Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The roar of the Neyland Stadium crowd was still ringing in Tennessee coach Josh Heupel’s ears when he finally got home late Saturday night.

“And that’s a good thing,” Heupel told ESPN. “There’s always the next game, but a scene like that is something you don’t want to forget. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He hopes to see a lot more like it, as does a suddenly recharged Tennessee fan base that is basking in Saturday’s 38-33 win over Florida, a game that, in typical fashion for this series, went down to the very end.

It was also a game, at least in the eyes of long-suffering Tennessee fans, that looked all too familiar in those final frantic minutes. Florida clawed back from a 38-21 deficit midway through the fourth quarter, and after recovering an onside kick, the Gators had one final heave by quarterback Anthony Richardson from the Tennessee 39-yard line to win it.

Tennessee defensive end Byron Young hit Richardson as he released the pass, and cornerback Kamal Hadden had an easy interception at the 6-yard line to seal the game.

Only then could Heupel or anybody wearing Tennessee’s shade of orange (Pantone 151) exhale.

“It’s like a punch-drunk fighter. You’re just waiting for that next blow to come,” said Tennessee fan Rusty Rathburn, who made the trip from Portage, Michigan, along with sons Luke and Max to see his alma mater accomplish something it has done only twice in the past 18 years — beat Florida.

“We’ve had so much misery against these guys. You’re waiting for us to screw it up. But this team is different.”

Similarly, Heupel spent all week hammering home to his players that this was a different team, different game, different year. And, yet, he was also keenly aware of how deeply the scars run among the Big Orange faithful when it comes to the Gators, who had dominated this rivalry back to the height of Phillip Fulmer’s successful tenure at Tennessee, when even some of his most talented teams didn’t have an answer for old nemesis Steve Spurrier.

So, yes, Heupel soaked up the moment with his players and the fans, most of whom remained in the stands covered in orange-and-white checkerboard for nearly 20 minutes after the game.

“I love the pride and the passion of our fan base, and I can promise you that our players feel every bit of it,” Heupel said.

Indeed, Neyland Stadium was electric, bursting at the seams, as the Pride of the Southland marching band played “Rocky Top” loud enough and long enough for it seemingly to be heard in every corner of the state, from Mohawk to Union City and all points in between.

It’s true this was hardly the best Florida team that Tennessee has faced over the years. After all, the Vols were 10½-point favorites, the most they’ve been favored in the series since the 1970s. Billy Napier is in his first season as Florida’s coach, and the Gators have some big holes to fill on their roster.

Still, it was Florida, and as Spurrier himself put it last week, “It just seems like a whole lot of good things always happen to the Gators in this game and a whole lot of bad things happen to the Vols.”

So who could blame the Big Orange Nation for partying like it was 1998, the year of the Vols’ last national championship? The party might continue for a while with Tennessee having a bye week this Saturday.

“It’s surreal, to be able to come here and really just experience this and see how it’s all changed from when I first got here until what it is now,” junior defensive tackle Omari Thomas said. “It’s something we want to keep building on, and honestly, get it better and better each week.”

Saturday’s postgame scene will be hard to match.

Former players from five different decades flocked to Heupel to hug him. They hugged current players, and they hugged each other. Heath Shuler was there. So were Al Wilson, Josh Dobbs, two generations of Colquitts (Craig and Britton) as well as Jabari Davis and Fred White, who weren’t bashful about lighting up victory cigars.

Arian Foster, a four-time Pro Bowler, was back at Neyland for the first time since he played his final game at Tennessee during the 2008 season.

“I can promise you that I will be back,” said Foster, who led the NFL in 2010 with 1,616 yards rushing.

Tony Vitello, Tennessee’s fiery baseball coach, had done his part to fire up the crowd before the game, and he was a buzz saw afterward. Earlier in the week, he said his biggest goal was to not get arrested.

It appears he achieved that goal and didn’t chest-bump any officials (or umpires), either. Vitello even joked on the set of ESPN’s College GameDay before the game that “if we win, everybody could go streaking.”

It was that kind of day on Rocky Top, a breakthrough of sorts for a football program that has wallowed around in a gator-infested wasteland for most of the past two decades. Entering Saturday’s game, the Vols had more coaches (six) than they had wins over the Gators (five) in the previous three decades.

Wilson, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last year, speaks for the entire Tennessee fan base when he says he still feels the pain of those Florida losses going all the way back to the 1990s.

“I lost five games my whole college career, and three of them were to Florida. I mean, come on. We were sick of losing to them and sick of hearing about everything that Spurrier said,” said Wilson, the heart and soul of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team.

Earl Brown and his wife, Judy, are some of the most dedicated Tennessee fans on the planet. Earl has been to 320 Tennessee football games in a row without missing one, a streak that goes back to 1996.

“There’s joy and relief,” Brown said. “There were a lot of years in there that we were the better team and didn’t win. I think this is the one that gets us back through that door of getting to where we all want to be again.”

The Vols (4-0) haven’t won more than eight games in the regular season since 2007, Fulmer’s next-to-last season.

Stephen Crutchfield hasn’t missed a Tennessee SEC game since 2007. He lives three blocks from Neyland Stadium in the Fort Sanders area just off campus. He said one of the reasons he moved there was to be closer to the Vols’ football cathedral.

“At the end of the day, people just want to win, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a defensive battle or the way we play now with a lot of offense,” Crutchfield said. “People don’t want to hear that you’re building anything or that you’re getting better or that you’re a class away. They just want to win, which makes a [win] like this so important.”

That’s why Rathburn, who graduated from Tennessee in 1987, didn’t mind making the eight-hour drive and a significant financial investment to be in Knoxville on Saturday. He paid $1,375 for three tickets in the upper deck and forked over $700 per night for a hotel room.

“This ranks up there with the ’98 Florida game with how crazy the place was,” Rathburn said. “I don’t remember it much louder. The Tennessee fans were hungry for this. There’s hope now, the kind of hope we haven’t had in a while. It’s amazing what Heupel has done in less than two years.”

Heupel’s demeanor is about as steady as it gets, and that steadiness has endeared him to his players. Tennessee fired previous coach Jeremy Pruitt after an internal investigation uncovered 18 Level 1 violations for impermissible recruiting benefits. Even with that NCAA cloud hovering, Heupel has steered the Vols to the No. 8 spot in the latest AP poll, their highest ranking since 2006.

“The guys play hard for Josh because he coaches unafraid,” said Scott Altizer, who returned as director of football relations last year after working for 20 years on Tennessee’s football staff beginning in 1994. “He preaches letting it all hang out and going out and having fun.”

Casey Clausen, the only Vols quarterback to have beaten Florida twice in his career (2001 and 2003), sees a version of Tennessee that he hasn’t seen in a while, a version that falls in line with Heupel’s go-for-broke, warp-speed offense.

“There’s a juice that’s back in the program, and for the younger generation of players, they don’t necessarily know about the past with Florida or anybody else, nor do they care or should they care,” said Clausen, who lives in California and still follows the Vols closely.

“Coach Heupel seems to have it back to, ‘It’s our team versus their team,’ and all the other noise doesn’t matter. You see that in the way this team plays, even when it doesn’t play its best football.

“The other thing is that he’s not playing with some of the same 4- and 5-star players a lot of the other SEC teams have, but he’s going to get there. You look at that offense and how fun it is to play in it, and why wouldn’t a big-time skill player want to come and play in that offense?”

This was a massive recruiting weekend for the Vols, as some of the top prospects on their board were in town.

Heupel made sure to practice what he preaches late Saturday night. Several of the former players, including Foster, were in the locker room after the game. And although nobody would say for sure, in the middle of that circle of 125 players dancing, Heupel might have been showing off a few moves of his own.

“If you can’t have fun in that environment, you can’t have fun anywhere,” said Heupel, who showcased his best vertical leap since his Oklahoma playing days and got in a few Tiger Woods-sized fist pumps after Jaylen Wright‘s 5-yard touchdown run gave his team a 38-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Heupel typically has a large contingent of family in town for home games, and by the time he got home Saturday night after meeting with recruits and doing his TV show, he switched roles from coach to uncle with several nieces and nephews running around the house.

Finally, at the end of the night, he got to spend some quiet time with his wife, Dawn.

“Everybody had gone to bed, and we just looked at each other and said, ‘What a great day,'” Heupel said. “It was a huge moment for us as we continue to build this program and how much the players have invested. It’s really a lot of fun when you’re a part of the climb.”

But, as Heupel is quick to point out, the Vols are still in the early stages of that climb. After an open date, they play LSU on Oct. 8 and Alabama on Oct. 15, facing two of the past three national champions. That’s not to mention a game with No. 7 Kentucky on Oct. 29 and a trip to defending national champion Georgia on Nov. 5. The win over Florida was only the fifth Tennessee victory over Alabama, Florida or Georgia since the start of Fulmer’s final season in 2008, making the Vols 5-38 against those teams in that span.

That’s why Heupel was right back at the football complex at 7:30 Sunday morning meeting with recruits.

“There’s always another big game, another test right around the corner,” he said.

And while the Vols have more points through four games (194) than any Tennessee team since 1915 (202), Heupel isn’t about to get ahead of himself. The Vols made the kinds of mistakes in their first two games against nationally ranked opponents (Pittsburgh and Florida) that usually result in defeat — blocked punts, fumbled punts, fumbles in the red zone and not recovering onside kicks.

What’s more, Tennessee has struggled mightily against the pass on defense, both in getting to the quarterback and especially at covering receivers. The Vols are also precariously thin at some key positions, including the offensive line and defensive secondary.

“There are so many things we can do a lot better and will have to do better as we go forward, but I go back to the resiliency of our players,” Heupel said. “Obviously, we didn’t finish that game the way we needed to, and you could sense that from the crowd a little bit when [Florida] got the onside kick. But what I love about our group is that they just keep playing.”

One of the Heupels’ traditions after games is gathering all the family members in town for a picture on the field.

Heupel and his wife were looking through those pictures together late Saturday night.

“We’re all standing there together and the stadium is still checkerboarded behind us, and this is still probably 20 minutes after the game had ended,” he said. “That’s going to be a cool background to that picture for us.”

Come December, Heupel wouldn’t mind having a few more pictures like that to admire.

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