Phil Stuart will enter Neyland Stadium on Saturday with the unprecedented desire for a Tennessee loss.
Stuart, who started at right tackle for Johnny Majors’ Volunteers in 1988, has a son, Alex, who is the starting right tackle at Middle Tennessee State. Alex’s Blue Raiders (2-5) take on Tennessee (3-5) Saturday night at 7 (FSN), and dad will have a difficult time remembering not to cheer for the orange.
“My bloodline is attached to the University of Tennessee, but my heart is for my son,” Stuart said. “If UT’s playing anybody else, I would be pulling for the Vols. But this is one Saturday I can’t.”
Stuart, a Science Hill Hall of Famer, lives in Knoxville. Alex played at Oak Ridge, and he’ll be sky high for the Volunteers even after leaving Saturday’s loss to Louisiana-Lafayette with a sprained ankle. Phil was listening on the radio when his son left the game, and called him afterward.
“I said, ‘Well, are you going to be able to play next week?’ and he said, ‘They would have to cut my leg off to not play,’” Phil said. “I said, ‘Don’t think that you have to play because of me.’ He said, ‘No, I have to play (for myself).’
“I’ve tried to get Alex to understand, playing college football, being four years into the sport, you’ve got to play smarter, take care of your body.”
Those aren’t hollow words from Stuart, who is set to have ankle replacement surgery next week in Birmingham due to chronic arthritis and general degenerative agony. Not that Stuart would take anything for his journey, which included playing under Majors with Phil Fulmer as his position coach.
There’s a lasting bond built in the trenches. Stuart enjoys watching former UT linemen like Green Bay’s Chad Clifton and Scott Wells, dines with the likes of Bruce Wilkerson and Raleigh and Reggie McKenzie and honors the legacy of Harry Galbreath (Alex’s godfather), who died too young last year, with a camp.
Actually, MTSU tapped into Tennessee’s O-line fraternity. Sixth-year Blue Raiders offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens had spent the previous four years coaching Fulmer’s offensive lines. Stuart is high on Stephens and MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill, each of whom has previously coached under Steve Spurrier.
“I couldn’t ask for a better position coach than Jimmy Ray Stephens for my son to play for,” Stuart said. “I like Jimmy Ray’s approach to the game, and I like coach Stockstill because of his approach and the relationships he has with his players. He reminds me a little bit of a Trooper Taylor, because he’s a definite players’ coach.”
Alex, a 6-foot-2, 288-pound redshirt junior, began the season as the starting center, moved to right guard due to an injury and, finally, has moved to right tackle because of an injury.
“Alex was kind of worried about playing right tackle, because he doesn’t like to be on that island,” Stuart said. “I said, ‘I’m going to tell you something: the more positions you play the better off you are and the more versatile it shows people that you can be.’ That’s the way coach Fulmer was. Coach Fulmer made it to where every offensive linemen could switch up and play any position at any time.”
Although run-blocking hasn’t been Tennessee’s forte of late, Stuart is high on Derek Dooley, too.
“I really like coach Dooley,” Stuart said. “I sat right next to him at a Knoxville Hall of Fame banquet when they were inducting Reggie Cobb, and he’s the same way that he was the day when I had lunch with him when he was probably first hired. … Dooley’s going to get it on track, but he needs the support of the people. He’s gonna get the players that he wants to get and he’s gonna rebuild that program. It’s just gonna take time. … People in the state of Tennessee, they want to win now.”
Stuart would like to see a Vols player take charge. He said it was a topic last week when he was having lunch with Wilkerson and the McKenzies.
“They don’t have a leader on that field,” he said. “They don’t have anyone the magnitude of an Al Wilson. You’ve got to have somebody who’s gonna take charge.
“Al played defense, but he was like the spokesman for both sides of the ball. They don’t have somebody that’s — not a rah-rah guy, but somebody who says, ‘This is the way it’s gonna be, like it or not.’”
Although they’re 2-5 and coming off a lopsided loss to the Ragin’ Cajuns, Stuart says it’s not out of the question for the Blue Raiders to make things interesting Saturday.
“They almost beat Purdue the first game,” he said, “and they had Kentucky in the same position a couple of years ago up in Lexington and let it get away in the last minute or so in the ballgame.”
Doubt and depth seem to show up in the endgame against BCS foes.
“They just can’t get over the hump,” Stuart said.
Although he sweated in the shadow of Neyland Stadium at the prep level, Stuart doesn’t anticipate Alex returning to Knoxville with a chip on his shoulder.
“I think there’s no major negative incentive because of where he went to school,” Stuart said. “I think, more, it’s just because he wants to show in front of his family and his friends that he can play at that level. And in a roundabout way, he didn’t want to follow where I went to school; he wanted to make his own tracks in the sand, which I couldn’t fault him for.”
Stuart’s younger son, Zach, is a junior tight end/linebacker at Knox West, which hosts Daniel Boone in a first-round Class 5A playoff game Friday night. West eliminated Boone, 33-14, last season in the second round, also in Knoxville. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Zach is also generating recruiting interest.
“He’s the best athlete of all of us,” Stuart said. “He receives a letter from Duke, like, every day. He’s received letters from Michigan and Marshall and MTSU. He’s a good student, too.”
Stuart likes the fact that Zach’s head coach, Scott Cummings, worked under the late Tommy Hundley at Tennessee High. Before Mike Martin coached him his senior season at Science Hill in 1983, Stuart played for Hundley as a sophomore and junior.
Mentioning Hundley brought to mind former Science Hill athletic director Sidney Smallwood fondly recalling how spiritedly Hundley played in Neyland Stadium as a senior co-captain for Kentucky in 1960.
Alex Stuart will undoubtedly have the same adrenaline surge 51 years later.
“I told Alex, ‘You’re four years into it,’” Stuart said, “‘all you’ve got to do is move your feet, stay in front of him, don’t give up a sack and you’ll be okay.’”
And if the Blue Raiders do get sacked, well, at least it’ll come compliments of the Vols.
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.