Tennessee fans are fond of asking, “What if?”
What if Jerry Colquitt hadn’t been injured early in the 1994 season, thus thrusting Peyton Manning into the starting role as a freshman, gaining the rising star key reps to prepare him for one of the brightest stretches in UT history from ’95-’97. What if Manning could’ve redshirted in ’94, then Tee Martin, then Casey Clausen? What would the chain effect have been all the way to modern day UT football?
What if Tony Robinson hadn’t been injured in 1985?
That isn’t a question asked often, because by the time Robinson went down with a season-ending knee injury, Tennessee had already lost to Florida and was out of the national championship race, and the Vols still went on to finish the season in magical fashion with a No. 4 national ranking.
But if Robinson hadn’t been injured, how much further up the list of UT greats would he have been by the end of the season? Granted, his injury only cost him seven games of his UT career. But he was a Heisman candidate, and wowing new admirers with his throwing abilities every game.
The skinny kid from Florida (6-4, 170 lbs. when he entered college) was initially a wide receiver in high school. But his coach moved him to quarterback when he watched Robinson throw during practice and realized just how effortlessly he could toss the pigskin. That seemingly effortless throwing motion by Robinson was more evident in college, leaving many to wonder where he ranks on the list of all-time greats at the quarterback position at UT. John Majors, who coached a national championship team at Pitt before returning home to Knoxville, called him the best quarterback he had ever coached.
Once he moved to the QB position, Robinson excelled in high school. And he wanted to play college ball at Florida State. But Bobby Bowden and the Seminoles balked on recruiting him. There were charges of racial motivations; accusations that Florida State didn’t want Robinson because he was black.
Tennessee had no such pretenses. The Vols, after all, had debuted the SEC’s first black starting quarterback in Condredge Holloway a few years earlier. But Majors’ 1982 recruiting class already included several quarterbacks, and there didn’t seem to be a spot on the roster for Robinson. Until Majors saw him throw.
Robinson rode the pine at Tennessee for two seasons, until Alan Cochrell made the decision to forego his senior season of eligibility and play Major League Baseball. When Robinson took the field as a starter in 1984, some fans wondered why he hadn’t started over Cochrell to begin with.
Tennessee finished with a mediocre 7-4-1 record in 1984, losing SEC games to Auburn, Florida and Kentucky.
But it was during that Florida game, a 43-30 loss, that Robinson began to shine. He completed a school-record 29 passes for 371 yards. He had a touchdown pass of 52 yards to Tim McGee, and another of 48 yards to Joey Clinkscales — who, like Robinson, signed with UT as a quarterback but was moved to wide receiver after it became obvious that Robinson was the best QB of the class.
Perhaps the most notable game of Robinson’s short career as a starter at Tennessee came the following week against Alabama. Down 27-13 against the hated Crimson Tide as the fourth quarter began, Tennessee rallied behind Robinson. The Vols scored two fourth quarter touchdowns. Johnny Jones’ touchdown run with just over two minutes remaining made the score 27-26. Majors was unwilling to settle for a tie. Like so many other great plays in Tennessee football lore, you can still hear John Ward’s voice echoing through the annals of UT history — “Robinson with the ball . . . Give him two! Tony Robinson keeps and sneaks and Tennessee miraculously has vaulted on top of the Tide!”
Tennessee won the game, 28-27, and the AP named Robinson the Southeast Back of the Week.
Despite a disappointing finish to the season, Robinson wound up with a 61.6% completion percentage, breaking his coach’s school record in that category.
Robinson was the source of much media hype entering the ’85 season. In Majors’ sixth year in Knoxville, the Vols appeared to finally have the pieces together to make a serious run at an SEC championship — if not a national one. And Robinson was a centerpiece of those expectations. He was widely mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Robinson threw and ran for 417 total yards to set a school record for total offense in the season-opener against No. 10 UCLA. The Vols entered the fourth quarter up 16 points, but somehow allowed the Bruins to score twice, and add two-point conversions each time, to force a tie that felt more like a loss.
The next week, Tennessee exacted some frustrations on top-ranked Auburn and another Heisman candidate, Bo Jackson. Jackson and the Tigers entered Neyland Stadium and walked away with a crushing 38-20 defeat in a game that wasn’t really that close. Robinson excelled, out-shining Jackson with a school record four touchdown passes. The following week, Sports Illustrated’s cover blared, “Tennessee Waltz: Tony Robinson Buries Auburn.” The Heisman talk was heating up.
The Vols’ lone loss of the ’85 season came two weeks later against Florida. But, even then, Robinson looked good. He completed 26 of 36 passes for 300 yards before a late interception that sealed Florida’s 17-10 win.
Then came the trip to Birmingham to face Alabama. The Tide were ranked No. 15, and favored to win. Defenses dominated the day, but Robinson had led his team to a 13-7 lead in the fourth quarter, and was looking for more when “it” happened.
With the ball inside Alabama’s 10-yard-line, Robinson was scrambling for the goal line when he was cut down by two Alabama defenders. One of them, Cornelius Bennett, said, “T-Man, stay down. You’re hurt. I can feel it.”
Robinson was hurt. He had torn his ACL. His Tennessee career was finished.
Tennessee managed to finish the season strong behind Darryl Dickey, winning the Sugar Bowl with a 35-7 win over highly-favored Miami.
As for Robinson, four of his five games in 1985 came against opponents ranked in the Top 20 in the nation, yet he completed 91 of 143 passes for 1,246 yards and eight touchdowns.
Robinson left UT with 3,527 yards of career total offense, which still stands as 14th highest in school history even though Robinson only started a season and a half. His mark of 13 consecutive games with a touchdown pass stood until it was broken by Heath Shuler; his single-game passing record stood until it was broken by Peyton Manning.
With his college career ended, Robinson turned to cocaine. Just days after Tennessee’s Sugar Bowl win without him, he was arrested by Knoxville PD in a sting operation and charged with selling cocaine. He was sentenced to nine months in prison.
Robinson signed with the Washington Redskins during the 1987 players’ strike. A judge released him from prison to play. He returned after the strike ended to finish out his prison sentence. His legal troubles continued after his release, and he served another two-year prison sentence in the early ’90s. By the mid 2000s, Robinson had been arrested repeatedly. But he finally cleaned up his act in 2006, and these days coaches youth league football.
Robinson returned to Neyland Stadium for the first time in 2013, running through the “T” with Johnny Majors. It was a magical day all the way around, as the Vols stunned Steve Spurrier’s No. 11 South Carolina team that day on an end-of-game field goal.
38 DAYS UNTIL FOOTBALL TIME IN TENNESSEE!