Accountable Al

Accountability can be as important as athletic ability. That may have been the key for the 1998 Tennessee football team that went 13-0 en route to the program's first national title since 1951.

"I think we held each other accountable," recalled 1998 captain Al Wilson, an All-America middle linebacker who was the heart and soul of that team. "And we had the same goal in mind: That was to go out and win the SEC championship, first and foremost, then be in the running for the national title. At the end of the day, that's what we wanted to do."

Now based in Atlanta, Wilson relived the '98 season during a recent visit to Knoxville for the a3 benefit golf tournament. As closeknit as the '98 team was, he says its 13-0 ride had some turbulent moments.

"Did we bump heads along the way? Absolutely," he recalled. "Were there fights along the way? Absolutely. But, at the end of the day, we all knew what we wanted to do, and that was win the national championship."

Although a national championship is the ultimate achievement for a college football player, beating Florida State 23-16 on Jan. 4, 1999 in Tempe is not Wilson's fondest recollection of his playing days.

"The best memory is the friendships and relationships I made with guys," he said. "Sixteen years (from enrollment) later, we're still in touch, still having a great time. That's what I remember most.

"The football aspect of it was great. Winning a national championship was great. But the friendships I made last a lifetime."

A first-round pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, Wilson was a five-time Pro-Bowl selection before retiring in 2006 due to a neck problem. As much as he relished the physical aspect of the game, he says that isn't what he misses most.

"I miss the camaraderie," he said. "I miss the locker room, miss being around the guys. I don't miss tackling anybody. I don't miss any of that. I just miss being around the guys, going to work every day and guys pepping me up."

Wilson says he occupies his time these days by "doing a little business and playing a little golf."

Perhaps you've heard of his golfing partner. He's another of Tennessee football's all-time greats.

"Carl Pickens and I play together a lot and really try to beat each other," Wilson said. "I try to stay competitive and do the best I possibly can."

A "Vol for life" long before the phrase was coined, Wilson watches the Big Orange play every chance he gets.

"I follow Tennessee a lot ... a whole lot, actually," he said. "Now that I'm retired I have time to sit back and watch, be a real fan. It's exciting. I'm hoping we can get back on track, get back to those winning ways and bring that tradition of Tennessee football back."

Tennessee stands just 18-20 over the past three seasons. Seeing his alma mater defeated so often has been understandably difficult for a guy who lost just five times in 50 college games.

"It's been tough. It's been tough," Wilson conceded. "I tell you, it's not something I like to talk about. The guys go out and play extremely hard. We just have to get back to those winning ways."

Based on what he has seen from second-year head man Derek Dooley, Wilson believes the Vols will get back to those winning ways relatively soon.

"I think Coach Dooley is on a great track right now," Wilson said. "I think he's doing a great job. The most important thing is not what the fans or the school thinks; the players have to buy in to what he's selling.

"If the players buy in, I think they can be productive. They just have to go out, play hard and spend each and every day trying to get better."

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