Winston Churchill, talking about Russia, once described it as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."
He said that in 1939 with the world in turmoil, and in an unfortuitous twist, someone just as easily could say the same about Tennessee football in 2012.
You see, for the entirety of the past decade, football in Big Orange Country has been fluttering within a certain sports no-man's-land. It has been a grotesque amalgamation of what-if's and could-have's; heartbreaking losses piled on top of layers of mediocrity.
In the NBA, there is a strategy known as "bottoming out." In terms of league composition, you have a collection of perennial playoff contenders, a collection of terrible lottery teams, and a collection of middling teams with no hopes at championship. The latter is the group that you don't want to be in. Rather than continue to battle it out for a playoff spot every year, it is more advantageous to gut your team, tank a season and hope for the next LeBron or Anthony Davis in the draft. Hence the term, "bottom out."
Although the circumstances are entirely different, Tennessee football is a victim of never really bottoming out for the past decade. It is one of only two college football programs that has never won less than five games in a modern season (the other is Ohio State). For comparison's sake, Tennessee in its entire history has never fielded a team as bad as this year's Auburn Tigers.
For that reason and a multitude of others, it's never so simple that we just say "well we suck so bad, we have to do something different." While Tennessee fans have, in the past, touted that statistic as a point of pride, it has become less assuring and more damaging. Instead of something so bad happening that it singlehandedly forces change, Tennessee fans repeatedly weather the bad things while saying things like, "surely this is rock bottom."
Rock bottom has acheived a special, even mythical place in Big Orange Country. We are continually questioning its idendity; many of us have begun to even yearn for it, to try and conjure it up out of thin air. If it would just arrive, that would mean the only place to go is up.
The sad, cruel reality is that rock bottom is just that for Vol fans: a myth. It doesn't happen that way for us. We never know whether to just fish or cut bait. No, when Tennessee football is in trouble, it doesn't sputter to a complete halt. It just coasts for ten years.
Compared to the middling 2012 Vols season, many of us would much prefer a season like Auburn is having: a stark, brutal sign that drastic change needs to be made. But alas, here we are. It's November 4th, Tennessee has yet to win its first SEC game, and Derek Dooley is still our football coach.
None us us believe he will be here next year, but in the back of every Vol fan's mind, you will find a crippling fear that UT brass will not take the necessary strides to ensure future success on the gridiron. Thousands of us can already feel the continual embarrassment of having a cathedral like Neyland Stadium sullied by horrific football being played inside it.
The ultimate and most confounding part of the puzzle is that Tennessee football has all the resources it could ever need to fix itself. Our most influential booster is a billionaire who played on Neyland's greatest team ever. He helped elevate Tennessee to the pinnacle of college football, then witnessed the thirty-seven year drought between championships. He oversaw the expansion and dominance of UT football in the 1990's, and perhaps better than anyone in Big Orange Country, he knows the value of the dollar. He is wealthy enough to finance multiple political campaigns and purchase an NFL team. His son is the most powerful man in the state.
Knowing all of this very well, Vol fans are still afraid. We have a chancellor who was delivered to us by one of our biggest rival schools. He has never resonated with people in Knoxville and has focused time, energy and resources in places none of us care about. He has unrealistic expectations of what this university can be and an unrealistic strategy of meeting them. He either fails to realize or care about the fact that at least 75% of people associated with the University of Tennesse care about winning football games above all else.
And there you have it. We are Tennessee. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. We are infatuated with our football program, a bygone champion that has been anything but for the past decade. We believe that the pipe dream of having Jon Gruden coach our Vols is entirely plausible this time around, and yet none of us believe he actually will.
We continually suck, despite having the capability and desire to not suck.