Editor’s Note: On September 22, members of the Fiesta Bowl Committee and Staff joined the University of Tennessee to honor its 1998 national championship team when it played host to the Florida Gators at Neyland Stadium.
This is part two of a two-part series that features quarterback Tee Martin who led the Volunteers to a perfect season and national championship victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
– By Andy Shultz
The Tennessee Volunteers completed the 1998 regular season with a perfect 12-0 record, including wins over three top 10 teams. Even with this impressive resume, the top-ranked Volunteers continued to have doubters as they headed to the Fiesta Bowl.
“One thing I do remember was that we were undefeated, Florida State had one loss, but we were the underdog,” remembered Martin. “That gave us a chip on our shoulder. We were not going to back down and the narrative was to finish what we started.”
After developing their game plan in Knoxville, the Volunteers were ready to head west for final preparations. When they landed in Phoenix, Martin was impressed with the reception he and his teammates received in the Valley of the Sun.
“I just remember the greeting from the Fiesta Bowl Yellow Jacket Committee,” Martin said as he smiled. “They helped us with whatever we needed that week. Everything was high class and perfect. It was just a good week.”
Martin tested the Volunteers’ offensive game plan in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl when he hit Peerless Price on two big pass plays.
The second pass to Price went for 76 yards and set-up the first score of the game. Fullback Shawn Bryson caught a four-yard touchdown pass to give the Volunteers a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.
“Florida State was very committed to stopping the run,” said former Tennessee head coach and current athletic director Phillip Fulmer. “We knew we had to make a play or two in the passing game. We threw it early to try to soften them up and take advantage of them. The big plays to Peerless Price were the difference.”
The Volunteers increased the lead to 14-0 immediately afterward, when cornerback Dwayne Goodrich intercepted a Florida State pass and returned it 54 yards for the touchdown.
“For us, it was momentum,” said Martin. “Those type of games are all about momentum. When two teams are equally matched in terms of speed, size and ability a big play can change the game.”
The game settled down and Florida State battled back to within 14-9 at the end of the third quarter.
That changed with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter when Martin went deep again. He hit Price with a 79-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 20-9, a play that’s been played repeatedly in college football circles.
“I remember dropping back, slipping and almost falling,” recalled Martin. “Peerless nodded to the inside and the corner bit it. The defender didn’t re-route Peerless and he got away free. When I regained my balance, I let it go. Peerless made a great catch over his shoulder for the score.”
Price, who caught four passes for 199 yards and a touchdown, knew Martin was going to him.
“When Tee called the play and we broke the huddle, he looked at me,” said Price. “I needed to get off the line of scrimmage and make a play since I knew he was going to me. I beat him (the defender) and the ball was in the air. Tee threw a great ball where I could get it.
“When I got into the endzone, I did a little walk and exhaled. This was sweet. I can taste victory.”
Clinging to a 23-16 with less than two minutes to go, the Volunteers fumbled inside their own red zone and Florida State recovered. On the next play, Florida State threw deep and cornerback Steve Johnson made the game clinching interception.
“I remember just being poised and trusting our defense after the fumble,” said Martin. “We never panicked or wavered. Regardless what happened, our defense would come through for us and they did.”
The Volunteers ran out the clock and clinched their first national championship since 1951. Martin finished the game 11-19 for 278 yards and two touchdowns. Price was named Offensive MVP while Goodrich was the Defensive MVP.
“This was a huge win for the state of Tennessee, the SEC and the doubters who felt we couldn’t do it,” said Martin. “We set out on a mission to be the best team each Saturday.
“We accomplished this through our hard work and playing together on all three phases of the game. Our entire organization played a part in us winning the national championship.”
For every Tennessee Volunteer and Fiesta Bowl fan there will always be cherished memories.