Tennessee football: Retiring former assistant was part of most memorable moments in Vols history

The two most notable Tennessee football offensive coordinators during the Phillip Fulmer era have ended their head coaching careers already this offseason. David Cutcliffe and the Duke Blue Devils had already mutually agreed to part ways.

Now, East Tennessee State Buccaneers head coach Randy Sanders has announced his retirement. Sanders spent four years as head coach of the ETSU Bucs. He’s coming off an 11-2 season and his second Southern Conference Championship in four years there.

In the 1999 Fiesta Bowl against the Florida State Seminoles for the 1998 National Championship, Sanders succeeded Cutcliffe as Tennessee football’s offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe had held the OC position on a full-time basis since 1993 but left to become head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels.

After winning that game, Sanders spent the next seven years as offensive coordinator of the Vols. He was part of many notable moments, including the 1999 win at the Alabama Crimson Tide, the 2001, 2003 and 2004 wins against the Florida Gators, the 2003 upset at the Miami Hurricanes, the 2004 upset at the Georgia Bulldogs and the 2005 comeback win over the LSU Tigers.

Even before becoming OC, Sanders had a long tenure as an assistant under Fulmer and Johnny Majors. His UT career started in the 1980s, when he was the backup quarterback from 1984 to 1988 under Tony Robinson, Daryl Dickey and then Jeff Francis. He was part of the memorable 1985 Sugar Vols and the 1987 team that won 10 games.

In 1989, Sanders immediately became the quarterbacks coach, and he wore various hats from then until taking over as OC in 1999, including running backs coach, receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. Simply put, he was there for the entire renaissance of the Tennessee football era in the 1980s and the 1990s, the glory days of the modern era for the school.

However, his tenure at UT came to an end due to the disastrous offensive performance of the 2005 team, which started the year ranked No. 3 and stumbled to a 5-6 season. Cutcliffe, who was fired by Ole Miss after 2004, came back and replaced Sanders in 2006 and 2007 before taking over Duke.

Ironically, the most failed offensive coordinator of Fulmer’s tenure is the most high-profile head coach right now. Dave Clawson replaced Cutcliffe in 2008, and another disastrous offensive season that year resulted in Fulmer’s firing. Now, Clawson is a star head coach who just had a memorable year with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.

As for Sanders, he then spent eight years with the Kentucky Wildcats and was part of another memorable, albeit infamous, UT moment. That came in 2011, when UK upset Tennessee football to end its 25-game losing streak in the series.

Sanders joined the Florida State Seminoles as co-offensive coordinator in 2013 and helped affect the Vols again, as his counterpart that year was Jeremy Pruitt, in his first year as FSU defensive coordinator. Together under Jimbo Fisher, they won a national championship.

Over the next five years, Sanders would stay with Fisher until he left for the Texas A&M Aggies, which is when he took over ETSU. Ironically, again, that was the same year Pruitt took over the Bucs, and he even faced UT in 2018.

Despite the ups and downs, Sanders had deep connections to Tennessee football’s success. He attended the program as it returned to the national stage and was there during its peak. It’s sad for the sport that he and Cutcliffe are no longer head coaches.