Editor's note: This is the sixth story in a series reflecting on the 1998 Tennessee football team that finished 13-0 and won the BCS national championship.
Phillip Fulmer showed up to a Tennessee football practice one day before the Volunteers' played Alabama in 1998 with a gift that became an unlikely catalyst in the team's run to a national championship.
Tom Ogle, a friend of Fulmer's, sent the coach a walking stick with Fulmer's name and "Tennessee Vols" carved into it. For Fulmer, a fan of hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, it meant a lot.
He later referred to the walking stick as "beautiful" in his book "A Perfect Season." And he wanted to show it off.
"I took the stick to the practice field with me, I guess, just to show the players and as a conversation piece," Fulmer wrote.
The players told Fulmer he looked like Moses walking around with the stick. The analogy did not fully click with Fulmer until later as the third-ranked Vols prepared to host the archrival Crimson Tide, who were 4-2.
But he came around on the comparison and played it up in a team meeting.
"It is going to take great energy for us to go through the season undefeated," he recalled telling the team. "It's got to take focus and concentration along with great effort. This stick is going to be your focus. Moses led the people to the Promised Land, and I'm going to lead you to an undefeated season."
Fulmer admitted in the book he thought it seemed corny. But the stick worked — or at least didn't hurt — and it stuck around.
Tennessee survived a challenge from Alabama, winning 35-18 and continuing its climb toward a No. 1 national ranking, with the walking stick accompanying the team everywhere it went.
The impact of the symbol remained fresh on his mind 20 years later as Fulmer — now the athletic director — discussed Tennessee's national championship season in a recent interview.
"The walking stick is a great story," he said. "We didn't let anybody else know about it. I guess after we won one or two games, it was like, 'Hey we've got something here going, or maybe we do.' That dang stick was the first thing on the bus, first thing off the airplane, first thing on the sideline. It was kind of the center of energy, a synergy stick."
Tennessee's win over Alabama was its fourth in a row over the Tide and improved the Vols' record to 6-0 before their trip to South Carolina. The victory over Alabama is a footnote in most reviews of a 1998 season that came with closer games and more thrilling moments, but the victory came with a few tense scenes.
One came midway through the second quarter with the Vols leading only 7-3 and facing fourth-and-1 on their 45-yard-line.
"Phillip Fulmer wants a timeout to think about this," TV broadcast analyst Terry Donahue said. "I don't think there's a decision. I think you kick the ball. I don't think you mess around here on your own 45-yard-line."
Fulmer defied conventional thinking by not punting and went with a handoff to third-team fullback Phillip Crosby, who surged over the line for a first down. Quarterback Tee Martin finished the drive with a touchdown run several plays later to put the Vols up 14-3.
"I felt like our team at this juncture of the game was losing the momentum, so I went for it," Fulmer wrote in the book. "Now mind you, going for it at this time, with this down and distance, was against my nature. Fortunately, we made it and won the game. If they had stopped us and had won the game, I would have been blistered for that call."
It was just one gutsy, mostly forgotten gamble on the way to the Promised Land.