Tennessee’s 1998 national champs celebrate anniversary of title
Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team reunited Saturday for the Volunteers’ Southeastern Conference opener against Florida.
“It’s just like we never skipped a beat,” said linebacker Al Wilson, the 1998 team’s emotional leader. “It’s been 20 years. Some guys I haven’t seen in 20 years, but it’s just like I saw them yesterday. That lets you know they’re your brothers.”
Select members of the 1998 team were honored as Tennessee “legends of the game” during a pregame ceremony. All the 1998 team members who attended the reunion were recognized during a timeout after the first quarter.
Wilson said the passing of time has given the 1998 team members a whole new appreciation for what they accomplished two decades ago.
“People say you won’t appreciate it until you get older,” Wilson said. “That’s the absolute truth. Twenty years later, I truly have an appreciation for it because you know how hard it is to win a national championship and to go undefeated. To be in this position, to have the things that we accomplished together, it’s just something special.”
The 1998 season was a special one for Tennessee, which found a way to win a national title immediately following the departure of Peyton Manning, who starred at quarterback for the Vols from 1994-97 and was Heisman Trophy runner-up his senior year.
The reunion featured about 70 players from the 1998 team. The reunion featured a total of nearly 200 people with associations to that team, including staffers, coaches and administrators as well as players.
Tee Martin, who took over as the Vols’ starting quarterback in 1998, was unable to attend the reunion. Martin is now the offensive coordinator at Southern California, which beat Washington State late Friday night.
The former Vols who attended had extra reason to celebrate. Phillip Fulmer, the coach of the 1998 national championship team, is now Tennessee’s athletic director. It’s a move that Fulmer’s former players applauded.
“The family is whole,” said Fred White, a defensive back on the 1998 team. “It’s how we feel. One of ours is right back here where he’s supposed to be. We know that he’s trying to do everything he can to get Tennessee back to where it’s supposed to be because he loves it, he wants us to be in the fold and he brings us back as much as possible to try to find ways to inspire these kids and show them what it’s like to be a Volunteer.”
Eric Westmoreland, a linebacker on the 1998 team, also endorsed Fulmer’s hire of new football coach Jeremy Pruitt. Westmoreland played high school football at Marion County High School in Jasper, Tennessee. Westmoreland noted that Pruitt’s father, Dale Pruitt, is a former Marion County coach.
“I think (Jeremy Pruitt’s) a good guy, a hard-nosed coach,” Westmoreland said. “He’s what Tennessee needs right now, somebody that can come in and put the intensity back in the program.”