This past Saturday night, when Notre Dame had an apparent game-winning touchdown snatched away from them in the final seconds in thrilling matchup with defending national champion Florida State, another “thrilling” game was going on. No, it wasn’t Washington being blown out by Oregon for the eleventh consecutive time. It was that for a very brief moment of fan-tasy, the Tennessee Volunteers, a once proud football program, fooled some people who still remembered the “good old days” into thinking the team was finally on the cusp of that elusive victory that would make it—at least psychologically—relevant again. Early in the second quarter, they actually led unbeaten and third-ranked Ole Miss 3-0.
But this was a team that was 3-3, and was a mediocre team for a reason. 0 yards on 28 runs and three interceptions proved enough. Ole Miss ran off 34 unanswered points and won in the fashion that they should have been expected to. Ever since going 152-52 under Phillip Fulmer, with 8 10+ win seasons and the 1998 National Championship, the Vols have since imploded (at least by the standards of the SEC), losing 38 of 69 games. Boosters, fans and the powers that be had decided that something was “wrong” after Fulmer had two losing seasons in four seasons, instead simply seeing a natural “slump” after many years of unbroken success. Fulmer was forced out, and since then “change” has only brought mediocrity into the mainstream.
Since I was born a Big Ten fan, I don’t actually care all that much about this—except that, well, UT is my alma mater, and so I have this vague interest in what is going on there. When I first arrived, the “big” news was that the team’s presumed starting quarterback, Tony Robinson, had been arrested in his dorm room for marijuana possession, and that was the end of his college career. Robinson happened to be black; it was my feeling at the time that he had been “set-up” or white teammate had “snitched” on him. Robinson had started for the Vols in the 1985 season, but was injured mid-season, and his white replacement led the team to a surprisingly lopsided win over Miami, Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
Considering the fact that the school was 95 percent white, and my impression was that they were all of “privileged” class—a leftover of the antebellum period—I was convinced that someone or someones wanted Robinson out of the way. As it turned out, “justice” was served when Tennessee finished the season 7-5—dropping from 4th in rankings the year before, to out of the polls all together.
Of course, Tennessee was also the alma mater of Peyton Manning, the “golden boy” of Tennessee football. Since I never much cared about Tennessee football (I always rooted for the team to lose when I was there because I hated the late night antics when they won), and of Manning I cared even less. This guy always struck me as being insufferable and arrogant, and it was then as it is now all about him. So the Vols were 32-5 from 1995-1997 and finished in the top ten each year, but they had been expected to win every game with Manning. Yet they could never overcome Florida—or was it that he couldn’t? In 1998, when it wasn’t about Manning anymore, it was about the team. And being a team, they were with a merely “serviceable” quarterback in Tee Martin finally able to accomplish what it had been expected to under Manning: Win it all.
Will the Vols return to relevancy? I suppose you could hum and haw about it. Frankly, I don’t really care. I’m more interested in when Wisconsin is going to get themselves a real quarterback.