1988 was a year for transitions. CDs outsold vinyl records and cassette tapes for the first time. The Iran-Iraq war ended and the Soviets finally left Afghanistan, promising peace in that region for generations to come. Prozac was released and, in case that didn't do the trick, Bobby McFerrin was everywhere singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy". 1988 saw Kurt Cobain and form Nirvana to give birth to Seattle Grunge Rock and, in a completely unrelated matter, Paula Abdul released her debut album, Forever Your Girl. Sonny Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs, while Cher had her seventeenth plastic surgery.
In sports, Wayne Gretzky left the snows of Edmonton for the swimming pools and movie stars of Los Angeles. Olympic Games were held in Seoul and Calgary. Oklahoma State found someone to fill the shoes of All-American RB Thurman Thomas when Barry Sanders made the most of his only year as starter and rushed for 2,628 yards and 39 touchdowns. Notre Dame finished 12-0-0 under Lou Holtz, and that sure seems like ancient history to Fighting Irish faithful. My old roomie and backfield mate, Timmy Smith, set a Super Bowl rushing record for the Washington Redskins. In 1988 former all-American wide receiver Kirk Gibson made history in his chosen sport of baseball as the hobbled and hurting Dodger connected on a full count Dennis Eckersley slider for a pinch hit, World Series Game One winning dinger.
A 1988 transition of another sort will soon have impact on our Tennessee Volunteer football team. Now arriving on campus is a new set of Vol players, many of whom were born in 1988. (Yes, I checked. 1988.) UT 2006 signing class members Chad Cunningham, Ramone Johnson, Chase Nelson, Jarrod Shaw, Luke Stocker and Victor Thomas were all born in the year Tom Hanks discovered what it was like to be Big.
Other than making some of us feel a bit old (I do have game day jerseys and a favorite pair of boots that are older than these guys), this "1988" class of Vols reminds us how quickly time passes. These new Big Orange players were in diapers as UT completed the bizarre '88 season. Following a 10 win 1987, senior QB Jeff Francis and the Vols lost each of their first six games that year, only to rebound and win the final five. Only 6-5 Memphis had a winning record among the late season pushovers. These newest Vols had never seen UT miss another year in a bowl game, until 2005.
Our baby Vols were still eating paste and learning to write with fat pencils when Peyton Manning established himself as the Vol QB in 1994. They were only 9 when Charles Woodson's name was called at the Downtown Athletic Club. They had to beg their parents to stay up late to watch Tee Martin to Peerless Price as the Vols beat Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl.
The players now arriving on campus, even moreso those now being recruited, won't remember a time when the SEC didn't play a championship game or when Phil Fulmer wasn't the head honcho on The Hill. In their lifetimes Florida has always had a good football program, Florida State has always been a national power, and people always hollered "whoo" in the midst of singing Rocky Top. They've never known a time when you didn't have dozens of college football games on TV every Saturday or when ESPN didn't endlessly play highlights from games. High school stars have always called press conferences to make their college selections known and the Internet has pretty much always been around.
Coach Fulmer, and other football sages, have rightly said that tradition doesn't graduate. Tennessee has a wonderful tradition and a sparkling gridiron history. The new arrivals can become another link in a long line of Vol heroes. For those who are just now coming into the program, though, there are more vivid memories of Peach Bowl debacles and a recent losing season than there are of conference championships and major bowl wins. If you played word association with a typical 18 year old, "Tennessee football" might be followed by answers of "average" or even "they drafted Vince Young".
We all want Tennessee to be considered among the elite programs. When blue chippers begin to make their choices, we hope they think of Tennessee as a perennial power. When we look back on the upcoming season 18 years from now, I hope we can laugh at the current movies, music and trends and I hope we can remember fondly the guys who helped turn things around.