Beloved former Tennessee Vol Peyton Manning finally got himself a Gator last night as the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears and former Florida QB Rex Grossman. For Vol fans, the game conditions were eerily similar to those of the 2002 swampish game in Neyland Stadium against Grossman and the Gators. You remember that game, right? When QB Casey Clausen mishandled three snaps and the Vols fumbled seven times in the torrential downpour of the first half while Grossman and the Gators, seemingly impervious to the rain, picked the defense apart? Manning and the Colts, oft-criticized for being merely a finesse, pass-happy, climate-controlled team that could not win big games against tough, physical opponents, weathered the literal storm and battered the Bears' vaunted defense with running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes. Still, it was Manning, having completed 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, who hoisted the Pete Rozelle Trophy as the game's Most Valuable Player.
What does it all mean for Volunteer fans? Probably not much. But maybe, just maybe, it's a validation of the current state of Tennessee football. Coach Dungy, when asked to articulate what it meant to him to be in the first Super Bowl featuring two African American head coaches and to be the first to win one, made a point of saying that while he was proud of that, he and Chicago coach Lovie Smith were defined more by their Christian faith than by their skin color. Announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms made a big deal about Dungy and Smith never raising their voices and abstaining from obscenity just because that's who they are. During the pre-game hype, Peyton Manning's older brother described Peyton as a "goody two-shoes." In short, last night's Super Bowl showcased a bunch of "nice guys" on both sidelines.
Coach Phillip Fulmer has, for years, been criticized for being too nice. He has shouldered criticism for "lacking fire" or "passion," for applauding and hugging players instead of verbally toasting them after mistakes, for all of his "dadgums" and "goshdarnits," and for an appearance of incestuous coaching promotions and retention of staff after their usefulness has waned. But time after time you hear high-profile recruits giving as one of their reasons for committing to play football at Tennessee the family atmosphere cultivated by coach Fulmer. With signing day just a few days away, Fulmer has put together what appears to be a solid, top three recruiting class. This after a recruiting class ranked No. 1 two years ago. Perhaps Fulmer knows what he's doing.
Fulmer and coach Cutcliffe, who groomed both Manning and his younger brother Eli for the NFL, were on hand last night as Manning's guests to witness their star pupil reach the pinnacle of success. Television viewers who stuck around for the post-game ceremony saw Dungy and Manning savoring their reward and former UT assistant Lovie Smith giving a character-proving, post-game interview.
Through the downpour of rain and confetti, Vol fans might also have glimpsed a fleeting truth. Nice guys sometimes do, in fact, finish first. And second.