The 1998 Tennessee Volunteers’ football team was comprised of men of different ages, backgrounds and levels of experience. What brought them together was their desire to play hard and win. This was a time before the transfer portal, before NIL. So, what made a player want to be a Vol?
Growing up in Gaffney, SC, one would have expected defensive lineman Jeff Coleman to root for South Carolina or perhaps Clemson. Oddly enough, he rooted for a team thousands of miles away.
“I was a Colorado Buffaloes fan,” Coleman recalled, “They had two defenders, Kanavis Magee and Alfred Williams and I liked them… and it was similar to my high school.”
Keep in mind that the 1990 Buffs didn’t have Deion Sanders as their head coach quite yet. He was still intercepting passes, returning punts and kicks and winning Super Bowls. So let’s rewind.
It was the 1990 Kickoff Classic that put Tennessee on Coleman’s radar. On that day, the No. 9 Vols came back from a 31-17 deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the No. 5 Buffaloes, 31-31. It made a huge impression on the then-high school student, partly because the game was held before the season began, Aug. 26, and received national television exposure.
“I was watching when Tennessee played Colorado to that 31-31 tie,” said Coleman, “That’s when I started to get locked in with Tennessee. It put me on my path to becoming a Volunteer. That’s what attracted me to come there because (it felt) like it was home.”
While it could argued that one recruiting class was better or stronger than another, Coleman recognized that each class brought their own set of skills upon which the ‘98 championship team was built.
“I met Peyton (Manning) at Florida State on a recruiting trip that year. I saw a couple of other people that ended up being in the class,” Coleman said. “You start stacking those classes right on top of each other. That’s when you start to build.”
“You’re going to get some stars; you’re going to get some impact players.” Coleman continued, “When you start five, six, seven classes together… I talked about our ‘94 class being number one, but you put ‘95 and you look at ‘96 and then ‘97… all those classes I just mentioned were incredible.”
Safety Fred White came to Knoxville in 1995, a year after Coleman. He hailed from Griffin, GA, a town, he recalled, not so different from Gaffney, SC. Coleman took White under his wing. The mentorship was invaluable.
“It was amazing because they taught us how to play the game,” White said of the older classmen, “We don’t win the championship without the ‘95, ‘96, ‘97 or ‘94 class.”
“The guys that were seniors in ‘95, they commanded respect. And you respected them. And when it was your time, you got the same respect they got.” said White, “But all the tools we gained, we gained from that ‘95 squad. They taught us how to win.”
What would the ‘98 team have been without players like Coleman, players who were drawn to the Vols’ program based on what they saw on their television most every Saturday? Players who weren’t dazzled with NILs or internet fame? A team that was built year upon year of solid talent, knowledge and respect that led the Vols to win the ‘98 National Championship.