Vols in the Pros: Longevity Rankings

If Dustin Colquitt signs in free agency and plays in every game this fall, he’ll pass Jason Witten for the most NFL appearances by a former Vol. A whopping 271 games is the current record here, with Witten passing Peyton Manning’s 266 appearances in his final season. I count eight former Vols at 200+ games played via Wikipedia, with Witten 26th among all players and 12th if you remove specialists.

When I was in middle and high school in the 90s, I used to make a list for my grandparents around this time every off-season. After the draft, I’d start writing down where each former Vol was slated to play that fall. My grandparents had Sunday Ticket, and always chose who to watch based on how many former Vols were playing. And in the 90s, the options were bountiful.

As was the case for many around here, it became a futile exercise once Peyton entered the league: they were watching the Colts. And 266 of Peyton’s games later, there were fewer Vols to choose from. It’s a trend the program is already working to reverse under Josh Heupel.

Greatness does not guarantee longevity. But longevity guarantees you’ll be remembered. I’d assume there are still quite a few walking around Farragut whose favorite Vol of all is Bill Bates. Charlie Garner ranks sixth in collegiate rushing yards among UT running backs in the 90s alone, then had a longer NFL career than all of them. I knew I could find him on Sundays for a long, long time. In the days when the Tennessee Titans were still the Houston Oilers, it’s how many in Big Orange Country found their favorite NFL team.

What’s also changed since then: how many Vols you can watch in the NBA. And the NBA is much more about the postseason.

Greatness does not guarantee longevity, and it does not guarantee team success (though Charlie Garner played in a Super Bowl and Bill Bates has multiple rings).

Case in point: Bernard King is the undisputed best basketball player to come out of Tennessee. Despite injuries and suspensions, King trails only Dale Ellis (1,209) in NBA appearances with 874 games played via RealGM. Allan Houston and Tobias Harris are the only other Vols to appear in 750+ NBA games.

King played those 874 games over 16 years, more than half of them after the NBA expanded the postseason from 12 to 16 teams. He appeared in 28 playoff games.

Grant Williams has played in 209 career games in three seasons. He’ll appear in his 28th playoff game tonight.

Ellis is the leader here too with 73 playoff appearances. But he only made one trip to the conference finals, with Seattle swept by the Lakers in 1987. Allan Houston made 63 playoff appearances, getting to the NBA Finals in 2000 1999 with a signature moment of his own in the first round.

Those two were on an all-star level: Ellis averaged 21 points per game in that 1987 run, Houston 18 in 2000 1999. (That’s a lot considering that game winner made it a 78-77 final score!)

But right now, both Tobias Harris and Grant Williams still have the opportunity to see each other in the conference finals. That would guarantee a Vol in the NBA Finals for the first time since Jordan McRae in 2016, and the first to play significant minutes there since Houston. Tobias averages 19 points in 40 minutes in these playoffs with the Sixers. Grant is getting 11 points in 30 minutes while guarding, you know, Durant and Giannis.

Even if the Bucks sweep the Celtics, Grant will tie Josh Richardson with 30 career playoff appearances. And if Boston finds a way to advance, he could climb as high as sixth all-time in playoff appearances among Vol alumni. In three years.

Tobias is already fifth on that list, and will pass Ernie Grunfeld for fourth in this round. Should the Sixers advance to the Finals, he could pass C.J. Watson to trail only Ellis and Houston all-time. These kind of postseason, championship opportunities are just something we haven’t had available as Tennessee basketball fans.

For an East Tennessee fanbase with solid NBA options – the Grizz, Trae Young in Atlanta – Tennessee’s on-court success the last 15+ years has finally produced legitimate homegrown options for the next generation of fans. I’m biased, of course, as a kid who became a Celtics fan in the 80s because he looked like Larry Bird. It’s a gift to have Grant Williams on my favorite team.

But it’s probably more of a gift than we give it credit for to have former Vols on any team to still be playing right now.

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