Coronavirus outbreak not first time SEC nearly forced Vols to play amid crisis

The SEC Tournament nearly forced the Tennessee Volunteers to play amid the coronavirus outbreak. COVID-19 is not the first time that happened.

It was barely over an hour ahead of tipoff before the Southeastern Conference cancelled its tournament Thursday amid the coronavirus. Tennessee basketball was set to face the Alabama Crimson Tide at 1 p.m. ET. However, as we reported here, Rick Barnes spoke out against it immediately beforehand.

Less than five minutes after reports of what he said were brought to light, the league announced the cancellation of the tournament. Barnes and many other people expressed their relief, but this all came amidst a PR backlash.

Unfortunately for Rocky Top, the coronavirus is not the first time in the past two decades that the SEC nearly forced UT to compete amidst a crisis. In fact, the league has a history of trying to force games and then backing off.

Let’s go back to 2001. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, leagues across the country were cancelling games. Most NCAA football games that following Saturday were cancelled. One conference, though, initially decided against it.

Yes, the SEC was actually going to proceed with its slate of games that weekend. Tennessee football was going to face the Florida Gators, and they clearly did not want to lose out on the benefits of that rivalry game. At the time, that was the peak game in the SEC every year.

You can read this column from 2011 by Jon Solomon on AL.com about what the SEC was planning to do. The attacks happened Tuesday. On Wednesday, they announced games would still occur. According to Solomon, the league only cancelled the games after the MLB and NFL announced cancellation of games that week on Thursday.

Of course, that set up the Dec. 1 showdown between the Vols and the Gators later that year, which is considered a watershed moment in the rivalry. UT beat Florida when they were ranked No. 2 in The Swamp for the first time in 30 years, and they won the SEC East as a result. The SEC overcame that stain, but it was a horrible look for two days.

Four years later, though, the league tried something even worse. With Hurricane Rita set to hit Louisiana, the SEC was seriously considering forcing the Vols and LSU Tigers to play their game on Saturday night, Sept. 24.

Hurricane Katrina had already devastated the state and forced the LSU Tigers to postpone a game with the North Texas Mean Green and then turn their home game with the Arizona State Sun Devils into a road game under first-year head coach Les Miles. Amidst all that, Tennessee was set to be their first home game.

Once again, with Rita coming down, the SEC did not make a decision until the Thursday before. At the time, LSU officials were still looking to have the game played on the weekend. UT either wanted it moved to the end of the season or postponed a couple of days.

The league finally made the decision to postpone it. However, that didn’t come until UT athletic director Mike Hamilton was prepared to forfeit the game, a report from that time you can read about here.

Was the SEC seriously going to try to force that game to happen if not for that threat? We don’t know. But we do know that they didn’t back off and postpone the game until Hamilton came out with that threat.

Now, over 14 years later, the league did not cancel its tournament due to the coronavirus until Barnes publicly criticized them. So under all three commissioners this century, the Vols have been in an incident in which they were about to be forced to play a game by the SEC amid a crisis.

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To be fair, the league ended up making the right decision all three times. With the coronavirus outbreak, they first tried to play games with no fans. And in their forever trend of being behind, the NCAA is still trying that avenue for the tournament. But at least the SEC came to the right decision. For some reason, it just always seems to be late.