Randy Smith: The 1998 National Championship: A Look Back

Monday, August 12, 2013 - by Randy Smith
Randy Smith
Randy Smith
A friend reminded me this weekend that I "called" it in 1998. The "it" he was referring to was the National College Football Championship, won by the Tennessee Volunteers. Fifteen years ago, in August, he and several others had asked me what I thought about the Vols and their chances. I told them, if they get past Florida in mid-September, I believe they will win it all.

Tennessee was the defending SEC Champion going into the 1998 season. Led by Peyton Manning, the Vols had beaten Auburn in the SEC Championship game in December, but were trounced by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Big Orange had a wealth of talent returning, especially on defense. Losing Peyton would be tough, but the Tennessee coaches had a lot of faith in new quarterback Tee Martin.
Martin had patiently waited for his time at Tennessee. Watching and learning from Peyton Manning certainly had its advantages and when he led the Vols to a clutch win at Syracuse in the season opener, no one doubted him at all. The big overtime victory over Florida at Neyland Stadium was the win that set the stage for my prediction. The team kept getting better and better each week.

A few days after reaching the top spot in the college football polls, on November 14, 1998, Tennessee hosted Arkansas. It took a late fumble recovery by the Vols to set up the winning score with just seconds remaining. That 28-24 come from behind win proved one of two things; Tennessee was good enough to fight a great opponent and adversity to stay unbeaten, or they were lucky enough to win a national championship. Even though I predicted the Vols to win that national crown if they beat Florida, I only started believing it after the Arkansas win.

Tennessee stayed unbeaten and ranked number one in the country through the end of the regular season. With two games left with Kentucky and Vanderbilt before the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, Vol fans breathed easy as their team outscored the 'Cats and Commodores 99-21 to finish a perfect 11-0. The Volunteers were a league championship game win over Mississippi State from playing in the first ever "real" BCS National Championship Game. (They had lost to Nebraska the year before in a "make-shift" title clash)

Jackie Sherrill's Bulldogs came to play. It was almost as if they had taken it personally when Tennessee escaped with that 28-24 win over Arkansas back in November. The Bulldogs led at halftime, but Tee Martin and Coach John Chavis' defense got things together as Tennessee won the SEC Championship Game for the second year in a row. 

On January 4th of 1999, Tennessee faced Florida State in Tempe, Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. The crowd as always back in those days was dominated by Tennessee orange. Among the spectators on hand in the press box was Vice President Al Gore, who a few months later would announce his candidacy for our nation's highest office. He made his rounds, shaking hands and greeting everyone, but he made a special trip to the Vol Network Booth to visit with John Ward. I had known him for several years, and enjoyed a quick visit myself before he was whisked away by his secret service guards. As Vice President Gore left, I told one of my Vol Network counterparts, I felt really good about our chances. 

I was a little more than three hours away from my biggest thrill as a sportscaster. As the game ended with Tennessee in front of the Seminoles 23-16, I was seated next to the great John Ward when he said, "The National Champion is clad in.....Big Orange!" It was John and Bill Anderson's final football broadcast after thirty-one years together. And I was seated right there with them.....in Tempe as the Vols took home the National Championship.

It has been fifteen years since that wonderful season. A lot of things have changed since then and most of them are not so good. I did predict Tennessee to win it all in 1998, but not on the air. I only told a handful of people what I thought. Times Free-Press columnist Mark Weidmer made the same pick in one of his pre-season columns. It's a matter of record that guys like us don't get it exactly right often. We got it right in 1998! 

rsmithsports@comcast.net

---

Randy Smith has been covering sports in Tennessee for the last 43 years. After leaving WRCB-TV in 2009, he has continued his broadcasting career as a free-lance play-by-play announcer. He is also an author and is a media concepts teacher at Brainerd High School in Chattanooga. He is also the Head Softball Coach at Brainerd. Randy Smith's career has included a 17-year stint as scoreboard host and pre-game talk show host on the widely regarded "Vol Network". He has also done play by play of more than 500 college football, basketball, baseball and softball games on ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports, CSS and Tennessee Pay Per View telecasts. He was selected as "Tennessee's Best Sports Talk Show Host" in 1998 by the Associated Press. He has won other major awards including, "Best Sports Story" in Tennessee and his "Friday Night Football" shows on WRCB-TV twice won "Best Sports Talk Show In Tennessee" awards. He has also been the host of "Inside Lee University Basketball" on CSS for the past 11 years. He was the first television broadcaster to ever be elected to the "Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame", in 2003. Randy and his wife, Shelia, reside in Hixson. They have two married children (Christi and Chris Perry; Davey and Alison Smith). They also have three grandchildren (Coleman, Boone, and DellaMae).


#8 Tennessee Punches 7th Ticket To Women's College World Series

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. --  No. 8 Tennessee punched its ticket to the 2015 Women's College World Series with a 2-1 victory over No. 9 Florida State on Friday in Game 3 of the Knoxville Super Regional. Tennessee will make its seventh appearance in the Women's College World Series after previously making it to softball's grandest stage in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013. ... (click for more)

Lee Baseball Team Advances To NCCAA Semifinals

 It is on to the semi-final round of the NCCAA World Series for the Lee University baseball team. The Flames defeated Oakland City (Ind.) 6-0 early on Thursday and then returned for a convincing late-night victory over Oklahoma Christian, 13-3. The Flames earned the right to play in the final four by posting four straight victories in pool play. They will begin regular ... (click for more)

City Applying For Federal Grant To Extend River Trail To Moccasin Bend In $2.23 Million Project

The city is applying for a $1.6 million federal grant that would be a key part of the funding needed to extend a trail by the Tennessee River from Renaissance Park to Moccasin Bend. The city is seeking an Eastern Federal Highway Division grant to go along with $234,260 of city funds. The state portion would be $259,692.  Grants from the Lyndhurst and Benwood Foundations ... (click for more)

Flora Tydings Selected As Chattanooga State’s Next President

Flora Tydings is expected to be named the next president to lead Chattanooga State Community College pending approval by the Tennessee Board of Regents at a special called meeting next Wednesday. The board will meet at 9:30 a.m. CDT at the TBR System Office in Nashville. Included on the agenda is TBR Chancellor John Morgan’s recommendation for Dr. Tydings to replace Interim President ... (click for more)

Don't Make A Mockery Of Memorial Day - And Response

We're told Memorial Day is the day to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in order that we, as Americans and others around the world, might live free, unshackled (invisible or otherwise) and without oppression. But how is that so when so many in America continue to be denied those freedoms? Others whose family and friends made the ultimate sacrifice? Their surviving families ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: A Great Orthopedic Success

Mark Freeman, the chief of orthopedic surgery at Erlanger Hospital, shared a dazzling look at our area’s Level One Trauma Center Friday morning. Yet, as he described the dramatic changes that have occurred in just the past 12 months, the promise of what will happen within the next year was even more appealing. Believe this, our flagship hospital is getting well in a hurry. “If ... (click for more)