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!
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).