Basketball: 21-8 (12-6)
*NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
Football: 5-6 (3-3)
Don DeVoe and Johnny Majors were working together at this point, having been hired one year apart, to rebuild the Tennessee Vols men’s basketball program and the Tennessee Vols football program respectively. But at this point, DeVoe had the upper hand. He inherited a program Ray Mears had built. Majors inherited a program in disarray.
Anyway, this year saw Majors in his fourth year and DeVoe in his third. DeVoe had returning key players Howard Wood as a senior, Gary Carter as a junior, and the star of the early 1980s, Dale Ellis, as a freshman.
Meanwhile, Majors’s construction of the football program was due for a step back after its first bowl appearance under him in 1979 and then a ton of turnover. Add in the brutal start to the schedule, and Majors really had no chance.
The Tennessee Vols opened the season in football against the Georgia Bulldogs, who would eventually win the national championship that year, and the USC Trojans, who were ranked No. 5 at the time. They lost those games 16-15 and 20-17 to start off 0-2.
Despite beating the Washington State Cougars, Auburn Tigers and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, their miserable schedule continued, as they lost to the No. 1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and eventual co-national champion Pittsburgh Panthers, who were a program Majors built and being led by Jackie Sherrill. So this team had been brutalized by this schedule.
That beatdown resulted in a homecoming loss to the Virginia Cavaliers and then another upset loss to the Ole Miss Rebels, as UT was wrecked mentally en route to a 5-6 campaign. Hey, they still beat the Vanderbilt Commodores and Kentucky Wildcats.
Meanwhile, Tennessee basketball was a different story. Their season began the Wednesday after the football team’s last game, and it started off rough with a road loss to the Auburn Tigers. But these guys then won nine straight, including two top 25 wins, to hit the top 10 by mid-January.
In the regular season, they had to face the Kentucky Wildcats and LSU Tigers, two top 5 teams, twice. And they only went 1-3 against them. They also lost twice to the Ole Miss Rebels, once in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
But DeVoe’s team still did enough to reach the NCAA Tournament. And in the Big Dance, the Vols scored an OT win over VCU in the opener. As a result, they had over 20 wins, finished in the top 25 and reached the Sweet 16. Those accomplishments made the men’s basketball program in 1980-1981 significantly more successful than the football program.