Peyton Manning played his last game for Tennessee on Jan. 2, 1998. It was a game Vol fans would like to forget in his otherwise stellar college career, but it was actually the beginning of him being the most impactful person in Tennessee college football history.
I’m not denying that others had a huge impact on Tennessee football. There’s a general that comes to mind. However, no one has been a better beacon of greatness for Tennessee than Manning. Expanded media – and eventually social media coverage – has made his influence on Tennessee’s football program stronger than any other person in history. Perhaps we should have seen it coming in that final game,
The Orange Bowl against Nebraska was a pseudo national championship game that featured the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the nation, per the AP Poll. The BCS would come into play the following season, but the No. 1 Michigan Wolverines were playing in the Rose Bowl so they had to lose for the winner of the “national championship” game to win the national championship. I know, it was incredibly mismanaged since the NCAA couldn’t get the Rose Bowl involved. Criticize the College Football Playoff selection process all you want, but the decisions made around the college football postseason in the 1990’s and before were just dumb.
Things didn’t go well for Tennessee as they got hammered by Nebraska in Manning’s last game as a Vol. Manning was a statue in the pocket because of a burst bursa sac in his knee. One could argue that the Vols should have gone with backup Tee Martin to start the game. However, there was no way Manning was going to be prevented from starting his last game and one that had so much national media attention. Opt outs just weren’t a thing.
The prelude to that bowl game offered a glimpse of what Manning could do in the media, which is still skyrocketing today. Manning was a guest on The Late Show with David Letterman before the game with a swollen knee that looked like it was testing the stitching of his slacks.
Think about that. A Tennessee football player chatting it up with one of the greatest talk-show hosts in history. Manning wasn’t just on ESPN Ocho, he was mainstream. There didn’t used to be 5-million channels to soak in. Tennessee couldn’t have bought that kind of exposure with all the oil in the Haslam storage tanks. It was a sign of things to come.
Manning has become one of the best known former athletes in the modern era and that continually helps Tennessee’s exposure. From throwing footballs at kids on Saturday Night Live to becoming an instant fixture on Monday Night Football with the Manning Cast, Manning is on his way to becoming one of the biggest names in the history of college footballl – if he isn’t already.
Manning also had an NFL career that did Tennessee proud. Manning never even got close to getting in trouble, set countless professional records and won two Super Bowls. Had it not been for a guy named Tom Brady, there likely would be a couple more trophies on the mantle.
You can’t write a book about Tennessee football without including Manning. Heck, you can’t even write the first chapter. Manning can be an easy target for some journalistic hack who doesn’t know his history. It’s easy to say he never beat Florida, didn’t win a national championship and didn’t win The Heisman Trophy. There was even talk of a Manning curse that followed him around, that the Vols were more likely to lose if Manning was attending a Tennessee sporting event. That whole notion was just absurd.
Manning’s decision to attend Tennessee was a seismic shift in the SEC. By signing with the Vols, more followed. Some of those that fell in line ended up winning a national title for the Vols in 1998. Manning deserves credit for some of that championship.
There will always be some that associate Manning more with the Indianapolis Colts, the Denver Broncos or one of his media portrayals. However, you can’t make it through a Manning Cast without a Tennessee reference.
Manning had an incredible career for Tennessee, which included an SEC Championship. With 25 years past, it’s now obvious that Manning’s college career was just a fraction of what he’s done to elevate Tennessee football. His media presence has kept the Vols at the forefront of the college football conversation even when the Vols struggled in the 2010’s. And, at 46-years-old, his impact on the media world, which can only help the Vols, is just getting started.