I think it started with the dissension among the fan base about the retention of Phillip Fulmer that practically rose to the level of an all out feud in 2007 and 2008. Then there was 2008, the Season of Constant Sorrow. Defending Lane Kiffin for 14 months after that, well, that'll wear you out, too. Then there was another coaching transition and the player defections and all that comes with that.
And this season, we've had an embarrassing loss at home to Oregon, yet another consecutive loss to Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators, a game against lowly UAB that UT barely won in overtime at home, a 60-second win over LSU that turned into a loss on a penalty, a blowout loss to a reeling Georgia team, and now another blowout loss at home to Alabama. Tide fans for two consecutive visits to Neyland Stadium have danced in the empty aisles to the tune of Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer in the fourth quarter as Vol fans dirged their way to their cars and tried to unhear and unsee what they'd witnessed in our own stadium.
Add to all of that the remnants of potential NCAA violations left behind by Kiffin and his staff and the blackening cloud hanging over Bruce Pearl and the basketball program, and yeah, it's a heavy yoke to bear as a fan.
And that's just it. I'm a fan. Sure, one that's devoted five years of discretionary time writing about the team, but still just a fan. Nothing compared to the players, whose fatigue must be absolutely overwhelming at this point. They've been spending all of themselves in pursuit of a payoff that is nowhere in sight, and I feel for them.
"Rebuilding" is a curious term to apply to a football program. In one sense, it's appropriate. If the program has been decimated or altogether razed to the ground, you start again with the vision, and you hire the architects and the contractors and the subs, and you put them to work giving form and substance to the dream. If you've ever built something from out of thin air, you know that it's a long, arduous process, but the tasks completed and the milestones achieved along the way provide the necessary positive feedback to propel you to the next task the next day. And the day after that. And on and on until finally you step back and see that the vision is in fact taking shape.
In another sense, though, "rebuilding" isn't really an appropriate metaphor, not unless the builder and his delegates are opposed in every goal by someone taller, faster, stronger, and more experienced whose own pursuit of success must necessarily come by depriving you of any visible means to measure your own progress. A new quarterback needs extra time to do well, but Tennessee doesn't have the o-line necessary to give them that. A new o-line could benefit from an accurate, experienced, and, most importantly, quick QB to make up for its deficiencies, yet the Vols don't have that. Receivers and running backs depend on the QB and the o-line. A defense depends in part on the offense, and in part on its own strength, weight, and depth, but we just don't have any of that, and we're lacking experience and numbers to boot all across the board. So are we getting any better? How can we possibly know when each Saturday someone's dropping by to shred our blueprints, take advantage of our deficiencies, and impede our progress?
But here's what I keep telling myself. We are right now where most of us predicted we would be: 2-5 and on game three of a four-game losing streak. We may have underestimated the frustration we'd feel in the midst of that streak, and that may be justified by perceived missed opportunities we didn't expect to have against LSU and Georgia. We might not be feeling very good about the pre-season prediction about the back end of the season, either, but we do have the record we thought we'd have at this point in time. The same thing will be true if UT loses next week.
The real test is yet to come, after South Carolina, when Tennessee concludes the season with Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. Most fans here at RTT predicted before the season that we'd win all four of those and finish with a 6-6 regular season record. Right now, that may seem over-optimistic, especially the Kentucky game. But even if this team finishes 5-7, I think that may say more about underestimating 2010 Kentucky than it says about overestimating 2010 Tennessee.
Wins and losses may not be the only way to measure improvement in football programs, but they are the milestones that matter most. As bad as the news seems in the midst of the middle of this season, the good news is that the modest goals for 2010 -- those that provide some tangible evidence of improvement of the program -- are still attainable. The possibility of a payoff remains, but only if the team can overcome its great disappointment and fatigue and continue to pursue it.