As Arch Manning recruiting heats up, a look at how Peyton Manning picked Tennessee

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Peyton Manning answered Bobby Petrino’s phone call at 11:05 a.m. on Aug. 15, 1993.

Petrino, who was then Arizona State’s quarterbacks coach, became the first college coach to chat that Sunday with Manning, one of the nation’s most coveted recruits entering his senior season at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. Petrino and Manning talked for seven minutes.

The phone calls kept coming.

Mark Richt, then Florida State’s quarterbacks coach, was the last coach to speak with Manning. Richt hung up at 10:01 p.m., nearly 11 hours after Petrino’s call.

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Manning answered 23 calls from coaches that day. He logged the calls and their duration on a notebook page that is displayed among the memorabilia in Manning’s Saloon 16 in Knoxville. The callers that Sunday included Phillip Fulmer of Tennessee, Steve Spurrier of Florida, Don James of Washington and R.C. Slocum of Texas A&M. Manning’s conversations with the coaches ranged from five to 15 minutes.

“He was very organized,” Peyton’s dad, Archie, said of his son’s recruitment during a 2020 interview with Knox News reporter Brenna McDermott. “He talked to a lot of coaches. He enjoyed the journey. 

"He would come home from practice, do his homework, and then he was on the phone.”

Today, college coaches are engaging in a full-court press for another Manning.

Arch Manning, who is Peyton’s nephew and Archie’s grandson, is a five-star junior quarterback at Isidore Newman and the No. 1-ranked prospect in the 2023 recruiting class. Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Texas and Clemson headline his list of suitors.

As Arch Manning’s recruitment gains steam, it’s worth reflecting on how his uncle handled the attention en route to signing with the Tennessee Vols in 1994.

Schools from Michigan to Tennessee to Florida wanted Peyton Manning

A native of Drew, Mississippi, Archie Manning chose Ole Miss over Mississippi State and Tulane. Archie twice finished in the top four in the Heisman Trophy balloting before spending most of his NFL career with the New Orleans Saints.

Archie’s oldest son, Cooper, who is Arch's dad, signed to play for Ole Miss before a spinal injury ended his career.

Archie’s youngest son, Eli, starred at Ole Miss.

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Many expected Archie’s middle son, Peyton, also would play for the Rebels. But Archie said throughout Peyton’s recruitment that the decision would be his son’s to make.

"I love Ole Miss, but I love my son more," Archie told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in January 1994. "I want him to go where he'll be happy."

Archie even predicted that Peyton would select a school outside of the South.

“I think it's Michigan – he really likes the coaching staff,” the Commercial Appeal quoted Archie as saying in January 1994.

Olivia Manning, Peyton’s mom, proved the best at reading the tea leaves.

Sports Illustrated profiled Manning and his recruitment in its Nov. 15, 1993, edition.

“He really likes Tennessee," Olivia said in the SI story.

Left: Arch Manning, junior quarterback at Isidore Newman, in 2021.
Right: Peyton Manning with the Tennessee Vols in 1997.

Jimmy Hyams was covering Tennessee football recruiting for the Knoxville News Sentinel at the time. Like many others, Hyams had thought Manning would follow in his dad’s footsteps to Ole Miss. But Hyams reconsidered Tennessee’s chances after reading that SI profile.

Manning and David Cutcliffe, who was UT’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, really “hit it off” during the recruiting process, Hyams recalls.

“I was intrigued by the opportunity to possibly be a three-year starter in Tennessee,” Manning said in 2017 during a Tennessee livestream on national signing day.

Heath Shuler was UT's star junior quarterback in 1993. Shuler declared for the NFL Draft after that season. Manning became a four-year starter for the Vols.

Ole Miss gets slap on the wrist; Vols get Peyton Manning

Billy Brewer, then the Ole Miss coach, didn’t shy away from making his opinion known about Manning.

The Commercial Appeal quoted Brewer as saying in January 1994 that Manning was “the best high school quarterback” he’d ever seen, and that Manning would “have the most impact of any player in the history of Ole Miss.”

Brewer’s flattery caused a spot of trouble, because a coach discussing unsigned recruits in the media is against NCAA rules.

Ole Miss self-imposed a minor recruiting penalty on Brewer, and the NCAA assessed a minor penalty on Ole Miss. Archie said in news reports at the time that Brewer’s praise and the subsequent penalties would not affect his son’s decision.

Manning visited Tennessee on the third weekend of January 1994 before visiting Florida the following weekend, his final visit before his commitment.

Two days before Manning announced his plans, the Vols secured a commitment from Branndon Stewart, the top quarterback prospect in Texas.

Stewart's pledge didn’t deter Manning, who hunkered down at a New Orleans hotel as he finalized his choice.

“The scrutiny was sort of picking up, and I checked into a hotel with my dad. I skipped a couple days of school,” Manning recalled in 2017. “I just sort of needed a little quiet time to kind of digest things. I really thought I was going to Tennessee since my visit. I just wanted a couple days to sort of process things.”

Archie called Hyams at 7:45 a.m. ET on Jan. 25, 1994. Peyton would reveal his decision later that day.

“Obviously, him calling me gave me a pretty good idea of where (Peyton) was going,” Hyams, who is now the sports director at Knoxville radio station WNML, told me last week.

Tennessee beat out Ole Miss, Florida and Michigan.

“I could have been happy with any of them, but Tennessee was strong in my mind and my heart," Manning said in Hyams' 1994 News Sentinel story that detailed the commitment. "I had a gut feeling about Tennessee.”

Manning’s decision prompted fans to mail hundreds of letters to the Manning house, Archie’s office and Manning's high school. Some of the letters were from well-wishers. Others were from Ole Miss fans displeased by Peyton’s choice.

While some Mississippians digested their disappointment, Vols fans were elated.

“I would say that the Manning signing, there was a not a bigger one in all the years I’ve covered Tennessee, and that goes back to ’85,” Hyams said last week.

Nearly three decades later, another Manning quarterback enters the spotlight, and the recruiting interest in Arch Manning likely will rival his uncle’s.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.