20 Years Ago in Vols Football
1992 was the season in Tennessee Volunteers history when one legend replaced another.
It is hardly possible to believe that a season ending with a 9–3 record would go down as one of the most tumultuous campaigns of Tennessee Volunteer football. But that is an apt description of what happened 20 years ago.
It was a season that was ushered in with the untimely death of the head athletic trainer and a heart bypass operation performed on the head coach. These preludes led to the main act featuring stars in the making at quarterback and running back, an improbable run up the national ranking to number four under unproven leadership, and an agonizing four weeks during which the team lost its only three games of the season, doing so under the recuperating head coach who had returned from the operating table at a timetable to perhaps save his job.
The finale gave us the transfer of power from one Tennessee legend to another.
William Shakespeare did not write this tale. It was more like a modern-day reality television show. But it really happened.
So, if you think 2008 was the most gut-wrenching season possible, take a trip back 20 years to when Phillip Fulmer began his Tennessee head coaching career, and when another Tennessee legend ended his.
1992 was a season when the structure of today’s college football landscape was beginning to evolve.
Changing the face of college football forever, the SEC went from a sometimes-chaotic 10-team confederation to a divisional structure whereby the league championship would be decided via an annual championship game featuring the winners of two divisions.
You could say that the SEC hatched the evolution of today’s Super Conference. Two new schools, Arkansas and South Carolina, were added to the league, thereby increasing the total to a dozen. But the focus for much of the season was projected onto Knoxville where a different kind of rebirth would take place.
It all began on August 3, 1992, when the Vol Nation received awful news. Head athletic trainer Tim Kerin, only 44 years old, died at UT Hospital of an aortic aneurysm.
Kerin had come to Knoxville with head coach Johnny Majors from Pitt in 1977 where he’d been Majors’ head trainer since 1973. Kerin designed the new Neyland-Thompson Sports Center — the new athletic training center — from the ground up to specifically address the needs of athletes. The state-of-the-art athletic training room would posthumously be officially dedicated “The Tim Kerin Athletic Training Room” in his honor and memory.
Kerin would also later be honored with his induction into the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame as well as the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
The memory of Tim Kerin would be carried forth into the 1992 season by players wearing a green cloverleaf containing the white letters “TIM” on the back of the Vols helmet. But his death would be an event that eventually took a back seat to the internal drama that would alter the landscape of Tennessee football in a way only few could imagine.
On August 25, 1992, coach Majors underwent three-and-a-half hours of open-heart surgery less than two weeks before Tennessee opened its 1992 campaign. This was like royalty being near death — the entire Vol Nation held its breath. The aura of Johnny Majors in Tennessee had only one equal – General Robert Neyland.
Majors, a native of Lynchburg, had been an All-American tailback at Tennessee, was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1956, and coached his alma mater to three SEC championships. Johnny had come marching back home in 1977 to take over the struggling fortunes of Vols football after winning the national championship the previous season while coaching the Pitt Panthers. So, his stature in his home state and at his alma mater made it seem impossible that he could avoid reporters and photographers while leaving the UT Medical Center only seven days after major surgery to continue his recuperation at his home.
While Majors lay on the operating table, his Vols were getting ready for only their second full-scale scrimmage of the pre-season. It was announced that Coach Philip Fulmer, the Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator, would take over as the interim head coach.
At a press gathering on the old Tartan Turf at Neyland Stadium, Fulmer said,
“I’m confident just like Coach Majors…he sent a message to the team, you know, ‘straight ahead,’ and that’s just the way he approaches things…and you’ll appreciate this – ‘straight ahead’ and ‘attack, attack, attack!’”
“Attack, attack, attack” was the Majors Mantra. Fulmer knew the phrase well. He also knew the Majors system well. He was the obvious choice to take the reins.
There were other new items as the Vols went into the season opener with Southwestern Louisiana.
Tennessee had a new quarterback: Heath Shuler from Bryson City, North Carolina, a former High School Player of the Year in his home state. A new quarterback is always a nervous time for the Volunteer faithful. Knowing that he eventually would be good enough to finish second in the vote for the Heisman Trophy would have calmed the fans who were already suffering from mass anxiety over the head coaching situation.
Also there was a junior college transfer running back: Charlie Garner, who had set JUCO records for rushing yards in a game and yards in two consecutive games while at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College. He later would become a Pro Bowl running back in the NFL.
Garner joined other running backs Aaron Hayden, James “Little Man” Stuart, and Mose Phillips to create a powerful rushing attack alongside Shuler who was nearly as good running with the football as he was throwing it.
So, it was “Interim Head Coach” Phillip Fulmer that joined John Ward on the 1992 season premiere of the Johnny Majors Show after the Vols had plowed over the Ragin’ Cajuns 38–3. It was a surreal scene as John Ward kicked off the show by introducing Philip Fulmer as the “winningest coach in major college football – he’s never lost a game.”
With the easy opener behind them, Tennessee went to Athens as a 14-point underdog to the highly rated Georgia Bulldogs who eventually went on to a 10–2–0 season record. But behind the quickly emerging star of Heath Shuler, who led the Vols in both rushing and passing yardage, Tennessee served up an upset. Down 31–27 and facing a fourth-and-13 situation on the Bulldog 40 yard line with only 2:15 left on the game clock, Schuler calmly and confidently completed a bullet pass over the middle into the gut of the Georgia defense for a drive-saving first down. The Vols went on to score the game winner for a big 34–31 win.
A 2–0 overall record and 1–0 in the rugged SEC gave the Vol faithful some room to reflect on their good fortune. One monumental fear was put to rest. Apparently the Big Orange had the tools, and also the continuity of leadership, to survive the temporary loss of Majors. But now, a new fear appeared. Once Majors returned to the sidelines, would Fulmer become a top candidate for another program?
Fulmer wasn’t going anywhere. Or, at least that’s what most people would like to think. In fact, he had interviewed for the head coaching position at East Carolina in the spring of 1992. But it became known late in the 1992 season that in light of the facts indicating Fulmer could win on the sidelines, he was being pursued by Arkansas’ Athletic Director Frank Broyles who fired his head coach near the end of that season.
Big Orange Country hung on to the hope that Fulmer wouldn’t leave Knoxville, fueled by the fact that he was a native son.
Born in Winchester in the south-central portion of the state, Phillip was an excellent athlete at Franklin County High School. Recruited by Alabama, he eventually signed with Tennessee. He eventually became a starter during his senior season in 1971 and was that 10-and-2 squad’s co-captain. Fulmer’s teams on which he played went 30–5 and won an SEC title.
After assistant coaching stints at Wichita State and Vanderbilt, Phillip returned to Knoxville in 1980 to coach the offensive line under Majors, eventually becoming the offensive coordinator in 1989.
So, whether or not he really had always dreamed of the head job in Knoxville, here he was, substituting for a Tennessee legend, and doing a very fine job of it. He had paid his dues – 18 years as an assistant coach – and was apparently ready to grab the reins if necessary.
Next, it was Steve Spurrier’s fourth-ranked Florida Gators in Knoxville to begin what would become a long-standing rivalry between Fulmer and the East Tennessee native Spurrier.
A downpour of rain didn’t stop the Vols, as Shuler at quarterback ran like Condredge Holloway and Jimmy Streater combined. Mose Phillips caught a short swing pass out of the backfield and ran 70 yards for a touchdown. Meanwhile, the fired-up Vol defense held the Gators to only 68 yards on the ground and less than 300 yards overall. It all turned into an improbable 31–14 win over Florida.
Now, the Fulmer Bandwagon had been constructed with wins over two stout SEC opponents. It had high-performance wheels with an engine to match. The nation was beginning to take notice.
So did Johnny Majors.
Only four weeks after open-heart surgery, Majors was back in the locker room, reciting his “Attack, Attack, Attack” mantra that had brought him so much success as a head coach over the previous quarter-century. To some, he had hastily re-assumed the head coaching duties in an effort to save his job and his aura, as his Vols had captured the imagination of many under his Offensive Coordinator.
Up next were three rather poor teams to face the Vols. The first would be a Cincinnati that was trounced by Tennessee 40–0 with Majors running the show from the Neyland Stadium press box. Fulmer directed the offense from the sideline. It was almost as if nobody, players and coaches included, really knew who was running this surprising show that now had Tennessee at the 4–0 mark for the season.
Weak sisters LSU and Arkansas followed to surely set up a showdown of monumental proportions. It would be like the old days with the Third Saturday in October featuring two undefeated Southern powerhouses. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way — the 1992 daydream was soon to turn to a nightmare.
Majors officially returned as the Sideline Head Coach when the Vols traveled to Baton Rouge for a night tilt against LSU. Tennessee swamped over the Bayou Bengals 20–0 and was sitting at 5–0 and ranked fourth in the nation, a position that was almost unthinkable in August. This season was supposed to be part of a rebuilding phase.
Then it all went pear-shaped.
The Vols lost a squeaker to heavy underdog Arkansas 25–24 in Knoxville, spoiling the thoughts of an undefeated Alabama visiting an undefeated Volunteer team the next Saturday. Alabama came anyway, defeating Tennessee 17–10 and giving Majors his seventh consecutive loss to the long-time rival from Tuscaloosa.
And you know what happens in the Knoxville when the Vols lose two consecutive conference games at home. The large rock near Neyland Stadium had “Johnny is Back, We Want Phil” painted on it for all to see, possibly including Majors on his way to work. The head coach fired back in typical Majors style on a nationally televised interview.
“It doesn’t take a lot of guts to go out and do something in the darkness – paint a rock. It doesn’t take much ingenuity…. There (are) the Legions of the Miserable sometimes that are always going to be miserable. You don’t let those affect how you approach your team.”
The Legions of the Miserable were beginning to drive the Good Ship Volunteer. They were gaining scores of new members as the Vols season, surprising as it seemed, was beginning to go into the tank.
The last straw was imminent.
In Columbia against SEC-newcomer South Carolina, a late, long touchdown pass/run from the Heath Shuler-Mose Phillips duo brought the Vols to within a point.
Perhaps the ultimate outcome would have been different if the game had been played years later when overtime was part of the solution. But 1992 was still back in the day when a teams’ record was spelled out with three numbers, not just two.
Majors needed a win to keep potential disaster at bay. Instead, the two-point conversion attempt failed and Tennessee limped back to Knoxville with their third-consecutive conference loss, a 24–23 catastrophe. The Vols, once ranked #4 under Fulmer, were now #23 under Majors.
This 1992 loss in Columbia would be remembered by many long-time fans of the Tennessee Vols when Phillip Fulmer met his own last straw. A loss by Fulmer’s Vols to the Gamecocks in Columbia in 2008 was the first loss by a Tennessee team in Columbia since Majors’ 1992 defeat. Both games were followed shortly by a homegrown legend stepping down as the head coach of the Vols.
The open date following the 1992 loss was a welcomed period of rest and recovery from the downward spiral of the fortunes of both the Tennessee Vols as a football team and of Johnny Majors as a head coach. But time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. Just as Phillip Fulmer would find out 16 years later, the unthinkable happened.
On the Friday evening before the Memphis State game on the banks of the Mississippi River, 57-year old Johnny Majors delivered a statement to the local press that was quickly transmitted by the national media. It was given with a feisty tone to say the least.
“I am, effective December 31st 1992, relinquishing all my duties connected with the University of Tennessee. Since the early days of watching my Dad, the late Shirley Majors, coach, I developed a very competitive spirit concerning football. I played hard, I coached hard, and I demanded a lot of myself and those who surrounded me. Sometimes in the heat of battle, I’ve occasionally said things that upon reflection I wish I hadn’t. But, that’s been my style and has brought me more success than failure. I still love the game of football, and if there’s an opportunity to coach elsewhere, I certainly would consider it.”
There would be an opportunity, and coach Majors not only considered it, but also took it.
However, there was a lot of emotion to deal with before Majors headed back up north for a second coaching stint at Pitt. Majors delivered a fiery pre-game speech to his troops in Memphis, including this quintessential Majors soliloquy on the joys of playing football:
“You don’t get to play forever in football, and I’ll tell you this – if I could of played football ‘till I’m 57 years old, which I am right now, I’d still be playing. I’d still be playing because it’s the greatest experience I think I ever had when I was a player. So, enjoy it while you can. Knockin’ the hell out of people with a smile on your face and a good tough jaw and a good look in your eye…. To do that, in football and in life, you can always walk around with your head up and your eyes alert, and you’re also gonna win a lot more than you’ll lose.”
Tennessee defeated Memphis State 26–21. But it was more like a funeral.
To the national media, it was as if the University of Tennessee had let a legend go just because his team had lost three consecutive games. ESPN’s Lee Corso had this to say on the air following Major’s press conference in Memphis:
“It’s a sad situation, though, when a man who’s basically given is entire life to a university is forced out of the system based on one lousy month on a football field.”
Craig James added this:
“It really shows you how far college football athletics has digressed when a virtual living legend like Majors is forced out because he didn’t win the SEC in a year that his football team was supposed to be rebuilding. They weren’t even supposed to win this year.”
Then, Chris Fowler summed up the national media’s take on the situation, saying:
“The same obsessive passion that makes SEC football so entertaining, so great, when it’s taken to this level, really is a sickness.”
But, as usually is the case in the matter of oversimplification of events, the situation was likely more complex. Majors was undoubtedly forced out to allow new blood to lead the football program into the future. Was it simply based on a three-game losing streak?
Or was it orchestrated during Majors’ recuperation period via backroom dealings involving Athletics Board member Bill Johnson, Athletics Director Doug Dickey, university president Joe Johnson, and even Phillip Fulmer himself?
Could Majors himself have set the table of discord with the powers-at-be by complaining about his contract, that had two years remaining, in public during the Vols caravan across the Volunteer State?
The full story has yet to be told, at least publically. Perhaps somebody will write that book.
But one thing is for certain. In 1992, the game was changing. Not only football, but all sports were in the middle of a revolution of sorts. Football was becoming, or had already become, a player’s game as opposed to one played by individuals under an authoritarian rule. There were glimpses of this long before 1992, but examples such as the individualism of the Fab Five – a collection of University of Michigan basketball players in the early 1990s – are windows to the changes that were taking place when Johnny Majors lost his last game as Tennessee’s head coach.
The next game was Majors’ last as the Vols head coach in Neyland Stadium.
It was a wet Saturday encounter with Kentucky, one of those old rivals befitting the occasion. In the end, the players who had just defeated the Wildcats 34–13 carried the old-style coach to midfield. It was a celebratory moment of respect of sorts, but it had the imagery of horses pulling a carriage carrying the body of a fallen leader.
The following Saturday was the bitter end of the Majors Era. A 29–25 win gave the departing head coach a 116–62–8 mark as a Vols head coach. Only Robert Neyland and Majors’ successor, Phillip Fulmer, have more wins on the Tennessee sideline.
Fulmer’s first official win as the Vols head man would be on New Years’ Day. On the final episode of the Johnny Majors show, broadcast after the Vanderbilt game, Majors announced he would not lead the Vols against Boston College in Tampa for the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Fulmer’s job title of Interim Head Coach was quickly shortened a bit so that he would not become the spoils of another program’s opportunism following the 1992 season.
It was the season when one legend was replaced by another.
A slightly altered version of this article was originally published in the Tennessee 2012 football season preview magazine Rocky Top Talk, which can be ordered from amazon.com in print version, electronic version for your Kindle, or as a file in pdf format.