The makeup of the 1998 Tennessee Volunteers’ football team looked a little different than the previous year. At least 12 players from the 1997 squad graduated or went to the NFL… most notably the Vols’ QB Peyton Manning. The sporting world did not project that Tennessee would have a great season.
Coach Phillip Fulmer knew his team wasn’t favored to win big. At camp, he did not tell his players they were going to win the SEC Championship. He did not promise a shot at the SEC East title. Instead, he addressed them with this prediction – they would be an 8-4 team at best. Fulmer had no idea what he had incited in the team. His players were mad.
At the next practice, the players took their anger out… on each other. Former Safety Fred White remembered it well, “It was a big brawl. Offense versus defense. And we went at it.”
Fulmer was taken aback, “That scared the stew out of me because we didn’t go full speed against each other very much. And I couldn’t call (them) off. It was like, whoa, wait a minute.”
Once the dust settled, the Vols went on to have one of their best practices of the preseason.
“Getting that little frustration out in that battle, that little brawl…” White said. “It was physical and we went to work. We knew we got some guys that’ll fight and they’ll give it everything they have.”
The brawl may have been ugly, but the outcome was positive. Facing a stacked defense in practice, the young Vol offense realized they had to step it up if they were going to be more than an 8-4 team.
“(The defense) was wearing the offense out every day,” Fulmer remembered. “Now, they were kids that hadn’t started or played a whole lot. The leadership of the offensive team itself had to grow and Tee (Martin) was doing a great job as a quarterback. But he couldn’t do it all by himself. Who were going to be the next people that stood up for the team when it really, really counted?”
“There were a lot of young guys that needed to learn how to fight,” Fulmer continued. “You have those moments; those plays that you remember. The moments somebody does something great that you’ve been waiting for… to make a play on each side of the ball. You can count those moments up to the start of the season as to what you’re really going to look like when everything is full speed.”
“I meant what I said,” Fulmer recalled of his 8-4 remark. “It was a great opportunity for me to make a point that you’re not the ‘97 team anymore. You’re the ‘98 team and you’re going to make the most out of what we got.” And did they ever.