting emotions get out of control and sway how he was perceived.  He clearly was upset but he held it together really well in that locker room and had owned up to what happened.  He didn’t make excuses. I was always struck by that.

Anonymous Arkansas fan – I was 8 years old at that game and I’ll never forget how my Dad and Uncles celebrated. We had flown to the game that afternoon on the private plane of a well-known Arkansas alum. They were celebrating pointing and laughing at the miserable Tennessee fans late in the game when it happened: The Stumble. Neyland Stadium went nuts. After the game the UT fans were as kind as could be.  They all told us what a good team we had. Naturally this only pissed my dad and uncles off even more so much so that when we got back to the airport one of my uncles said, “If one more UT fan tells us we played a great game I’m going to punch him right in the face.” At that exact moment a fan walked by and said you guys played a great game and my uncle wheeled around to sock him. Fortunately for all of us he didn’t when he saw it was Bill Frist. To this day we all talk about the day my Uncle almost punched a U.S. Senator.

Tennessee would go on to win the SEC Championship, and then the first ever BCS National Championship over Florida State, 23-16 in Tempe.  Arkansas fell the following week at Mississippi State 22-21, costing them what would have been a rematch with Tennessee in Atlanta in the SEC Title Game.

Part VII: Razorbacks payback

The following season Tennessee was once again in the hunt for the BCS National Championship.  On November 13, 1999 the Vols came to Fayetteville ranked 3rd in the nation, but more importantly sitting at number 2 in the BCS standings.  Win out and they might once again play for the title.  But Arkansas, led by Stoerner, would rally in the second half and beat Tennessee 28-24.  The same score, only reversed, as in the 1998 matchup.

Caston:  For me personally it was a bitter sweet game. I got my knee blown out.  I’ve not watched either of those games.  I blew my knee out on a kickoff and didn’t get to finish the game or the season.  But to get that win and knock Tennessee out of a chance to win the championship and go back to back, and just to see the weight off Stoerner’s back… he was taking a beating.  Quarterbacks get all the blame and all the credit more than any position on the field.  As a team we were glad to see Clint be relieved of that and get redemption.   I was playing football since the age of 7 and never had a major injury.  That last game you get hurt, you figure the Good Lord was telling me I needed to stay in Arkansas.  I’m having time of my life so it isn’t all bad.

Stoerner:  I don’t know if it was revenge for me… it was about my guys.  It was more about my guys that had experienced it.  There was nothing I could do for the guys that graduated in 1998, nothing I could do to help them, but the guys my grade and below that were in the 1998 game… for me it was about getting to that game and winning so they could get the bad taste about that game out of their mouths.  So for me it was never about revenge.  UT could have been ranked 22nd.  But when lined up against them, I wanted that victory more than I wanted a win in my life.

Cain:  Clint was a great leader who just got beat up early because his line wasn’t good.  He developed into a great leader.  He was genuinely hurt (in 1998) and wanted to make it up to his teammates and they rallied around him and loved him to death.  Not in a sappy way.  Just a lot of respect for him, they liked him a lot.  That’s what comes back to me, the significance of that game.

Finley:  I saw Clint Stoerner kneeling and crying when the game ended and I got an interview with him. He had carried that burden for a year, though it wasn’t his fault and he had finally delivered. The picture of his stumble and fumble was on the front page of the Arkansas newspaper that Friday when we arrived so I can’t imagine the pain he went through.

Coleman:  You look at that 1998 Tennessee team and the 1999 Tennessee team.  1999 was more talented than any team I played on, top to bottom.  They would have won it again the next year.  No disrespect to anyone else, but Al Wilson was the biggest difference for that team.  Everything we had, he pulled it together. We had pieces but he was the straw that stirred the drink.  He was biggest difference.

Part VIII:  Looking back

This week the stakes won’t be nearly as high when Tennessee hosts Arkansas.  It’s been nearly 17 years since that classic game at Neyland Stadium.  Even after all the days that have passed, the 1998 game stays in the memory banks of those involved, because of what happened… and what might have been.

Caston:  There’s not a day goes by that you don’t think coulda, woulda, shoulda.  It crosses your mind every day.  What could we have done better… how could we have eliminated mistakes, it’s just natural.  It is like breathing.  You are two games away from potentially playing for a national title that we hadn’t done since 1964. You win that game and you have a chance to rewrite history in the modern times and be remembered like we remember and revere our 1964 team.  So you think about it every day.

Hobby:  I worked in Arkansas for five years, so I have a lot of friends that remember that game well. I recently asked one of them to tell me what they remember from the game. I got a two word answer. “Billy Ratliff.”

Fulmer: If Billy Ratliff doesn’t have some of the injuries, he plays a long time in NFL… he was strong, powerful and could run.  He never got credit he deserved because he lost so much time with injuries.  My gosh. What a play to go down in history and Tennessee lore.  You’ll see it for years. To win the game and more importantly to go on and win the national championship.

Ratliff: What if I didn’t make that play and we get the ball back with only 50 or so seconds left?  We probably don’t win that game because we wouldn’t have been able to run the ball.  As many times as I got injured, my passion was football.  I loved it so much.  I always wanted to go to the Pro Bowl and compete against Warren Sapp.  I wanted to challenge him, and I didn’t get opportunity. I remember the pre-NFL Draft stuff… where I was rated if not injured. Coaches telling me there was a possibility I could be a top pick in our class if not injured.  I’m thinking about guys drafted that year.  Shaun Ellis was in the first round, Jamal Lewis was in the first round.  We are talking top 15 picks. I wish I had the opportunity.  But my Mom said that may not be for you, that there was always something out there better.  I have been blessed.  I provide for family.  I don’t have wants or needs.  I have a home, a beautiful wife, two kids… it has been wonderful.

Stoerner: I’m not a big guy to sit around and wonder “What if…” but I’d be lying to you if I told you I haven’t pulled out that tape and seen how good we were and how that game went.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say we were pretty damn good and had a chance to win it all and let that slip away.   I think we were the best team in the country that year.  We played as bad a 4th quarter as we coulda played.  Outside of that, we dominated the game.

Ward:  Looking to 1998… if you talk about one play, many people say the missed field goal by Florida, the TD pass from Tee Martin to Peerless Price against Florida State. But if you have to pick one play?  It was the recovery by Ratliff.

Caston: That was a team of destiny. Ratliff makes the play. It just seemed like it was their time.

Miles: I think the whole 1998 year we had great leaders, seniors stepped up, great coaching staff… but we had great players all around and we really gelled.  It was an awesome year.  I will remember it for the rest of my life.  I really cherish it.

 

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.