Tennessee football is a tradition built around individuals who work together to become something more than just an athletic program.
It's that tradition and those individuals who created the orange and white, the "Power T" and the Vol Nation. These individuals are Volunteers for life.
In the fall of 1995, former head coach Phillip Fulmer and former offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe recruited a true "Vol for Life." From coming to UT as a freshman defensive back, to competing on a National Championship team, to now working at the university in donor relations and capital support, Mikki Allen will always be a Tennessee Volunteer.
After watching the Vols compete in the 1996 Citrus Bowl and record a 20-14 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes, Allen called both Fulmer and Cutcliffe to inform them of his decision to come to Tennessee. A highly-touted defensive back from Brentwood Academy, coming off a state championship and with a long line of UT legacy, Allen became a part of the 1996 recruiting class. To this day, he still remembers that moment.
"I remember calling Coach Fulmer and Coach Cutcliff after the game as a high school senior and saying, 'Hey, I'm in,'" Allen said. "'I feel that over the next four years, something special is gonna go on in your team.'"
Allen said he felt the pieces were in place, on both sides of the ball, for the team to win a national title and he wanted to be a piece of that puzzle. It was one of the best decisions he ever made.
"I remember it like yesterday, running out in the Fiesta Bowl," he said reminiscing. "You see orange and white everywhere and our fans showed up and they were supportive. We knew the moment that we ran out there and saw all the orange that there was no way that we were gonna leave Tempe, Ariz., without the championship.
"It was special the run that we had," he said.
The former safety said the team was driven, filled with talent and unwilling to settle for anything less than a national title. But while the vision was clear, the reality was dizzying.
"It was almost like everything was slow motion and surreal," Allen said. "I think we were prepared mentally when we went out to Arizona to win the game."
That year, Tennessee beat the favored Florida State Seminoles, 23-16, to win the BCS National Championship. Allen said that while the team was stacked in terms of talent, it came down to their personal drive to succeed and to work towards their goal.
That's what he tells the aspiring young athletes that he has an opportunity to work with at UT.
"I just think you got to work hard and control what you can control," he said. "The SEC has become a semi-pro football league. There's so many teams in the conference that are highly competitive.
"Go out there and work and compete and do the little things."
Allen said practice and preparation were key to the Volunteers success in the 1998 season. He said that's what he encourages young athletes with as they look to higher competition.
"Our practices were like games," he said. "We just had so much talent that practices, if you survived a practice, if you were able to compete and play on a high level at practice then we knew that the games were gonna be easy for us ... Coaches didn't have to tell us when to get extra practice in. We practiced during the summer as a unit, as a team, on our own. It's not just waiting, it's being proactive."
As the program has gone through coaching change after coaching change, Allen has stood by and quietly observed. Now as head coach Butch Jones comes on board, Allen said he's excited about Jones because he "gets it" — he understands the legend, the tradition that is Tennessee football.
"He brings a lot of passion and energy and he understands and embraces the UT tradition," Allen said.
Most important to Allen is Jones' endeavor to reach out to former players.
"Former players are your life blood. They're the architects that helped build this program into what it is today," Allen said. "It's important that you reach out and you have some kind of outreach with former players and keep them engaged and abreast of your vision and how you're trying to rebuild the program."
For now, Allen sees the program filled with the momentum that comes from a fresh outlook and eager ambition.
"I think he's gonna take the conference by storm, I really do," Allen said.
As a former athlete, Allen wants to point current players in every walk of life, whether it's academically, on the field or as a representative of the university. As he works directly with alumni and financial donors, Allen hopes they see, in him, hope for the future of the programs they are supporting.
"I'm a return on your investment. You made the investment when I was playing in the late '90s and here I am," Allen said. "Hopefully I am representing you well as an ambassador, not only for UT, but as a good husband, a good father and a productive citizen in the Knoxville community."
While Allen did a short stint outside of Knoxville as a part of the San Francisco 49ers and co-founder of 29/34 Vintage Sportswear, he didn't leave for long. Giving back to the state and the university that gave so much to him has always been a part of Allen's plan.
"This state has been good to me and I always wanted to give back," he said. "I knew when I raised my family (I wanted to do that) in an area where people knew me and in an area where, people that had invested in me when I played at (UT), I'd be able to do the same thing that they did and be in the community that they invested in. That's why I'm here."