By Tom Mattingly
Sometimes a team can win a game before they actually win it, even before they come out for pre-game warm-ups. There are times that the seemingly “little things,” ones no one else sees, can definitely make a difference.
That was the case Nov. 8, 2003, when No. 18 Tennessee showed up at the Orange Bowl for the first time in more than 35 years for a contest between the Vols and No. 6 Miami. The Vols had played in this famed arena twice before, both times against Oklahoma. Tennessee won 17-0 on Jan. 1, 1939, and lost 26-24 on Jan. 1, 1968.
When the Vols arrived at the stadium around 10:30 a.m. to prepare for the 12:30 p.m. kickoff, several of the players had a prayer circle in the end zone just outside the Vol dressing room to help them prepare for the game.
It was something team chaplain, the Rev. James “Mitch” Mitchell, had started, and it grew and grew. It was really impressive. You just had to know where and when to look. Several of us remember watching the whole deal transpire from a discreet distance away.
“At the Miami game,” said Mitchell, “the fans were already, can we say, indulged into the spirits. Our guys were trying to pray, and those guys in the stands were cussing, yelling, and screaming at them. I’m over there chuckling. As they walked off the field, I said, ‘Guys, what do you think?’”
When no answer was immediately forthcoming, Mitchell was ready.
“I told them that was a great example of spiritual warfare. That was a great challenge for them, not to move to the other end zone, but to stay right there and be committed to what they were doing.”
Here’s the context of the game.
The Hurricanes had defeated the Vols 26-3 on Homecoming Day at Neyland Stadium the year before in a contest that wasn’t nearly that close. Over the summer, many Vol fans seemed to have mentally chalked up this game as an almost-certain loss in their analysis of the season. No one really gave the Vols a chance.
Before a crowd of 69,722 and an ABC national television audience, the Vols surprised nearly everybody with a 10-6 win. James Wilhoit booted a second-quarter field goal, and Derrick Tinsley scored on a fourth-down, 2-yard run seconds before halftime.
“I thought we could make it, and I felt we needed to make a statement that we were down here to win the football game,” said Fulmer. “We had no fear of the Hurricanes and what they’ve accomplished.”
The drive had taken 9:19 off the clock, part of the Vols holding the ball 32:44 for the game.
Tennessee defenders recovered two fumbles and had two interceptions. Tinsley garnered the final Miami turnover on punt coverage, setting up Casey Clausen to run out the clock in a well-deserved win. It was the Vols’ sixth consecutive win following back-to-back losses to Auburn and Georgia.
The Volunteers thus became the first visiting team to celebrate a victory at the Orange Bowl since Penn State did it Sept. 18, 1999. Tennessee won with a mere 170 yards of offense, 81 passing and 89 rushing.
“It was probably the prettiest, ugliest win I’ve ever had,” said Fulmer.
The aftermath of the contest also featured a post-game rant by Miami’s Kellen Winslow II that made national headlines in a New York Times story by Joe Drape. Drape reported that Winslow had shown his disdain for the SEC officiating crew working the game. Winslow did apologize to Miami president Donna Shalala for his remarks.
The win snapped a 26-game Hurricane home field win streak. The Vols held Miami without a touchdown on their home field for the first time since 1984. It was an amazing defensive performance.
Clausen, the ultimate “Road Warrior,” ended his Tennessee career with road wins over Alabama (twice), Florida (twice), Notre Dame, Kentucky (twice), at the Citrus Bowl against Michigan, at South Carolina (twice), Memphis, Vanderbilt (twice), and Arkansas.
The Vols took the lessons Mitchell taught to heart. From the time they arrived at the stadium until zeroes hit the game clock at the end of the fourth quarter, they proved to be up to the challenge. It was the type victory Vol fans enjoy discussing years later. On that November day in 2003, they refused to yield to the Miami mystique and pulled off a significant win.
“They didn’t back up,” Mitchell said. “They finished it. It was a great learning experience.”