David Cutcliffe did not call Tennessee football’s Fiesta Bowl in the 1998 national championship. Does the former Volunteers offensive coordinator regret it?
When Tennessee football beat the Florida State Seminoles on Jan. 4, 1999 to win the 1998 national title, the Vols were in their first game with Randy Sanders as offensive coordinator. David Cutcliffe left after the SEC Championship win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs to take the head coaching job with the Ole Miss Rebels.
This was on the heels of one of the finest performances ever for an offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe was in his 17th year with the Vols and his sixth in his position. But he had to replace Peyton Manning at quarterback, his record-setting receiver in Marcus Nash, and his center in Trey Teague.
Then, four games into the year, the Vols lost Jamal Lewis, their best offensive weapon, to a season-ending injury. All Cutcliffe did after that injury was orchestrate an offense that averaged 37 points a game the rest of the way en route to a 12-0 record. And he helped Tee Martin set a record for consecutive completions against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
So it made sense that he would get a very good head coaching, offer, to replace Tommy Tuberville at Ole Miss. However, after a good run with Eli Manning, Cutcliffe was fired on the heels of a losing season in 2004. He returned to UT in 2006 and surpassed his performance of 1998 by turning the worst offense in school history in 2005 into one of the best.
Following that up with a 10-4 season and SEC East title in 2007 earned Cutcliffe his second coaching job with the Duke Blue Devils. He has now turned around that program, and his journey has been a remarkable one. But it all begs the question, does he regret his decision to leave Tennessee football after the 1998 national championship?
At the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame induction Thursday, Cutcliffe spoke about Phillip Fulmer and the state of UT under him. However, his decision to leave the Vols after the SEC title game in 1998 has become a relevant topic.
Apparently, Cutcliffe had the option to coach the national championship game but decided to get started at Ole Miss, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. Now, it is worth noting that Ole Miss was in dire straits with the way Tuberville bailed on them for the Auburn Tigers. So Cutcliffe was trying to put out lots of fires immediately.
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While that’s commendable, it may not have been necessary. Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt both stayed with the Alabama Crimson Tide through the national championship game, and won them for Nick Saban, before taking their head coaching jobs.
Having never actually coached in a national championship game, would Cutcliffe have suffered that much by staying with Tennessee football for one more performance? Given all the effort he poured into the program, he may have been happier to see that through.
And that’s especially true given the lack of faith Ole Miss put in him long-term, firing him one year after sharing the SEC West title. The Rebels had to learn from their mistake and hire Matt Luke, a Cutcliffe disciple, as head coach after that.
Tennessee football was at its best when Cutcliffe was offensive coordinator, and it’s when Fulmer was at his best. Cutcliffe leaving for a head coaching job made sense. But he’s not going to ever be coaching in a national title game at Duke, no matter how great a job he does. So bailing on the Fiesta Bowl 20 years ago may have been a blown opportunity.