Vols of 1997 recall better times in Knoxville

Vols of 1997 recall better times in Knoxville

October 21st, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports College08football

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KNOXVILLE - On Reggie Coleman's shoulder sat 5-month-old Caleb James Coleman. The kid was wearing a Tennessee orange No. 71 jersey, same as his papa wore more than a decade ago as a UT offensive lineman.

"I just wanted to show him what's been so important to me over the years," Coleman said a few minutes before the 1997 SEC championship team and former coach Phillip Fulmer were honored prior to the start of Saturday night's game against top-ranked Alabama.

"He'll always have this memory [on video]."

Reggie Coleman redshirted that magical 1997 autumn, when the Vols won the first of their back-to-back SEC crowns, but Marion County native Eric Westmoreland was a sophomore linebacker who had significant action throughout the 10-1 regular season and SEC title-game win over Auburn.

"We're a very close team," said Westmoreland, now a Baylor School assistant coach. "When we found out they were going to honor us, it was amazing the number of guys who wanted to be here."

Since his Denver Broncos have a bye week, Peyton Manning became the biggest name among the 40-plus players who received a lengthy standing ovation.

Manning mostly avoided the media but did find time to chat with current Volunteers coach Derek Dooley under the goal post in Neyland Stadium's north end zone before the game.

"Having Peyton here is good for the university and good for college football," Westmoreland said.

Added Coleman, who now lives in Indianapolis and works as a pharmaceutical sales rep: "Even though he's no longer a Colt, I learn more every day about Peyton's impact on any community he calls home. Everybody in Indy is just so happy that he was there as long as he was."

Manning was a Vol for four years. Fulmer was the UT head coach for 16, capping a career as both a player and assistant coach that spanned 34 years.

"I was watching film of us last night [at a reunion dinner], and, my gosh, we were really good," said the coach who went 152-52-1. "Fifteen pros came out of that class, which was the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in '94. This was really special to share this with my family and my extended family, all our players."

Westmoreland was part of 43 wins during his playing career in Knoxville, which was 29 more than Dooley had won at the start of the Bama contest.

"It's just a down period," Westmoreland said. "You can just look at what Alabama went through for a few years. Coach Dooley just has to get the right players in here to run his system, and he'll be fine."

Fifteen years ago Fulmer found just the right players to win back-to-back SEC titles and the school's first national championship in 47 years.

"I think about it every day," Coleman said with a big grin. "It's the best time of your life."

At least it is when you win championships.