UK wide receivers coach and former national championship-winning Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin has never been on the losing side of the Tennessee-UK rivalry. And he wants his undefeated record to continue this Saturday when he faces his old team for the first time.
“I’m feeling a little more emotional than usual (this week),” Martin said. “It’s definitely going to be different, but when I took the job here, I knew this game was going to be on the schedule.”
This is Martin’s first year in Lexington, after UK head coach Joker Phillips lured Martin away from his post as New Mexico quarterbacks coach in February to join a coaching staff that already included a former, yet less heralded, Volunteer quarterback in Randy Sanders, the current offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at UK.
Prior to his coaching career, Martin, the man with a street named after him in Knoxville, cemented his place in Tennessee lore like few before him had been able to. Martin led the Volunteers to an undefeated (13-0) 1998 national championship season capped by a 23-16 win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl and was a four-year letterman that went undefeated against UK; when Martin graduated the Cats’ losing streak to Tennessee stood at 15 games.
“I honestly didn’t know about the streak (when I played),” Martin said of UK’s losing streak to Tennessee, which now stands at 25 games.
Martin said that the notion of continuing the streak was irrelevant when he played because the main focus was simply beating UK.
“When you go to Tennessee, it’s engrained in you that you have to win this football game,” he said.
Phillips, who played on the last edition of the UK team to defeat Tennessee in 1984, said he isn’t worried about his coaching staff’s ability to regulate their emotions, despite prior allegiances and Martin’s return to the Volunteer State.
“We really haven’t talked about it,” Phillips said. “Tee’s a competitor, regardless of who we’re playing, he’s ready to compete. I mean, the guy has competed at the highest level, and I’m sure he’s taking this game as one of those big games for him also: He loves to compete. The same with Coach Sanders (who was Martin’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee), those guys like to compete.”
Competing against Tennessee in Neyland Stadium, the largest stadium by capacity (102, 459) in the Southeastern Conference, will be no easy task, especially against a Tennessee team that needs to win to keep its bowl hopes alive.
“It’s loud for opposing offenses,” said Martin, who expects Volunteer fans to “get up” for this game. “Sometimes when I was on the sideline, I couldn’t talk to the guy next to me it was so loud.”
Martin said that the UK-Tennessee rivalry game might not come to mind with some of the bigger rivalries in the nation, such as Michigan-Ohio State, but that the coaches, players and fans always treated this rivalry just as seriously as Tennessee-Alabama or Tennessee-Florida.
Having now seen both perspectives of the rivalry Kentucky and Tennessee, Martin wants to make sure he begins a new streak with his team.
“Over the years it’s been a big game, but I don’t think you realize how big it is until you lose it,” he said.