I was talking with Vikings safety Harrison Smith for today's Star Tribune column. Smith learned to play football in Knoxville, Tenn. He was recruited out of Knoxville Catholic to Notre Dame. I can't notice that connection -- Knoxville and Notre Dame -- without getting a flashback to one of the best few college football games I've had the privilege to cover.
On Nov. 10, 1990, Notre Dame came to Knoxville. It was the second time the Irish had been there, and my first.
I was overwhelmed by the majesty of Neyland Stadium,. and the arrival of masses of fans by boat (the Vol Navy) on the Tennessee River, and the sea of orange that produced Tennessee's second largest attendance to that time: 97,123.
Neyland underwent a renovation in the middle of the past decade that raised the capacity to 102,455.
Tennessee's coach was Johnny Majors. I had encountered Johnny a few years earlier, when the Vols were playing John Gutekunst's Gophers in the Liberty Bowl. From what I could see in a couple of informal settings, Johnny appeared to like his cocktails.
Majors was a Tennessee hero as a tailback and the Heisman runnerup (to Paul Hornung from dastardly Notre Dame) in 1956. Majors gained his coaching reputation by recruiting Tony Dorsett to Pitt and winning the national championship for the 1976 season.
Gophers coach Cal Stoll once told me about a recruiting visit to the Dorsett home. Cal gave the usual U of M coach spiel about the number of large companies in the Twin Cities that could provide opportunities for Tony after football. Let's just say, post-football opportunities weren't Tony's emphasis in choosing a college to matriculate.
The national title brought Majors back to Tennessee and he was in his 14th season on Rocky Top in 1990. The orange faithful was getting a bit restless, since Johnny's wins didn't seem to match the level of talent that had been recruited to Knoxville.
The last stage of my trip to Knoxville was a rock-and-rolling commuter flight from St. Louis. One fellow bouncing around inside that small plane was Ed Ruane, whose job had taken him to the Twin Cities but whose heart remained with the Vols.
"The Vols get in your blood and they stay with you,'' Ruane said. "This is our second game in a month. We came down for Florida. Whippin' them was so much fun that we couldn't miss this one ...
"We wanted Johnny out a couple of years ago, when the Vols started 0-4. He's been here 14 years. Maybe that's long enough. When you see what this team did to Florida, you wonder how they can have a loss and two ties.''
According to my advance column for Saturday's game, Ruane then paused and said: "Of course, we'll forgive Johnny for everything if he can beat Notre Dame.'''
I remembered the excitement of that Notre Dame-Tennessee shootout. What I had forgotten was the zany season that was 1990 in college football.
Virginia (with Herman Moore) was rated No. 1 for three weeks in the middle of the season. Virginia.
When it ended, Colorado with an 11-1-1 record was voted No. 1 by Associated Press and Georgia Tech at 11-0-1 was voted No. 1 in UPI's coaches poll. Tech's margin over Colorado was 847 points to 846.
Notre Dame had bounced to No. 1 when it arrived in Knoxville. It would lose that ranking the next week, with a loss to fellow independent Penn State in South Bend. The Irish also would lose the Orange Bowl to Colorado 10-9, when Rocket Ismail's 91-yard return was nullified by a clip that took place away from the play.
Ismail's 44-yard run on a pitch with under three minutes left was the most-famous play from Notre Dame's 34-29 victory against Tennessee. Andy Kelly, throwing to future NFL star Alvin Harper and world-class sprinter Carl Pickens, set Tennessee passing records with 399 yards, 35 completions and 60 attempts.
Kelly led a lightning-fast touchdown drive after Rocket's return TD to cut the lead to 34-29. The touchdown came on a 23-yard corner route to Harper, and the victim was Rod Smith, a junior cornerback from Roseville.
Smith had opened the season as a starter, then was benched in a favor of a freshman after a bad game vs. Michigan. "I've never seen this coaching staff give up on a kid like they seemed to give up on Smith,'' a Notre Dame official said when I asked about Smith's status.
The Minnesota kid was given the start vs. Tennessee after what was deemed by coach Lou Holtz to be a strong week of practice. He was among those being torched by Kelly, Harper and Pickens. And when Tennessee recovered an onside kick with 1:44 left, a game-winning touchdown drive for the explosive home team seemed inevitable.
Then, a few minutes later, Notre Dame was celebrating a victory, and Smith was swinging his helmet amid the happiness and shouting, "They aren't going to get me twice. No, sir. They aren't going to get me twice.''
Tennessee had tried another corner route to the end zone, and Smith cut in front of Harper, and a made a game-saving interception.
What a wonderful football game ... what a place to be early into the evening on a late-fall Saturday, Neyland Stadium.
The zaniness of that season didn't end with the final polls and the split national championship of Colorado and Georgia Tech, by the way. It continued to the NFL draft.
The Rocket left Notre Dame after his junior season. The Dallas Cowboys traded up to take him No. 1 overall. And then on the eve of the draft, Ismail signed with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, a four-year deal with $18.2 million guaranteed ... an enormous sum in a time when the NFL was just starting with a modest form of free agency called "Plan B.''
The Argonauts' owner making this big splash was Bruce McNall. He also owned the Los Angeles Kings. He was alleged to have made his fortune as a coin collector. In 1993, signs of trouble surfaced. He was later revealed to be a coin smuggler and wound up serving jail time.
The Rocket came to the NFL in 1993. I'm thinking he was the last high-profile player to leave college football and use the Canadian option over the NFL.
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