Orange Memories – Picking Ourselves Up
In the 2005 movie “Batman Begins,” a young Bruce Wayne falls into an old well and is eventually rescued by his father, Thomas. Thomas asks Bruce a simple question. “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up again.” This same line of thinking could be applied to the University of Tennessee football program.
Tennessee has recently faced more uncertainty and upheaval than at any other point in its history, outside of the years lost due to the World Wars being fought. After the remarkable run of the 1990’s, how could one national powerhouse fall so far? Let’s take a stroll through our nightmares and the points that led us to where we currently are; a football program and fan base trying to learn to pick themselves up again.
Let’s start this journey the month after winning the National Championship. Tennessee basked in the glory of winning the first BCS title, but all of that glory meant more time off of the recruiting trail for Coach Fulmer and his staff. Tennessee signed just 17 players, only seven of which really made a starting contribution during their careers. An eighth, Onterrio Smith, played as a freshman before being booted and becoming a star at Oregon. This was not exactly an effective way to build the brand with that many swings and misses.
Once the season started, many picked the Vols to repeat as champions. Even with an early season loss at Florida, the Vols could still make the BCS championship game. But instead, they lost to Arkansas at Fayetteville, in a game they should have wrapped up before the fourth quarter. The Vols still made it to the Fiesta Bowl and endured yet another beat down by Nebraska. Coach Fulmer gave the excuse that “Too many players were playing for the name on the back of the jersey and not for the ‘T’ on their helmet.” UT had climbed the mountain but could not make it on the second attempt.
During the 2000 season, Tennessee found itself with a freshman quarterback named Casey Clausen, who happened to break most of Peyton Manning’s freshman passing numbers. But that was a complete rebuilding year dealing with plenty of youth in starting spots and led to an 8-4 record. In 2001, that youth had to grow up and get results. Tennessee won its first two games before the events of 9/11/01 moved the Florida game to the end of the season. The Vols looked ready to roll through the schedule, but the last minute loss to UGA stung. This highlighted John Chavis’ apparent weakness when it came time to protect small leads at the end of games. With the huge win over Florida in the Swamp at the end of the season, Tennessee only had one game more to make the trip to Pasadena and play Miami for the National Title. Unfortunately, Tennessee spent too much time at award shows and not enough time getting ready for the SEC Championship game. During the second half, LSU’s backup quarterback kept running draw plays and Chavis couldn’t find an answer to defend them. Fumbles in the fourth quarter by Travis Stephens and Dante Stallworth proved to be the death knell for Tennessee’s hopes of appearing in another championship game. Tennessee hasn’t come close to a championship since, and the Georgia Dome turned into a place where the Vols can’t seem to win.
Tennessee struggled through a 2002 season where half the team missed at least some game time, and endured humiliating losses to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. This was the first time ever that Tennessee had lost to all of their main rivals in a single season. The team also lost to #1 ranked Miami at Homecoming and a mediocre Maryland team in the Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome.
Although Tennessee was not as strong as previous years, it still had a solid offense and defense that should have paved the way to another SEC Championship appearance. Tennessee had lost at Auburn and was playing UGA at home the next week. Before halftime, when it looked like Tennessee was going to get the sure touchdown to tie the game, a fumbled exchange between Casey Clausen and Jabari Davis was picked up by Georgia and ran back for a 95-yard touchdown that Tennessee could not recover from emotionally. It led to a 41-14 pummeling, the worst home loss in nine years. Tennessee finished the year at #6 in the polls and lost in a horrible showing against Clemson at the Georgia Dome, their third straight loss in the building.
Already with one loss, Tennessee was still looking to be in the BCS picture, sitting at #9 in the polls when a weak Notre Dame team came to Knoxville. Right before halftime, freshman QB Erik Ainge went down with a separated shoulder that ruled out the rest of the year. Tennessee lost 17-13. Former third-team QB Rick Clausen led the Vols to the SEC Championship game, where the Vols put up a fight against the unbeaten Auburn Tigers in a rematch of their earlier game in the season, but lost by 10 points. This was the fourth straight year Tennessee had lost at the Georgia Dome. Clausen led the Vols to a blowout win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl looking like a star in the process.
The season started, continued, and ended with a quarterback controversy. Erik Ainge had all the talent in the world, but Clausen had the backing of the team. Phillip Fulmer and the rest of the coaches simply did a poor job of managing the quarterback situation and it caused riffs in the team. This also led to Tennessee’s first losing season since 1988, going 5-6 and losing four straight games in embarrassing fashion and finishing it up with a home loss to Vanderbilt, the first time that had occurred since 1982. These results led to Randy Sanders resigning as Offensive Coordinator, and Fulmer bringing back David Cutcliffe.
A phantom Roughing the Passer penalty all but stole Tennessee’s win against the Gators, who came back to win 21-20 late in the fourth quarter. Tennessee still looked strong enough to compete for a spot in the SEC Championship game, until QB Erik Ainge injured his ankle on a stupidly called QB Draw play in the South Carolina game. With Ainge only making it two series against LSU, Jon Crompton came off the bench and gave Tennessee a chance with two miraculous Hail Mary’s to Robert Meachem. But the Vols once again had one taken away by the refs, as they ruled LSU QB JaMarcus Russell down when he clearly fumbled the ball and UT recovered. LSU’s offense kept the ball and they drove for a last second, winning touchdown. The following week, Tennessee went to Arkansas and was easily handled by their running attack, with no chance of a comeback. The Vols won out only to face Penn State in the Outback Bowl, and see Arian Foster fumble away the game, with Penn State recovering the ball and returning it for a gut punch touchdown.
Tennessee suffered three beat downs in games against California, Florida, and Alabama. Alabama was one of the worst-coached games in Phillip Fulmer’s tenure, as the Vols completely abandoned the running game behind Arian Foster, forgot about Montario Hardesty being on the team, and forgot that defensive backs should actually cover the wide receiver they are assigned. Even with these losses, Tennessee backed into the SEC Championship game and gave eventual National Champ LSU quite the game until Erik Ainge threw a Pick-6 that turned out to be the game winner for LSU. A win over Wisconsin in the Outback did little to make fans feel better about losing out on an SEC Championship in that fashion. Also in one of his biggest administrative blunders, Athletic Director Mike Hamilton gave Coach Fulmer the famous “Eight is Enough” contract extension. This led some fans to start calling Fulmer, “Coacho Ocho.”
And here we are, the place where the wheels really fell off the wagon. After the 2007 season, several coaches, including David Cutcliffe and Trooper Taylor, left for other coaching jobs. Fulmer replaced them with the innovator or the Clawfense, Dave Clawson and half of his staff from the University of Richmond. Tennessee was a dark horse candidate in the national picture due to the number of starters returning. Jonathan Crompton then showed everyone on a Labor Day telecast, just how bad he sucked against a horrible UCLA team. Tennessee snagged four interceptions in the first half of the game and still lost the game in overtime after completely abandoning the run. Two weeks later, it got worse in front on a national CBS telecast, as Florida ripped Tennessee and the keystone cops offense, with fans shown leaving after the first half. The following week, Crompton topped all of his previous showings, with the worst QB performance in Tennessee history occurring in a loss at Auburn. Even a change to back up QB Nick Stephens (dubbed “Pick Nick” by the Vol defense) doesn’t help, with Tennessee losing in a tough game with Georgia. Many fans saw how bad things were the week after, when Alabama took over Neyland Stadium, singing “Rammer Jammer” in a Crimson and White clad filled stadium. The end of Phillip Fulmer’s career was certain as Tennessee lost to South Carolina. At Homecoming the following week, the emotion had taken the toll on players, coaches and fans alike, and Tennessee lost to Wyoming at home. Four years later, and the loss still seems hard to believe. Tennessee limped to the finish line over Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and on December 1, 2008, Lane Kiffin became head coach at Tennessee.
Lane Kiffin talked, made headlines, opposing fans made fun of Tennessee and Kiffin. But my lord, the man had Swagger. Although saddled with Jonathan Crompton as his quarterback, Kiffin had a core of Tennessee fans believing again. Even with losses to UCLA and Auburn, the man showed he could coach with how Tennessee played at the Swamp. Tennessee almost pulled out the upset of the season against #1 ranked and eventual National Champion Alabama, if it had not been for Daniel Lincoln and Terrence Cody. Even with bad losses to Ole Miss and Virginia Tech, the Vol Nation wanted to believe we were going in the right direction, no matter what some of the older fans thought about Kiffin and his staff’s antics. Then word came out only two weeks before signing day 2010, Kiffin was leaving UT and taking the job at USC. And we were introduced to a man no one knew outside of his father, Derek Dooley.
The attrition from having three coaches in the span of 15 months really showed on the roster. JUCO’s and freshman had to be leaned on to contribute to a team that no one saw going anywhere. After losses to Oregon and Florida, where the Vols led or hung in until after halftime, it took overtime to beat UAB at home. And then the season was defined by what happened the following week at LSU. Tennessee played above itself and looked to have won the game, just to have a penalty called for too many participants on the field on the last play of the game. With LSU on the one and no time showing on the clock, the Tigers punched it in for the game winning touchdown. Tennessee players, coaches, and fans, had taken a punch to the heart and had it ripped out of our rib cages. The loss led to a four game losing streak, and a quarterback change. Tennessee took off with Tyler Bray inserted at quarterback, although the level of competition helped. Tennessee won their last four to be eligible for the Music City Bowl against UNC. Like a nightmare returned from LSU, a win turned into a loss in a matter of minutes at the end of the game with UNC running personnel onto the field as the last seconds ticked down. Time wound down and the game was called, but officials declared that UNC had stopped the clock and was given only a five yard penalty for movement on the line, when they should have been assessed a 15-yard penalty for too many participants on the field. UNC kicked a field goal with no time left to take the game to overtime, where they won it. Because of the finishes of both games, the NCAA made a rule change that had the games occurred today, Tennessee would have won.
Tennessee fans wanted to believe in the youth movement that was being presented to us; the easy win against Montana, the very convincing win over a good Cincinnati team. And then it all came crashing down at the Swamp’s 30 yard line with Justin Hunter’s ACL tear, leading to a Vol loss. Two games later against Georgia, Bray would be lost five games with a broken thumb. The Vols essentially went 0-for October in 2011. Arkansas gave the Vols one of the worst losses in program history, and in the meantime, made the Vols special team look like fools with Joe Adams’ 60-yard punt return touchdown that would later be up for an ESPY. The Vols looked to have a redo of the previous year of they could beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky. It took the heroics of an overtime interception and return by Eric Gordon to get the win over Vandy. Kentucky seemed like a sure thing the next week; after all, they were starting a wide receiver at quarterback. But somehow, the Vols played like crap, went through the motions, and the team lost to a HORRIBLE Wildcat team. 24 years down the drain in Lexington.
2012 – A Look Ahead
As a Tennessee fan, you can only feel like this program has been cursed since winning the ’98 National Title, that Doug Dickey and Phillip Fulmer made a grand agreement with the devil in the Arizona desert. With the dawn of a new season, there is always renewed hope and optimism. Especially now, with a squad that actually has talent and some depth, which the previous three teams have not had. So with everything that the program and we, as fans, have endured, let’s take a breath, check our resolve, and realize the past is gone. The future is uncertain, but we want, no NEED, for the Vols to win. So let us get ready to burn Atlanta to the ground like Sherman. Yes, we have fallen, but it is time to pick ourselves up and carry on. Don’t believe me? Then watch this video and tell me you aren’t ready.
Until next time. Go Big Orange.