Mattingly: Peyton's win over Ole Miss was special

Archie Manning, left, walks with Peyton Manning following a Tennessee
game at Neyland Stadium in 1997.

Photo by Wade Payne

Archie Manning, left, walks with Peyton Manning following a Tennessee game at Neyland Stadium in 1997.

In 1996, Oct. 3 was a Thursday. No. 9 Tennessee was in Memphis to play Ole Miss at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. It was a "home game" for Ole Miss and was beamed nationwide on ESPN.

There will always be those purists who wonder why a Mississippi school would play its home games in Tennessee, albeit in Memphis.

Tennessee and Ole Miss had first squared off in the Bluff City in 1902 and played in at least two area venues numerous times over the years. Both teams have significant fan bases in the Memphis area.

The nocturnal matchup had a sidebar that dominated conversation in the months preceding the game.

To fully understand what was going on, you have to go back to Nov. 15, 1969, when No. 18 Ole Miss, a 31-0 loser to Tennessee in 1968, hosted the No. 3 Vols at Mississippi Memorial Stadium in Jackson.

Ole Miss, led by a junior quarterback named Archie Manning, whose name has been known to pop up in novels by John Grisham, won by a 38-0 count that day.

Vol fans had worn "Archie Who?" buttons to the game and lived to regret it. It was 21-0 at the quarter break, 24-0 at the half. School was out for the Vols. It was as long a day as any Vol fan has ever spent in any stadium in any year.

The Vol Network's Tim Priest, then a junior cornerback, once said that if Tennessee hadn't shown up Ole Miss would have chosen up sides and played each other.

The Vols did win the SEC title that season, but ended up in the Gator Bowl instead of the Orange Bowl.

What type of odds would anyone offer that, 25 years later, any son of Archie Manning, would be the starting quarterback at Tennessee and become one of the most popular players in Tennessee history?

The odds would have to have been astronomical.

The perception of Archie Manning, shaped by the 1968 and 1969 games, would change dramatically across Big Orange Country in 1994, when son Peyton signed scholarship papers to come to Knoxville as one of the top prospects in that recruiting class.

Why did Peyton choose Tennessee? On his profile questionnaire, he said, simply, "Because I wanted to go there."

Later on in 1994, the unbelievably organized and perceptive Manning son would say, "Tennessee kept popping up in my head and in my heart."

Then there was an opinion from another Manning son.

"Little brother Eli was the only Manning to guess correctly (about Peyton's decision)," Marvin West wrote. "He thought it through logically and decided Tennessee had the best receivers."

Heath Shuler's performance in 1993 had to have helped. You also couldn't discount former Vol signal-caller Bobby Scott being Archie's teammate with the New Orleans Saints and the two families becoming close friends.

So here it was, Peyton Manning leading the Vols to glory. He wore No. 16 as a Vol, given that junior cornerback DeRon Jenkins had the famed Manning No. 18. His second choice was No. 12, but fellow freshman named Marcus Nash, a highly touted wide receiver wanted it.

So No. 16 it was.

Two years later, Ole Miss appeared on the Vol schedule, and the Manning family history with Ole Miss was a prime topic of conversation.

While Peyton was at Tennessee, Archie was always careful to separate his role as "Peyton's dad" from his role as "Ole Miss alum."

"I feel strongly about the fact it should be his decision," Archie had said during the rush to National Signing Day. "I love Ole Miss, but I can't say I love Ole Miss more than my son. With my Ole Miss hat on, I'm disappointed, like a lot of people. But with my daddy's hat on, I'm proud of the way he handled things."

When game time came, Tennessee defeated the Rebels 41-3.

Before a crowd of 62,640, Peyton completed 18 of 22 passes for 242 yards and one touchdown, a 5-yard toss to Nash.

Archie had told wife Olivia that Peyton "seemed focused" on the task at hand. That was good news for Tennessee, bad news for Ole Miss.

After the game was in the record books, Peyton, who always handled these situations adroitly, handed Archie a game ball in the locker room, saying, "This one is special."

That was Tennessee's last Thursday night contest. The powers-that-be have decreed there will be no Thursday night games in Knoxville, and another Thursday night contest anywhere else does not seem to be on the horizon.

The television folks had to have been impressed with the Manning family saga that played out that night. While the game itself had precious little drama, the sidebar story had to have captured everybody's attention.

Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor. He may be reached at tjmshm@comcast.net.

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Comments » 5

LiveFaith writes:

Nice article. Puzzling timing.

spacehistorian writes:

I remember the hype before the game about how Ole Miss Nation felt betrayed by Peyton choosing the Vols over the Rebels. It made sense for Peyton to come to Knoxville where he could be himself and make his own legend rather than being in the shadow of his father's legacy. Peyton's stellar play for UT allowed Eli to go to Ole Miss without so much baggage as Rebel Nation was glad to finally get one of Archie's offspring. The 90's were a great decade for UT Football.

CrankE writes:

in response to spacehistorian:

I remember the hype before the game about how Ole Miss Nation felt betrayed by Peyton choosing the Vols over the Rebels. It made sense for Peyton to come to Knoxville where he could be himself and make his own legend rather than being in the shadow of his father's legacy. Peyton's stellar play for UT allowed Eli to go to Ole Miss without so much baggage as Rebel Nation was glad to finally get one of Archie's offspring. The 90's were a great decade for UT Football.

Cooper Manning played at Ole Miss before suffering a career-ending injury.

I think Peyton said at one pont that if his older brother had still been playing, then he would have gone to Ole Miss without a second thought.

mattingly writes:

Good comment. Didn't think of the Dooley angle. The reason for the story is simple. Sunday was Oct. 3. The Tennessee-Ole Miss game was played Oct.3, 1996. It was an attempt to match the date with a big game or a game with significance attached to it. Thus the 1996 Ole Miss game. That's all.

Lostvolinhighweeds writes:

in response to mattingly:

Good comment. Didn't think of the Dooley angle. The reason for the story is simple. Sunday was Oct. 3. The Tennessee-Ole Miss game was played Oct.3, 1996. It was an attempt to match the date with a big game or a game with significance attached to it. Thus the 1996 Ole Miss game. That's all.

I'm sure that's the timing of the article.
As to why Ole Miss played U.T in Memphis, that particular year Tennessee payed Ole Miss $1,000,000.00 dollars to move the game there from Oxford
The Vols in those days always put pressure on the Rebs to play in Memphis or Jackson Ms., just because Vaught-Hemmingway was so tiny at that time that U.T. could only get a few hundred tickets.

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