The Volunteer State of Mind – The State of the Union


The Volunteer State of mind is a series about the lifestyle of the Volunteer fan by Staff Writer Jake Smith. It is less about on the field and more about in the stands, including everything from going to games, to tailgating, to life on campus. 

“Knoxville is the greatest place on Earth!” is what I have always been told.  Growing up a “true” Tennessee Vols fan has been quite the adventure.  Being a young child during the Decade of Dominance made it easy to love the Vols, however being a high school and new college student during recent turmoils has made it challenging to support the Big Orange.

In a new era of sports emphasis through the media conglomerate ESPN, news coverage means more to a program than most things.  Although we won the first BCS title in 1998, it is rarely noted because the college sports scene is an instantaneous world where up to the minute news becomes old after 1 week.  Thats such a shame for programs that have history.

Waking up each morning for me consists of rolling over and switching on my TV and listening to Sports Center as I get ready for class.  Less than 1% of the time do I get to hear news about my Vols.  Its such a shame.  NSD was cool, until I saw Vanderbilt was ranked only 2 spots below us in the top 25 classes.  I’m not complaining, but I’m also not happy.  Being from Nashville, I’ve grown up seeing the mediocracy of the Vanderbilt football program, but now they have me worried.  What makes their program so appealing that they can actually recruit now? And why do my Vols have a hard time playing them these days? I witnessed a thrilling overtime victory against the ‘Dores this past fall.  The only thing wrong with that statement are the words “thrilling” and “overtime.”  Not once in my lifetime can I remember, or want to remember, Vanderbilt giving us a close game.  I do have the experience of the 2005 game, leaving early with my father and my friend to head back home as we had thought the game was wrapped up for another Tennessee victory.  Listening to the radio on the way back home scarred me as I heard Bob Kesling utter the final score.  I was speechless.  In my book, this was the day that the University of Tennessee football program would start its slow decline into what it is today.

We had managed to sneak in a season of 9 wins and then have a 10 win season after that, however our minor 2 year “high” took a turn for the worst in 2008.  I enjoyed those 2 seasons but still couldn’t forget the Vanderbilt loss.  It left a bad taste in my mouth.  The 2006 and 2007 seasons lifted my spirits but Coach Fulmer would soon relapse.  Perhaps a great recruiting class would help, but it only exposed the laziness of the Volunteers coaching staff.  A sending off of the Alumni/Championship Coach left many long time Vol fans angry.  Not me, it opened my eyes to the new era of a program.  Coach Fulmer left a “huge” space to fill.  The Athletic Department went searching soon after only to stumble out west, which is never a good idea.  They brought in someone who knew nothing about the program but did know a thing or two about coaching football as well as talking smack.  Heck, he was even name dropped in a Lil’ Wayne song.  That sure looks good for our program, doesn’t it? But I digress, I’m not going to waste any time rambling on about the west coast coaching outlaw.

2010 started off with a shaky concern of how my Vols would do this season.  The hiring of Coach Dooley left me with little information to base my opinion on, but as a “good” fan I put faith in him like a “good” fan should.  People would ask why I liked him, my only response was that he was from the South and he had a National Championship as Nick “Satan” Saban’s assistant at LSU.  That holds some kind of significance in the coaching world, I think.  His span at Louisiana Tech didn’t help his resumé.  So with a championship ring, athletic director experience and a law degree,  I was optimistic to say the least.  Unfortunately for Coach Dooley, the college football world has turned into a society where instant wins are the only reason to keep a coach around.  Up here on Rocky Top, we hold winning to a standard and if the wins are not produced, then fans aren’t happy, Neyland isn’t sold out and recruits shy away.

Here we stand, 2 years into the Dooley administration, there is a waffling of the fanbase, unrest in the Athletic Department and Coach Dooley’s momma hitting the airways doesn’t make us look too good.  I am in his favor and my faith has stayed in place but defending him has become a science.  Searching for deeper reasons to keep my faith has turned into an excuse making event due to his lack of wins.  1 SEC victory doesn’t sit very well.  Coach Dooley’s locker room exclamation after the Vanderbilt win led me to believe that he and I have a different vocabulary when it comes to winning a game.  Losing to Kentucky for the first time since 1984 ought to make Coach Dooley embarrassed to wear Orange.  Watching that game was the hardest thing that I had done all during my first semester on the Hill.  No excuse could explain that loss other than having a few airheads in the coaching staff and possibly on the field.  Wildcat or should I say “WildVol” sets were attempted during the game.  I hadn’t thought we had stooped down that low to have to actually use the “WildVol” plays.  The worst part was that Kentucky had just beaten us using their style of the Wildcat while we managed to reach the endzone once and miss a couple of field goals.  The season ended as a major disappointment, but more importantly, without a bowl game.

Thankfully it is currently the offseason for the football team.  You can’t lose in the offseason.  Scratch that, we lost part of our coaching staff.  Replacing them with old names such as Jay Graham provides a bit of comfort but bringing in no-names leaves more to worry about.  Recruiting can always look good during the offseason.  Thanks to Youtube, every recruit looks impressive.  Remember though that their highlights are against high school talent and not SEC Championship talent.  This is one of the reasons I cannot get hyped for NSD, nor do I follow Tennessee recruiting that heavily.  Its not what these youngins did in high school, its what they will have the heart to do once they strap on the shoulder pads for the Big Orange.  I value walk-ons like Nick Reveis who earned his starting spot through hard work and determination rather than those who sign their LOIs and end up doing nothing on the field.  So those of you who get excited over 3, 4, and 5 star recruits, keep dreaming.  These are kids who have yet to step on a collegiate field where they realize that they are no longer the best player on the team.  The standouts from each class will develop either quickly or slowly but don’t always expect it to happen.  There is also the Orange and White game, which we have to win, but that game is never a good indicator of our season.  Thus it is almost pointless to watch unless you are missing football that bad.

Sadly, there is not enough good to reflect on from this past season, only a threatening future to anxiously wait for.  As a Vol fan and student I am hoping to see the brighter days before I leave campus for good.  As always, stay faithful in the program, don’t ride bandwagons, be a Vol For Life, and Go Big Orange.