An unmatched feat in Tennessee football history
By Tom Mattingly
The journey from the misery of an 0-6 start to the 1988 football season to four SEC titles and the national championship in the ensuing 10 seasons began Oct. 22 at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. No one across the expanse of Big Orange Country could fathom heading home with a loss to the Tigers in the rearview mirror and a 0-7 record on the dossier.
There had been high expectations following a 10-2-1 mark in 1987, but it didn’t take long for those hopes to be dashed. It was a miserable season weather-wise, with rain, fog, and other manifestations of bad weather greeting the Vols at nearly every contest.
In the Tennessee media guide that season, Haywood Harris had foreshadowed what might occur in the 1988 season.
“The prospect of playing four Southeastern Conference schools by mid-October has underscored the need for coach Johnny Majors to have the Tennessee Vols in fine fettle when they burst out of the starting blocks for the 1988 season,” Harris wrote. (Only Haywood could get away with using the words “fine fettle” in a season preview story.)
Then came a word of warning, with some neat literary touches that were emblematic of Haywood’s persona.
“By the time the leaves have turned deep orange in the nearby Smoky Mountains, UT will either have some very impressive scalps on its belt or will have been bloodied by some of the biggest ogres in college football.”
The ogres, and a few non-ogres as well, won out. The Vols had lost at No. 12 Georgia (28-17), to Duke (31-26), at No. 3 Auburn (38-6), and at home to No. 4 LSU (34-9), Washington State (52-24), and No. 20 Alabama (28-20).
There was a major shakeup on the coaching staff after the Washington State game, with the legendary Ken Donahue out as defensive coordinator and Doug Mathews in.
Radio personality Duncan Stewart ended up on a billboard in Nashville and refused to come down until the Vols won a game.
On arriving on the stadium that late October day, the Vols were the object of the obligatory “one-finger salutes” and the other accouterments of life on the road, including a barrage of oranges that got the team’s attention.
“We went to the dressing room before kickoff, and a lot of the guys were ticked off that had happened,” Vol quarterback Jeff Francis said.
After a 10-10 first half, the Vols jumped on the Tigers in the second half, taking a 38-25 victory.
Tennessee head coach John Majors called it, “A terrific win. It stopped the bleeding. This wasn’t the World Series, but I thought we looked a lot like the Dodgers—a lot of nobodies with a lot of heart.”
The Vols scored on four consecutive possessions following the second half kickoff. Those who wanted the ball thrown to the tight end had been granted their wish, with Von Reeves and co-captain Nate Middlebrooks each getting a TD catch.
Tony Thompson, once buried deep, deep, deep on the depth chart, came off the bench when Reggie Cobb was injured and rushed for 124 yards on 28 carries. He scored twice and had a two-point conversion run.
He would again get another call in the Vanderbilt game a year later, replacing the injured Chuck Webb and gaining 128 yards on 33 carries. He took over the tailback position for good in the third game of the 1990 season after Webb was injured and lost for the season. He rushed for 1261 yards to lead the SEC, earn All-SEC honors, and be named team captain. His is a uniquely Tennessee success story.
The Tennessee fans in the crowd had their own battle cry after the game: “0-and-12! 0-and-12!,” referring to Tennessee’s 12 victories in as many tries in the cross-state rivalry.
The victory led to a five-game winning streak to end the season, with each game being tightly contested, going well into the fourth quarter before being decided.
SEC titles and bowl wins over Arkansas in the 1990 Cotton Bowl and Virginia in the 1991 Sugar Bowl came in the next two seasons. The Vols were 20-3-2 over those two campaigns.
Going from a 5-6 record in 1988 to 11-1 in 1989 was an impressive feat, unmatched in Tennessee football history. There were also SEC titles in 1997 and 1998 and the national championship that latter season.
“Coming back with five straight victories at the end of the season is something I couldn’t have predicted,” said Majors afterward. “But I could see every week where we were getting better, and a coach can’t ask for much more than that.”