“The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.”
- Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin'
1992 was truly a year of change in every aspect. Bill Clinton, the Democratic governor of Arkansas, would be elected President, bringing an end to the Reagan/Bush years. Seattle bands Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains brought an end to the “hair-metal” scene, bringing Grunge rock to the forefront. MTV began airing the first reality series, “The Real World”, which would eventually bring an end to the music video era. 11 future NBA Hall of Famers and a college All-American came together to represent the United States in the heralded and unmatched “Dream Team” during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the first in which American professional basketball players were allowed to compete.
The University of Tennessee football program found itself in the midst of change as well. Beginning in 1992, the SEC would be split into two 6-team divisions after the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina to the conference. The two divisional champions would then meet at the end of the season at Legion Field in Birmingham to determine the winner of the conference title in the SEC Championship game, the first of its kind in the NCAA. The idea of the conference championship game was the brainchild of SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, who would later lead the way to the current BCS system.
While the conference picture was changing, Tennessee first needed to worry about the season ahead. After the 1991 season and the loss of 28 seniors and wide receiver Carl Pickens, there were huge holes to fill all over the roster. The Vols returned only six starters from the previous year. New starters would have to be named, including quarterback, tight ends, offensive line, and an almost completely made over defense. It was looking to be a true rebuilding year after the last three years of success.
However, before any of that could occur, Tennessee would have to overcome a tragic loss. Head trainer Tim Kerin died suddenly in early August from an aortic aneurysm. Kerin had been part of the UT family for 15 years and was a close confidant of Coach Johnny Majors, following him to Tennessee from Pittsburgh in 1977. In honor of Kerin, during the season the Vols wore on their helmets green shamrock decals with “TIM” imprinted. In the following year, the training facility Kerin designed as part of the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center was officially dedicated "The Tim Kerin Training Room" in his honor and Kerin also was inducted into the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame for his outstanding career in the field. In honor of Kerin, to this day the University and the Athletic Department continue to sponsor a special food collection at one of the home football games, targeted towards providing emergency food baskets for needy families during the holidays.
As much of a loss Tim Kerin was, shock would come again to the program just three weeks later. Coach Johnny Majors underwent emergency heart bypass surgery and would not be available to coach for at least the first month of the season. The prognosis for the head coach’s health was good, but he would need time to rest and recover. Many speculated he could miss the entire season. It was decided offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer would take over as interim head coach for the start of the season, with other duties split among the rest of the offensive coaching staff.
While coach Majors recovered, fall practice continued, with the coaches trying to determine who would get the nod as starters for the first game of the season. The main battle everyone was watching was between sophomores Jerry Colquitt and Heath Shuler for the QB spot. Shuler was the clear fan favorite, as he was a highly recruited QB coming out of Bryson City, NC the previous year. Shuler was well liked and provided an image of being the hard-working country boy next door, from the working class family living just over the state line. His athletic ability had everyone looking forward to see what he could do, as he could both run and throw. When the first game against Southwestern Louisiana arrived, Shuler had won the nod, but both QB’s would play.
The main point of playing Southwestern Louisiana was to see what this young team could do, not get anyone hurt and gain needed game experience. Shuler threw for two touchdowns and ran for one during his time, Jerry Colquitt threw for another touchdown, and the Vols unleashed their own version of the Four Horsemen at running back, including returning sophomores James Stewart, Aaron Hayden, and Mose Phillips, and newcomer Charlie Garner, whose bursts of speed reminded some of Chuck Webb. The Vols took a 38-3 victory over the Ragin’ Cajuns and set sights to the trip to Athens the next week.
The Vols went into the Georgia game as underdogs, and in a touch of foreshadowing, came out in all white, the first time the Vols had done so in over a decade. The Bulldogs returned a talented offense led by QB Eric Zeier, RB Garrison Hearst, and WR Andre Hastings. The game was a shootout, as each team would go for a knockout punch just to be hit right back. The nation first got to see the ability Heath Shuler possessed, as he led UT in both rushing and passing. Shuler scored two touchdowns on the ground during the game and had a QB draw go for over 40 yards in the third quarter. But the biggest play of the game was in the 4th Quarter, when on a 4th and 14, Shuler hit Ronald Davis on a crossing pattern for a first down on what would prove to be the winning drive. Shuler would score on a sneak, and Tennessee caused a fumble late in the game on a long catch and run by Hastings that sealed an upset victory for the Vols, 34-31. Phillip Fulmer proved he could not only coach, but could also handle the sideline and the in-game decisions.
As big of a game the Georgia game was, Florida came into Knoxville the following week and the city was electric. As any fan knows, football is mostly won by defense, running the ball, and kicking. The Vols won all three phases this game. The defense, under coordinator Larry Marmie, was still learning its way to this point but, with 10 new starters led by sack master and future first rounder Todd Kelly, shut down the Gators offense. Senior JJ McCleskey, who just a week before had started at wide receiver, was now the starting strong safety in a new look defensive backfield, next to freshman Jason Parker at free safety. The Vols got on the board first as cornerback Tracy Smith blocked a Gator punt deep in Tennessee territory and Shuler took the ball in on a 9-yard run. As the second half was starting, a major storm was coming through Knoxville. Thunder, lightning, and an absolute downpour hit Neyland Stadium, and knocked out the live ABC TV broadcast for several minutes. The crowd only got louder with each thunderclap of the storm, and the Vols rolled to victory, 31-14. Shuler had only three completions on nine attempts for the day, but one went for over 60 yards on a Mose Phillips catch-and-run in the 3rd Quarter. It was Phillips’ first career touchdown, and once hitting the endzone, he looked down to his wrist as if he was looking at a watch and saying, “It’s about time!”
The team and the fans were on a high, as no one had thought the team would be 3-0 at this point. What happened next was also unbelievable. Just four weeks after heart surgery, Johnny Majors returned to take back the reins. While happy for his improving health, fans wondered if he was rushing to return too quickly and what it might do to an overachieving team.
The Vols cruised through shutouts of Cincinnati and LSU the next two games, 40-0 and 20-0 respectively, but the team chemistry didn’t seem the same. The Vols didn’t look as crisp as it had before, and even looked unsure of itself in some instances. The Vols were at 5-0, ranked #4 in the country and fans were already talking of the SEC championship game. The promise from the great start and possibility of what could be instead came crashing down in the next three weeks.
Going into the Arkansas game, there was no consideration the Razorbacks were a threat. The Vol players and fans both were both shocked alike when the final whistle blew, and the Vols had somehow lost to the mediocre Arkansas team, 25-24. In the final three minutes of the game, Arkansas returned a punt for a touchdown and recovered an onsides kick to set up a game winning field goal. The crowd left Neyland Stadium in silence, not able to understand what had happened. This game proved to be the beginning of the end for Johnny Majors as head coach of Tennessee.
The next week brought the Third Saturday in October. Alabama, the soon-to-be National Champions, rolled into Knoxville and came out a 17-10 winner over the Vols. The Bama defense showed why it was the best in the country, as the Vols struggled on offense. Garner showed a flash of brilliance, breaking a 44-yard run in the first half, but injured his ankle in the 2nd Quarter. Even Heath Shuler was injured, suffering a concussion after a viscous hit. He came back into the game and got the Vols on the board with a short pass to tight end David Horne, but Shuler would later comment he didn’t even remember playing in the second half. The Tide was simply too much on this day, and Tennessee dropped the seventh consecutive decision to Alabama. A growing number of fans, frustrated with another loss to Alabama, began calling for Majors to step down and Fulmer to be the head coach. The team was not shielded from what was occurring, and rumors circulated about the team being divided.
Even with the internal strife affecting the program, there was still hope for the season. All Tennessee needed to do was win its last three SEC games to be the East Division winner and have a chance in the SEC Championship game. But all hopes were dashed as UT lost for the third straight game, this time to a South Carolina team led by mullet-wearing freshman quarterback Steve Taneyhill. Shuler gave the Vols a chance to win late, as he hit Mose Phillips on a short swing pass that turned into a 39-yard miracle. As John Ward called it, “Phillips running through, around, over and underneath defenders of South Carolina, takes it all the way home for a miraculous touchdown.” The Vols chose to go for two and the win, as a tie hurt their chances for winning the division. But James Stewart was stopped short of the goal line after a Shuler pass and the Vols had dropped another game to an unranked opponent, 24-23. Phillips’ play is one of the all-time greats, but not remembered as well due to the loss.
After three straight losses, the booing had become a full scream, as people from Bristol to Memphis were now calling for Majors’ head. The bombshell news hit the following Friday, November 13. On the eve of the Memphis game, it was announced the University was buying out the last two years of Majors’ contract, which would be terminated at the end of the season. Majors held a temper flared press conference at the team hotel in Memphis, carried live by news stations across the state. It was obvious, Majors was out and Fulmer would be the new coach following the season.
The Vols rallied together and the following day defeated Memphis, 26-21. The storyline of course surrounded the firing of Majors, but another played out with former UT quarterback Steve Matthews leading the Tigers offense. Matthews had left Tennessee for Junior College after Shuler arrived on campus in 1991 and knew playing time would be minimal. The Tigers put up a fight, but as should always be the case, Tennessee took control of the Tigers and the lead for good in the 4th Quarter. The Vols left Memphis to prepare for the final home game of the season and their legendary coach.
On a cold rainy day in Knoxville, Tennessee met Kentucky for the final home game for Johnny Majors. In a very emotional moment, the entire Majors family, who had been associated with the University since the 1950’s, all ran together through the “T” after the seniors. The Vols played loose, and beat the Wildcats 34-13. Shuler set a QB rushing record and Garner broke the century mark while scoring his first touchdown of the season. Majors was carried to midfield for the post game handshake and then to the locker room on the shoulders of his players.
The final game of the regular season was a trip down I-40 to Nashville, and the Vols struggled to defend the Vandy passing attack. Freshman cornerback DeRon Jenkins had a horrible day, being beat for 3 touchdowns. But the Vols came back in the 4th Quarter on the backs of Shuler and Garner, and the Vols squeeked out the victory in the closing minutes, 29-25.
The following day, Phillip Fulmer was announced as the new head football coach at the University of Tennessee, the 20th man to hold the position. Coach Fulmer promised to heal the wounds of the Vol family and to take the program to the next level. At this time, Johnny Majors quietly cleaned out his office and left the school where he had both played and coached. Majors would finish at Tennessee with a record of 116–62–8, three SEC titles, and provided an entire generation of Vol fans great memories.
The Volunteers accepted an invitation to play Boston College in the Hall of Fame Bowl (now Outback Bowl) in Tampa on New Year’s Day. With Phillip Fulmer now officially the head of the program, the Vols dominated from the get go. On their very first play, Shuler hit a streaking Ronald Davis to the BC one yard line, which Shuler took in on the next play. Shuler threw and ran for two touchdowns each, and Jerry Colquitt added another touchdown pass in the 4th Quarter. The Vols let off the gas pedal and won 38-23. The Phillip Fulmer era had officially begun, and the Vols finished the season 9-3 and ranked #12 in the polls.
The ’92 Vols were a talented but young team that had to grow each game. Every non-kicking statistical leader on the team was a first year starter. Heath Shuler showed his versatility week to week, throwing for over 1,700 yards and 10 touchdowns while setting a school QB record with 11 rushing touchdowns. At the end of the season, Tennessee started three redshirt freshmen (Bubba Miller, Jeff Smith, and Jason Layman) in the middle of the offensive line. Charlie Garner led the team in rushing with just over 900 yards but there weren’t always enough carries to keep everyone happy. The receiving group was adequate with Cory Fleming and Craig Faulkner leading the way. Todd Kelly led a fierce defense, which set a season record with 40 sacks, stayed in the top 20 in scoring defense and in the top 5 in turnovers. Notable defensive players besides Kelly included a couple of defensive line transfers; Alaska native Shane Bonham (from Air Force) and Canadian Paul Yatkowski (Junior College), and the future was going to be bright with linebacker Ben Talley and safety Jason Parker, who led the team in interceptions. The spiritual leader of the team, no doubt, was JJ McCleskey. A 5-8, 170-pound former walkon from Knoxville, JJ truly gave his all to be a Volunteer and showed a heart larger than many twice his size. In four years he played cornerback, receiver, and strong safety and became a fan favorite that everyone called their own. He took that never say die attitude and turned it into an eight-year career in the NFL.
The ’92 season is not one to be forgotten, but it was one in which Volunteer fans were happy to see end. While the excitement was always there for the games, the number of off-the-field events over a four month period caused the season to be a rollercoaster of ups and downs. For 20 years, there has continued to be talk of the backroom dealings that occurred to have Majors tossed out in favor of Fulmer due to the attitude Majors had with boosters and members of the University. Majors said it himself, he was a tough man that had played hard, coached hard, and in the heat of the moments said things he shouldn’t have, but that it gave him more success than not. With that knowledge, and the quick success Fulmer had at the start of the season, it gave all the ammunition the University and Athletic Department it needed to make the change. One had to wonder how much of a toll the season took on the players with all of the internal strife that was occurring; more than likely they were probably as happy as the fans to see it end and have some resolution finally.
Doing this article, it’s amazing to think that twenty years have passed. This season marked a turning point in Tennessee football history, and the fans were ready to see where this road would take us. Some of the younger fans may not remember, or even have been around for this time, but this set the stage for the next step in Tennessee becoming one of the top 5 programs in the country and eventually climbing that mountain.