KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — I found it only fitting on this final day of covering Tennessee for SEC Country to dial up three of the greatest Vols I ever watched play: Al Wilson, Dane Bradshaw and Casey Clausen.
The conversations were great, and the memories even more special as I spoke with the future hall of fame members with the purpose of serving Tennessee’s passionate fan base one final dose of journalism.
I’m not one for farewell columns, and besides, I’m just moving a few hours away within the SEC East Division family to cover Georgia for the Cox Media Group’s DawgNation website.
My Twitter account (@MikeGriffith32) will be active, my phone lines and emails with Tennessee friends open.
So this isn’t goodbye, as much as it’s my tribute to what has been an amazing program to cover, providing me storylines and travel opportunities that would make anyone feel as blessed as I do right now.
To be clear, not all of the greatest Tennessee athletes I covered made this particular highlight list: Peyton Manning finished in 1997, softball was not included (sorry greatest pitcher in softball history, Monica Abbott), and track stars Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman were so dominant there was no drama in their championships.
But these are the 10 greatest football and basketball moments I witnessed in person covering Tennessee since the start of the 1998 season:
10. Jauan Jennings’ “Hail Mary between the hedges”
Tennessee extended its win streak to 11 games by rallying from a 17-0 deficit to steal this game at Georgia, snapping what had been a 23-game road losing streak to ranked opponents and elevating the Vols into the top 10 of the polls for the first time in nearly 10 years. Jennings skied above four red jerseys in the Sanford Stadium end zone to pull down a pass that traveled 55 yards in the air after Dobbs took the snap at the Bulldogs’ 43-yard line. Jennings later said it was his second-favorite play, referencing his 67-yard, go-ahead touchdown in the Vols’ 38-28 victory against Florida the previous week.
9. J.P. Prince’s shot block secures first and only Elite Eight trip
March 26, 2010
Tennessee secured its first and only trip to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight when Prince skied high to block the last-second shot attempt of Big Ten Player of the Year Evan Turner, preserving a 76-73 victory against Ohio State. Little could anyone know how much this would anger the Buckeyes’ staff, which, in apparent retaliation to the loss, turned in a picture of Aaron Craft at Bruce Pearl’s home on an unofficial visit in 2008 that played a role in Pearl’s end at Tennessee.
8. Jason Witten’s 64-yard TD catch vs. Michigan
Jan. 1, 2002
The Vols were up 24-10 at halftime, but many were expecting a Wolverines rally. Tennessee changed that notion on its opening drive of the second half when Casey Clausen found Jason Witten 15 yards downfield on an option route, and Witten outran the entire Michigan secondary. Donte Stallworth sped over from the other side of the field as Witten raced into the end zone for the score that made it a blowout. The Vols compiled 503 total yards against Michigan, more than 400 of which came through the air as Tennessee pulled away in a 45-17 victory and a No. 4 ranking — the last time the Tennessee football program finished a season ranked in the top 10.
7. Skylar McBee’s 3-point dagger vs. No. 1 Kansas
Jan. 10, 2010
Tennessee basketball was 11-2 and ranked No. 16, but the Vols were down to just six scholarship players with the undefeated No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks coming to Knoxville. Three players had been suspended from the team after a traffic stop, and a fourth, team MVP Tyler Smith had been dismissed following the same stop. Skylar McBee, then a walk-on from nearby Grainger County, drained a 3-pointer from the corner as the shot clock expired to extend Tennessee’s lead to 74-68 with 36 seconds left. Scotty Hopson scored 17, Bobby Maze 16 and Renaldo “SwiperBoy” Woolridge stepped up with 14 on 4 of 6 shooting from 3-point range.
6. Casey Clausen’s fourth-down, 1-yard TD run at Notre Dame
Nov. 3, 2001
A slobberknocker of a game for the No. 7-ranked Vols, who kept themselves in contention for a national title by holding off the Irish in South Bend to go to 6-1. Clausen scored on an iconic fourth-down touchdown run, getting hit mid-air and helicoptering into the end zone to seal a 28-18 win with 35 seconds left, after which he pointed up at the press box at then-Notre Dame assistant Kevin Rogers, who had quit recruiting Clausen two years earlier. The previous Irish offensive coordinator wanted Clausen — a fellow by the name of Urban Meyer.
5. Dane Bradshaw’s steal and layup at Florida
Feb. 22, 2006
Bruce Pearl’s first team swept the eventual national champs when Bradshaw stole an inbounds pass with the game tied at 72 and drove for the go-ahead layup in the final moments of a 76-72 win. The Vols clinched a share of the SEC title that day as Bruce Pearl sweated through his suit with Pat Summitt in attendance to help celebrate. The 6-foot-4 Bradshaw also guarded 6-11 Joakim Noah that game until Noah was forced to leave when Tennessee point guard C.J. Watson knocked out his tooth with an elbow. Florida fans took their shots, too, holding up pictures of Bradshaw’s sister, who played at Barry University, while chanting “Bridget’s better!”
4. Chris Lofton drains long 3 over Texas’ star Kevin Durant
Dec. 23, 2006
Lofton’s 32-foot shot with 18 seconds left gave the Vols their first lead of the game against Rick Barnes’ star-studded Longhorns in a game Tennessee went on to win, 111-105, in overtime, a Christmas present come early before a capacity crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena. Lofton had 35 points and 11 rebounds that day; Durant had 26 points and 8 rebounds. This iconic shot only slightly overshadows the last-second 3-point fadeaway Lofton hit from the corner against Winthrop in the 2006 NCAA Tournament that had given the Vols their first tourney win in six years.
3. J.P. Prince’s pressure-packed Memphis free throws in 1-2 game
Feb. 23, 2008
The classic No. 2 vs. No. 1 battle at FedEx Forum lived up to its billing, the peak of the Tennessee-Memphis, Bruce Pearl-John Calipari rivalry. The Vols’ specially designed “55” defense kept future NBA MVP Derrick Rose in relative check. At the other end of the floor, Memphis native J.P Prince — who Calipari once recruited but referred to as “J.T.” Prince leading up to the game — hit two free throws with 8.8 seconds left to give Tennessee a 64-61 lead en route to the 66-62 win that elevated the Vols to their first No. 1 ranking in men’s basketball. Prince, a 47-percent free-throw shooter, scored all 13 of his points in the second half, and Chris Lofton capped this one with a pair of free throws in the final two seconds to back up the pregame guarantee Pearl made to fans that the Vols would win.
2. Billy Ratliff forcing and recovering fumble vs. Arkansas
Nov. 14, 1998
The Vols’ perfect season was about to come to an end in a battle of 8-0 teams, the No. 10 Razorbacks holding a 24-22 lead over the No. 1 Vols and needing only to run out the clock after taking over at the Tennessee 49-yard line with 1:54 left. Tennessee defensive tackle Billy Ratliff had other plans, firing off the ball and knocking Arkansas’ guard so far into the backfield that he stepped on the foot of QB Clint Stoerner, who stumbled and — miraculously — dropped the ball on the turf, where Ratliff fell on it at the Hogs’ 43. Five Travis Henry runs later, the Vols were in the end zone with a 28-24 victory.
1. Al Wilson’s fumble-inducing hit on Florida’s Terry Jackson
Sept. 19, 1998
The play that sent a message en route to the pivotal 20-17 overtime win against Florida in the second game of the Vols’ perfect 1998 championship season. The Gators had marched down the field on their opening drive and faced third-and-1 at the 3 when Wilson blasted tailback Terry Jackson, separating him from the ball. Raynoch Thompson recovered what would be the first of 3 fumbles Wilson forced in addition to his 13 tackles.
“It was the calmest I’d been before any game I’ve ever played, pro or college,” Wilson told me on Friday. “It was the calm before the storm.”
Wilson is, without a doubt, the most intense football player I have ever crossed paths with, and the best team leader in any sport.
Wilson never said much to the media, but one telling comment came after an August practice in 1998 when he was asked about the preseason All-SEC team, and Al replied, “We got no stars, baby, we’re playing for that T on the helmet.”
And they did.