‘What a year!’

By Tom Mattingly

After the 2022 University of Tennessee football season had finished 11-2, Pediment Publishing (Pediment.com) met the moment with the publication of “REVIVOLS: How Tennessee’s Epic 2022 Delivered a Return to the Football Elite.”

Pediment has done it again with “Clad In Big Orange 25 Years Later: The Inside Story of the Tennessee Volunteers’ Epic 1998 National Title.” The title references John Ward’s call of the waning moments of the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, the 23-16 triumph over Florida State. After Ward finished, analyst Bill Anderson said softly in the background: “What a year!”

It’s the story of a dream, with the final moments being played out on the greensward of the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4, 1999.

The book was a joint effort of KnoxNews and the Tennessean. There were also significant contributions from the Arizona Republic, the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, the (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion Ledger, the Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, and the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun.

It is a tribute to a fan base dressed in orange and white that packed the Fiesta Bowl and enjoyed literally every moment. The ambience created by the “FSU War Chant” so irked one Vol fan that he asked one FSU supporter seated nearby, “Is that the first verse or the second verse?”

Chris Low, formerly of the Tennessean and senior writer for ESPN, wrote the foreword and titled it: “An Orange Dream: The Vols 1998 title run was memorable, magical — and entirely perfect.”

“Tennessee fans everywhere,” wrote Low, “will swear they were there that night in the desert — whether they were or weren’t — to see Tee Martin and Peerless Price connect on one long bomb after another; to see punter David Leaverton save a touchdown by tackling FSU’s electric punt returner Peter Warrick in the open field; and see Dwayne Goodrich intercepting a pass and taking it back 54 yards for a touchdown.”


THE FLORIDA STATE MYSTIQUE: The Seminoles were down to a third-string quarterback, Marcus “Rooster” Outzen, but were still nearly a 6-point favorite. “In 1998, Florida State, they were the glory boys,” said the News Sentinel’s Mike Strange. “They were a national dynasty.” That played right into the Vols’ wheelhouse. It was a powerful motivating force.


CLINT STOERNER: The “Stoerner Stumble,” as it is known throughout Big Orange Country, was a significant part of the victory over Arkansas. He was the dominant opposing player story emanating from 1998. Not only was his game’s work well chronicled in the book’s game coverage (three first half touchdown passes), Stoerner was also cited in the book’s “Special Thanks” section. For exactly what, no one seems to know, but he’s there.


BILLY RATLIFF: In a story of point and counterpoint, Ratliff and Stoerner will be forever linked, as were Albert Dorsey and Ken Stabler after the 1967 Alabama game. Ratliff had not played that well from his defensive tackle position, but made the game and season’s biggest play. “That fumble and recovery amounted to the biggest play of my career,” said Ratliff.

It was second down, inside two minutes left, when Stoerner brought Arkansas to the line. Possession was vital. As Stoerner took the snap, Ratliff pushed offensive guard Brandon Burlsworth into the Razorback quarterback, causing him to lose his balance.

As Stoerner fell, he tried to brace his fall with the ball. The ball ended up on the rain-soaked turf, and Ratliff gratefully recovered. The ensuing drive covered five plays and 43 yards. The Vol offense had looked unstoppable.

Tailback Travis Henry, who had carried on each of the five plays and had 199 yards on the day, ended up in the south end zone. John Ward had said, prophetically, on the Vol Network broadcast, “They need to give it to Henry.” That’s exactly what happened.


JOHN WARD: Given that Ward was finishing a legendary Tennessee play-by-play career in 1998-99, the national championship in football and the SEC title in basketball were a fitting way for John to close things out.

“The late broadcaster, who died on June 30, 2018,” the News Sentinel’s Mike Wilson wrote, “voiced each dramatic win in Tennessee’s national championship season with a precision that made each moment eternal.”

His broadcast style was light years ahead of its time. John brought home the story of Tennessee football and basketball in a manner that could never be duplicated.

Ward was the beloved principal architect of a media strategy starting in the 1960s when the University of Tennessee athletic program was reaching for the stars, leading to a golden era when his voice and visage were known far and wide across Big Orange County.


IN MEMORIAM: Within these pages, we get reacquainted with the writings of the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Gary Lundy and the Tennessean’s David Climer and Joe Biddle. They were an integral part of the coverage of Tennessee athletics over the years, and their memory is well served in the narrative.

That’s just a sampling of what awaits the reader. Wherever you start reading this book and wherever you finish, there is enough excitement within these pages to satisfy the most dedicated Vol fan.