My earliest memories of Tennessee football came around a campfire. I can remember as a young boy sitting next to my uncle on a family camping trip, huddled around a bonfire, as he listened to Tim Priest and Bob Kessling call the Georgia game. I can’t remember what year it was. The final score escapes me. Who knows if Tennessee even won. What I do remember, is for the first time in my life, feeling a sense of belongingness to that University. Uncle Larry and I cooked hot dogs, while cousins, uncles and grandparents popped in and out of campers, requesting updates from the only guy with a radio signal. We are Tennessee people, I remember thinking. For me, being a fan of a different team was always beyond contemplation.
Tonight as I write this post, I am huddled around a campfire again. Looking into it, I reminisce on my fond memories of Tennessee football: Gerald Jones’ overtime touchdown against Kentucky to send us to the SEC Championship, Jauan Jennings touchdown catch against Flordia, the day Rico McCoy and Gerrod Mayo shut down Darren McFadden. Those memories are now distant and elusive, uncapturable as the bonfire smoke that escapes through my fingers.
“Tonight Tennessee reached a new low,” a phrase I’ve no doubt written dozens of times at this point. This time it feels different though. I cannot shake the feeling that deep, lasting damage has been dealt to our ball club’s brand. Over its last four games, Tennessee has been defeated and outscored by Missouri, Vanderbilt, Georgia State and Brigham Young by a combine total of 155-76. We are in the midst of the worst four game stretch in the illustrious history of this football program, and I cannot think of a close second. Tennessee finds itself on the level of a typical Vanderbilt team, if not worse.
Fingers will be pointed. Who is to blame? I don’t know, but does it matter? This ship is sinking. I pride myself in sports and in life in not being a reactionary, but this is different. Jeremy Pruitt has demonstrated an inability to lead this football team to wins. Repeated losses to grossly inferior competition have nothing to do with recruiting, schematics or play calling. They have everything to do with leadership and culture building. Can anyone truly profess that they believe we are in a better spot today than we were a year ago? Who could argue that this thing is headed in the right direction? Would anyone protest if I proclaimed, dare I say it, that Butch Jones would be 2-0 right now?
This football team is more talented than Vandy and Missouri, and grossly more talented than BYU and Georgia State (who by the way barely escaped at home against D2 Furman tonight.) Its coaches and coordinators are highly touted, with resumes full of successes in other situations at the same level. It appears that this team has a deep character problem, and that falls squarely at the feet of the man in charge of building its character, Jeremy Pruitt. This program is in a death spiral, and corrective action must be taken.
I remember the day the Vols lost at home to Wyoming, the week after Fulmer was axed. I’ve been present for every home Florida blowout loss in the last decade. On a bitter October day in 2010, I paused family vacation to sit glued to a TV screen in Ogden, Utah as the Vols beat and then lost to LSU in the same day. Before this month, I’d have said nothing more could surprise me when it came to Tennessee football. After all, how many times can one team hit rock bottom? Through all of that, the highs and lows that have come with a lifetime of fandom, I find myself tonight utterly at a loss for words. UT hasn’t simply reached a new low, it has redefined the possible.
My fire is burning low now. Before long it will be nothing more than a sizzling pile of ash, barely resembling the blazing inferno that lit up the night just an hour ago. I no longer recognize the hot ash heap that is Tennessee football. It has crossed over into uncharted territory. If something isn’t done soon, if the right man doesn’t come along to stoke the embers, the fire will go out entirely, and Vol fans will be left writhing in the dark, telling their children and grandchildren unbelievable stories about a time when this football pariah was a powerhouse.