The Curse: the lost decade of Tennessee athletics (part 1)

Alfred Lord Tennyson famously wrote that, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I’d be willing to bet Tennyson was not a Tennessee fan.

From the mid 1980s to 2007 the University of Tennessee experienced an unprecedented era of success through several different sports teams. Coach Pat Summitt pioneered women’s basketball, racking up 8 national championships along the way. Coaches Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer combined for hundreds of wins, a couple of Sugar Bowls, 5 SEC titles, and a national championship in football. The men’s basketball program produced NBA stars like Allan Houston and CJ Watson, while fan favorite Chris Lofton shattered the SEC 3 point record.

All of that changed, subtly but abruptly in the late winter of 2007. Tennessee sports contracted a virus that has permeated all of its major athletic programs since. The fans have come to believe in “The Curse.” Vol sports since then have been mostly marred by mediocrity. On rare occasions they do rise above the sea of ineptitude they have been banished to, but it always ultimately ends in heartbreak. The curse strikes again.

What follows is a chronology of “The Curse,” how it started, and the ten seminal moments of its story.

2007: The one with the interceptions

Every curse has its origin story. This is ours. In December 2007, Tennessee faced off against LSU for its fifth chance to win the SEC Championship in 10 years. The matchup was fairly even, but the scales tipped Tennessee’s way early in the game when Star LSU quarterback Matt Flynn was knocked out of the game. The Vols stormed ahead as inexperienced newcomer Ryan Periloux came in to relieve the injured Flynn. What happened next no one could have predicted.

Periloux lead LSU back from a double digit deficit late in the fourth quarter, aided by 2 boneheaded interceptions from senior Vols star Erik Ainge. This is where the curse began. These events set the next decade into motion. Periloux was named MVP of the game, and LSU went on to win the national championship.

Less than one year later, the athletic director Mike Hamilton made the decision to fire legendary football coach and national champion Phillip Fulmer for posting a losing record one year after nearly capturing the SEC title. The Vols have not had a season with double digit wins, or played for an SEC title since.

2009: The one with the big guy

Enter Lane Kiffin. The brash young California kid showed up in Knoxville with big ambitions and bigger promises. “We’re gonna be singing Rocky Top all night long after we beat Florida next year,” he remarked in his inaugural press conference. That didn’t happen.

What almost did happen was an upset of #1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Alabama had a 1 point lead (due to a missed extra point earlier by Tennessee) as the Vols lined up to kick an easy 38 yard field goal for the win as time expired.

Enter Terrance “Mount” Cody. Terrance Cody weighed 360 lbs when he played noseguard for Alabama. In spite of that fact, the giant bowling ball with a credit card vertical was able to block UT kicker Daniel Lincoln’s kick, clinching the win for Alabama. He didn’t jump, the injured (yes, the kicker got hurt) Lincoln just kicked the ball into his chest.

A few short months later, the promising Kiffin left Knoxville for greener pastures, err, sandier shores ? Kiffin literally left in the black of night one cold February evening without a moments notice. Mattresses burned. And just like that, the Vols were in search of their third head coach in as many years.

2010: The one with Draymond Green.

In March of 2010, beloved basketball coach Bruce Pearl lead the upstart Vols to the program’s only Elite Eight appearance in history. Michigan State got out to a hot start, but the Vols, lead by big man Brian Williams, stormed back to tie the game with less than a minute to go. Michigan State sent former 5-star junior guard Scotty Hopson to the line with the chance to take the lead and close out the game in the final seconds. Hopson made the first but bricked the second. The game was tied as Michigan State star Raymar Morgan was fouled with 1.8 seconds left. He made his first free throw, but missed the second on purpose, and time expired as Tennessee collected the rebound.

2010: The one with the Gatorade bath

This might be the first time Vol fans actually started to say, “we’re cursed.” Coach Derek Dooley, a regular on this list, lead the Vols to a late fourth quarter lead against highly ranked LSU in Baton Rouge. At this point it had been nearly 4 years since Tennessee had won a big game of any sort. This game meant more to Vol fans than my words can due justice. The defense held strong, tackling the LSU ball carrier short of the end zone as time expired. UT had held on and won the game. As players rushed the field, and the Gatorade was dumped over his head, things looked promising for new coach Derek Dooley. And then they didn’t. Minutes later, the refs called the coaches back together. After reviewing the play, they found that Tennessee had fielded not eleven, not twelve, but thirteen players for the final play. The rules say you can’t do that. A penalty was enforced, the final play was rerun, and LSU scored a game-winning touchdown as time expired.

2011: The other one with the Gatorade bath.

Only months after the Vols devastating win that never was at LSU, they experienced a similar fate in the 2011 Music City Bowl against the UNC Tarheels. Tennessee was up by 2 points as the UNC quarterback attempted a two minute drill, driving down the field to score before time expired. It didn’t go as he had planned. After a big completion, UNC coach Butch Davis choked. He rushed the kicking team onto the field to attempt a field goal, but then called them back in a panic, realizing the clock was going to expire before they could get a kick off. He went into a frenzy, shouting the offense back out to spike the ball, but there wasn’t enough time. The quarterback spiked the ball after the clock struck zero, and the Vols were crowned champions. Until the flags came out. In a dramatic twist of fate, a penalty was called on Carolina for having, ironically, 13 men on the field. Under the rules of the time, a game could not end on a penalty. UNC got one more play due to their own error. They lined up to kick a field goal with the game clock displaying 0:00 left to go. The kick was good. UNC won due to their own penalty. The rules were amended that off season. Twice in one season, Tennessee had won a game, and then lost it.

2011: The one with the barbecue.

Bruce Pearl is the greatest thing that ever happened to Tennessee basketball. He turned a losing program with little tradition into the most exciting show in the southeast in a matter of a few years. His love affair with Vol Nation was unlike anything any other coach at this school, even those with far more success, ever achieved. He was the human embodiment of charisma, and he knew how to coach a little basketball. The governorship was his whenever he decided to retire from basketball.

To say that his firing was devastating to the University and its fans would be an understatement. One year prior, Pearl had violated NCAA rules by hosting a barbecue for recruits at his home. Interaction with recruits is heavily restricted by the NCAA. The investigators had photographic evidence of the barbecue when they came to Knoxville to question Pearl. UT attorneys had knowledge of the photos, but somehow failed to mention that fact to Pearl. Had he admitted to breaking the rules, he would have gotten a slap on the wrist, but he didn’t. He lied to the NCAA, and was barred from coaching for 3 years. Tennessee had no choice but to fire the man who essentially founded its modern basketball program. Tomorrow, he leads the Auburn Tigers against Kentucky for a chance to play in the Final Four.

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