Over the weekend, the college football world was shocked with sadness when coaching legend Bobby Bowden passed away at age 91. Numerous programs had connections to him, but Tennessee football one that flies under the radar. In the 1990s, though, they were connected in more ways than one.
The obvious connection between the two is the Fiesta Bowl in early 1999. It was to decide the 1998 national champion in the first year of the BCS. The Vols won 23-16, which remains their greatest win in school history.
A year later, Tennessee football started ranked No. 2 while FSU was No. 1. The two were predicted to meet for another national title, and while FSU upheld its end of the bargain, going 12-0 and winning it all, the Vols went 9-3.
Even before those title connections, though, UT and FSU shared competition and mutual enemies. Most notable among them were the rivalries with Florida. Bowden and Phillip Fulmer both led programs that hated Steve Spurrier’s Gators, and that game was the measuring stick for each of them if they were going to try to win the national title.
In addition to the explosive rivalries with Florida, the Vols and FSU were also the victims of many of Spurrier’s jokes when he was at UF. We know about Spurrier’s Citrus Bowl gags at the Vols and Peyton Manning. Well, he also referred to FSU as Free Shoes University at one point due to another scandal. Bowden, in his infinite classiness, expressed his appreciation for the joke.
Yes, throughout the 1990s, both the Vols and Bowden shared a deep hatred for Florida, and they can each name a year Spurrier cost them a potential national title. UT can point to 1995, while FSU can point to 1996 and 1997.
Of course, then there’s the 1993 Heisman Trophy race. FSU quarterback Charlie Ward won it as the ‘Noles went on to win the national title. However, Tennessee football quarterback Heath Shuler finished second to Ward that year.
So an intense rivalry with Florida, a Heisman race, dominance in the 1990s and a historic BCS matchup all defined the Vols and Bowden’s program. Heck, even the year UT won the national title, it had to share being one of the only undefeated teams in the sport with Bowden’s son, Tommy Bowden, who led the Tulane Green Wave to an undefeated season.
You could even trace the start of both Bowden and Fulmer beginning to struggle to one man: Mark Richt. After 11 years as an FSU assistant and seven as an offensive coordinator, Richt left to take the head coaching job of the Georgia Bulldogs in 2001. Bowden never had another top 10 finish.
Meanwhile, 2001 was the last year the Vols finished in the top 10. Richt’s recruiting at UGA restored the program to national prominence and took players away from UT. Although he never won a national title, his arrival changed the SEC for Rocky Top.
It’s a shame these two schools only met once, although had FSU joined the SEC over the South Carolina Gamecocks in 1992, this could have become an explosive annual rivalry on its own. Still, Tennessee football fans appreciate the era Bowden dominated FBS as much as anybody. Bowden is a legend that everybody should admire, and he did so much for the sport.