100 Days of Vols #94: The First Game You Remember


Celebrating our own beginnings...

Every one of these stories will be different, and that's why they're great.

At some point in your life, someone sat you down in Neyland Stadium or in front of a television and started you on a path that's led you to become the sort of person that reads a Tennessee Football blog in late May. It all started somewhere, usually with at least one somebody else, whether as a child or a student or after a move to the area. And if you're like me, it didn't take long to get from that first game you remember to a love affair with all things orange.

The first game I went to was Army in 1986, but as I would turn five just two days later I don't remember it. I know I was there when we went to the Peach Bowl at the end of the '87 season and I know Reggie Cobb was involved in the victory, but I don't remember any of the details. And 1988 was the first year I started going to every game with my Dad, but if you remember 1988 you remember wanting to forget everything about it.

I had a solid foundation and a number of experiences with UT football from ages 5-7, but the first one I really remember is the second game of the 1989 season. After going 5-6 in '88, Tennessee beat Colorado State 17-14 to open '89. Then they traveled west to face #6 UCLA.

It's both a sign of the times and a picture of the program before this game that the '89 UCLA game with the Vols unranked and the Bruins at #6 was only televised on pay per view. I don't know what my parents and your parents and maybe even some of you had to pay in 1989 to get the game on what I believe was VideoSeat. I do know this meant UCLA could leave kickoff time as they desired it: a West Coast night game, meaning this thing kicked off somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-11 PM in East Tennessee.

I turned eight a month after this game, and I remember it was so cool that my parents let me stay up late to watch it with them. Their thought process at the time probably was, "We're going to get drilled, and we can put him to bed pretty quickly."

Tennessee - with a few thousand orange fans behind them in Pasadena - stopped UCLA's opening drive inside the 40 with a great defensive play on 4th and 2. It was the first meaningfully good thing that had happened to Tennessee in probably two years, and it set a tone that would resound throughout the rest of the night, the rest of the season, and for a dozen more to follow.

Andy Kelly would take over quarterback duties later in the '89 season, but on this night the keys belonged to Sterling Henton. And the car we were driving was a throwback: wishbone, power I stuff with a talented and angry offensive line. But when the guys running the ball were Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb, even the wishbone looked cool to a seven year old kid.

That's because Cobb and Webb were ripping off 7-10 yards per carry, at least. Webb was a true freshman, and this was his coming out party. Tennessee drove 90 yards and ate 12 minutes off the first quarter clock, with Henton taking it in himself to finish the drive. UT led just 7-0 at halftime, but the ball control stuff was working thus far. And if there were questions about how well it would work in the second half, an 82 yard touchdown drive to open the third quarter answered them. With Tennessee up 14-0, the defense gave the Vols the ball back, and Henton hit a couple of key passes to set up Tennessee's third score on another run by Webb. All of a sudden, the Vols led 21-0.

Then unbelievably, UCLA fumbled the ensuing kickoff.

If there was a moment the most dominant era of Tennessee Football was born, this was it. Its first words were written on this night and the epilogue wouldn't come until the Vols were finishing off Michigan in the 2002 Citrus Bowl. From 1989-2001, Tennessee went 129-29-2, winning four SEC Championships and an additional Eastern Division title, along with the 1998 National Championship. During that span no SEC team, not even the vaunted Florida Gators (129-32-1) had a better winning percentage, and only Florida State and Nebraska won more games.

That era and my orange-tinted memory were born on this night. Brad already wrote about the power of those awesome Vol Network highlight tapes in this series here; I honestly don't remember if I stayed up to see the rest or if the "Running in High Cotton" VHS tape filled in all the gaps later. Tennessee only got three points off that UCLA fumble, but by then the point was made and the damage done: the Vols didn't come to Pasadena to be dominated, but to dominate. And they would spend the rest of 1989 and the next 12 years continuing that trend. I'm too young to have experienced the full elation of the moment, but I know what it started in me. UCLA got a garbage touchdown but lost 24-6; two weeks later Tennessee hosted #4 Auburn in a downpour and beat them too 21-14 thanks to Reggie Cobb and a pair of safeties. I was there for that one and remember it too, and everything that's followed since.

My generation, especially if you grew up in East Tennessee, was so lucky because we came of age at just the right time. You spent your childhood with the CobbWebb, Carl Pickens, Andy Kelly and Heath Shuler. You spent high school with Peyton Manning. The Vols won the National Championship my senior year of high school. And my time in the student section at UT peaked with the greatness of 2001. Even everything until 2008 was still pretty dadgum good. The last five years have been totally new to us, because we were born and raised with the Vols being the best of the best, and in our bones we will never know anything else. We're still quite lucky.

This is where it started for Tennessee in the modern era, and this is where it started for me. But whether you came in on the ground floor or moved here during happier times, started loving the Vols long before 1989 or are a youngster wondering what all this talk of dominance is about, your story is your favorite because it's yours. And if you're reading a college football blog in late May, it is in part because you've got a good story.

What's the first game you remember?

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