I’ve been eerily quiet the last month or so. After some early season rants about Florida, Georgia, Conference Realignment, defending Derek Dooley, and countless pot shots at the ACC and other SEC teams, I felt the need to take a step backward after watching how poorly this year’s Tennessee football team has performed. Over the last month, I’ve taken gut shot after gut shot, each and every Saturday. Even when Tennessee beat MTSU and Vanderbilt, there were caveats I just couldn’t digest.
If I could just vomit on my keyboard and it would translate to this webpage, I would stop writing right now. If I knew exactly what I wanted to say and how to say it, I would’ve posted a long time ago. I am so disgusted and embarrassed with the state of Tennessee football. I have never been more ashamed to associate myself with a brand. Even as an alumnus, I would rather tell a complete stranger I’ve played all the LEGO games on Xbox, I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series, and I watch Glee and Grey’s Anatomy every week than to profess my love, loyalty, passion, and obsession with Tennessee athletics and all things bathed in the PMS151 shade of orange. It’s too difficult to dodge the jokes and insults initiated by the word “Tennessee.” It’s too painful to attempt to explain the reasons when asked “What the hell happened to Tennessee?”
I supported Lane Kiffin. I loved the enthusiasm and the confidence. I’m not one to talk a lot of trash (I pick my battles), so I didn’t agree with many of Kiffin’s media shots. But damn it, he was OUR coach, and if OUR coach believes in what he’s saying and doing, then damn it, I’ll stand behind him and defend him. Maybe this is the reason I (all of us) felt so betrayed when he left like a thief in the night. Tennessee got their pants pulled down and exposed. Lane Kiffin had us all believing Tennessee was a hot program, rapidly making waves in recruiting and media circles nationwide. Maybe we were, hard to say now. When Lane Kiffin jet for USC, he officially turned Tennessee into a mid-tier program. Perhaps we were already a mid-tier program, but the orange-colored glasses and kool-aid kept the Big Orange Veil down in Knoxville. We die-hards couldn’t see through or around it.
Lane Kiffin ripped down the curtain and officially made Tennessee a stepping stone; a middle of the road program. The type of school where a coach goes to build a resume to campaign for a better job. This thought saddens me to no end. Remember 1998? What an awesome time. Tennessee was a monster program in the 90s, we must be a football powerhouse, and everyone across the country must believe it also. Unfortunately, Tennessee is far, far removed from 1998. Tennessee has underachieved far more times than overachieved since, and I don’t see the trend changing.
Tennessee fans often wonder why ESPN shows us no love. I’ve noticed, over the last two years, Tennessee gets about as much air time as every other school not in the top 25. We just aren’t relevant outside the state, and especially outside the SEC.
I support(ed) Derek Dooley. I knew last year we were severely talent depleted, but we played hard against some really good opponents. We were fed the youth and inexperience excuse, and I accepted it as truth. This year started off so well. Tennessee thumped Montana, then came out and mollywopped Cincinnati. Tennessee was competitive in Gainesville, and it was obvious Justin Hunter’s injury was devastating to the entire team. The ensuing weeks are inexcusable. Dooley’s press conferences have gone from funny and sarcastic to insulting and annoying. The VFL program seems like more of a crutch; a weapon to use against anyone saying negative things about the program. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to not be in the news for arrests and failed drug tests, but Dooley’s job 1 is to win football games, or at least it should be. Designing apparel, modifying blueprints, entertaining the media, and making it difficult for former players to come back should be WAY down the list.
I completely understand the impact of firing Derek Dooley right now. Four coaches in five years is nearly as bad as three in three. For the program’s sake, Dooley has to be kept around to attempt to right the ship. I don’t like it, but it is what it is. Feelslike98.com has a wonderful article right now describing all the things Derek Dooley hasn’t done to warrant being the head coach at Tennessee. 17-20 in 3 seasons at Louisiana Tech should not get you into the Tennessee head coach conversation, let alone an interview. But it did, and here we are.
Change has to be made, if for no other reason than Tennessee's abysmal running and kicking games. How can Tauren Poole go from over 1000 yards to under 700 in year two of an offensive scheme? How can Tennessee accept such inconsistency with its place kicker and punters? How can a team, second only to Alabama in bowl appearances, with the recruiting budget, facilities, and funding of Tennessee, be so broken and in pieces to the point no high profile coach would want to come here? What is the turn-off at Tennessee? Are we too passionate? Are we too fickle? Are we too demanding, nosey, or inquisitive? You can’t tell me our fanbase is so ravenous it scares coaches away. Is the pressure to win at Tennessee just too overwhelming? I just don’t buy it. Any of it.
So, here we are. We’re stuck, two years in, with a coach who STILL hasn’t proven he can win a meaningful game. All I see is a laundry list of mismanaged games, poorly coached and out of position players, questionable play calling, no improvement, and I’ve yet to see a gameplan where I said “Damn. We had ‘em. If we had just a few more plays, we had ‘em.” Sure, we’ve had flashes, but this staff’s inability to adjust is killer. The first half of the Alabama game was masterful; however, Alabama realized we were stacking against the run, made an adjustment, and blew us out the 2nd half. Thus is the story of Tennessee football. At least you could tell Lane Kiffin knew how to manage the game and put a plan together, whether he had the talent to win or not.
It really hurts when you see the positive momentum being generated by the in-state school to the West. It also hurts to see Ohio State, fresh off of NCAA sanctions and in the midst of probation (sound familiar?), stick with the 1-year interim strategy (where is Kippy Brown?) and lands the hottest free agent head coaching name in college football today. How can Ohio State rebound from a scandal in less than 18 months and move forward while Tennessee is still stuck spinning its tires.
Does the Tennessee athletic administration (future or present) truly believe spending the money on a high dollar coaching staff is impossible? I will never understand why we are unwilling to throw upwards of $4M / year at a head coach. The return on investment and the economic boost to the Knoxville area would be gigantic. Good Tennessee football is great for business. Fans will spend more money on orange gear, spend more money at restaurants, spend more money in the bookstore, spend more money on, and at, the game, spend more money at the bar, and spend more, spend more, spend more. See a pattern? The bottom line: When Tennessee wins, everyone wins. And I mean everyone. You think enrollment went down after 1998? Hell no.
Here’s an example from my life. I marched saxophone for 4 years in the Pride of the Southland marching band. In 2002, the directors encouraged people to learn other instruments to realign the numbers. The Pride was maxed out, easily at 350 people. By the end of band camp in 2005 (fresh off of an SEC east title and a Cotton Bowl thrashing of Texas A&M), the band was making roster cuts to reduce the numbers. Since the 2005 season (finished 5-7 with a loss to Vanderbilt), the band’s numbers have been declining at a steady rate, to the point the pregame drill (and the opening of the T) had to be made smaller so it was still able to be formed. Kids want to be at Tennessee (and in the band) when the team is winning. The football team’s struggles since 2005 and the Pride’s declining numbers aren’t exclusive from each other.
I won’t quote Einstein here about insanity, because we all know the quote. Something has to change, and it has to change soon. Tennessee fans are restless. The decline of Fulmer and rise of Bruce Pearl really hurt the perception of the football program, and it gave Tennessee fans a taste of how an energetic and exciting coach can really boost a team. Lane Kiffin decimated the remnants of Fulmer’s top recruits, and Kiffin's one class is labelled as one of the biggest recruiting busts of all time. If Dooley has one saving grace, it’s his recruiting. So far, the recruiting numbers seem to be stable. I know all the negative discussion and “Fire Dooley” jargon can’t be good for recruiting, but I also imagine a 102k-capacity stadium with 75k people can’t be good either.
I’ll end with a quote from a friend of mine from Virginia Tech. He’s from Richmond and hasn’t been tainted by Knoxville media in regard to his opinion of Tennessee:
" I feel bad for you and Tennessee in general. Not sure what the heck is going on. You guys should be able to land a big name coach and land some of the best recruits in the nation. I never did understand the Dooley hire, but I never knew anything about him other than he coached at Louisiana Tech, which didn't exactly jump out at me as "the next Tennessee head coach". "
How are we supposed to get behind this guy (Dooley) and shower him with unwavering support? Maybe it's just me, but I consider the loss to Kentucky to be unforgivable. No matter what Derek Dooley does with the rest of his time at Tennessee, he'll always be the coach who lost to Kentucky.