In the summer of 2008, with gas prices at their highest and the rural community I live in facing unprecedented economic hardship, a moral dilemma presented itself. An employee at one of the area gas stations - which are at least 15 miles in any direction from the "town" of Ceres where I live - accidentally keyed in the wrong price. The sign showed $3.99, but the pump read $2.99. You pull up to the pump. What do you do?
The majority of the people I've asked about this situation have tried to find the middle ground: fill up at $2.99, then go inside and tell the cashier the price is wrong, "just so you know". Maybe you even offer to pay the extra dollar per gallon, knowing they probably won't ask you to now that the transaction is complete. Because who in that situation is really going to see the incorrect price, then go inside and tell them it's wrong without taking advantage of it?
Pastor Will didn't. I paid at the pump for $2.99, filled up and drove away. I tried to rationalize it away - that the gas company didn't need the money as much as people in the community needed a break - and confessed to it in the sermon the following Sunday. People told me they understood it, of course...I just couldn't make it feel right.
I can't make Thursday night feel right. It felt wrong in the stands, it felt wrong on the long walk back across that bridge and the drive home, and it still feels wrong today.
But I do understand.
I understand why T.J. Yates spiked the ball with 17 players on the field. Whether he was savvy, smart, acted on instinct or heard Butch Davis screaming for him to do so, it doesn't matter. North Carolina committed an offensive penalty that allowed them to win the game. It feels wrong because it is wrong, and a ten second runoff is surely in our future. There are even some Carolina fans who will agree that a ten second runoff should be in place there, the middle ground of the Music City Bowl after they've had it both ways. But if I was T.J. Yates, I would've spiked that ball too. It feels wrong, but it wasn't against the rules. I understand.
I understand those Carolina fans too.
If our roles were reversed, I would not apologize. While penalties and rule interpretations can be debated (and have been: Exhibit A - Exhibit B - Exhibit C), whatever happened, happened...and it did not happen any other way. The game is over, and North Carolina won. Had the shoe been on the other foot, I would've celebrated like crazy and spent a minimal amount of time defending an outcome that the national coordinator of officials called the correct one. (His choice of words will be funny to me one day in the future, saying the fact that Carolina benefited from their own penalty "seems a little awkward." You think?)
Frankly, if our roles were reversed I wouldn't care at all what UNC fans thought about it, or how long they went on about it. This would be even more true if their athletic director had bought out a home-and-home in the following years because they were fearful of their ability to compete against such a schedule...which is the one thing I still don't understand about this whole situation, and would've been the one thing that could've made Thursday night a little easier to swallow: the presence of "By God, we'll get you next year" would've at least given us something potentially positive to dwell on walking back across that bridge, something to quiet the Inner Fan who just wanted to jump off of it instead.
I understand Yates intentionally getting a penalty, and I understand Carolina fans not caring about anything other than the win. I would've done the same.
And it's the same thing for the person who could've stopped it all. Exhibit D is the umpire: when an offense brings new personnel on the field for a substitution, it's the umpire's job to stand over the football and prevent a snap until the defense has had a chance to bring in their new personnel. Derek Dooley thought the umpire moved away from the ball too quickly in Baton Rouge. In Nashville, the umpire placed the ball quickly after the run play - trying to give Carolina a fair chance - and then walked away from it entirely with his back turned.
I'm not sure if he turned around with enough time left to see half of Carolina's field goal unit hit the field. But I do think he didn't turn around because he assumed the same thing all of us assumed: they're not going to substitute, they're going to spike the ball. Why wouldn't they?
(It just twists the knife deeper to know that the Vols were beat twice, in a way, because the other team was so insane, it accidentally worked to their advantage. Both LSU and UNC tried to substitute with far, far too little time left on the clock. In Baton Rouge, the Vols responded to that insanity in kind, and it cost us. In Nashville, I'm not sure the umpire ever even saw it...because the thought that they would go ahead and try to kick instead of spiking it on third down really was that crazy.)
If that umpire turns around and sees 17 people on the field, and then he does his job by standing over the football to prevent a snap, Tennessee wins the game. To me, that one makes it hurt the most.
But even here, I understand. In the heat of the moment, if I was that umpire I'm not sure I would've turned around in time either.
North Carolina won. Tennessee lost. I'm not sure it will ever stop feeling wrong.
What the Vols have to do now is carry themselves into 2011 with more than just the wrong feeling and a bad taste in their mouths.
We said at the start of the season that you would want to cheer for this team more than most. What the departing seniors have been through is certainly unique, but that's not always a good thing. Gerald Jones - a guy who made big plays in an SEC Championship Game that now seems like it happened in another lifetime - summed up the experience like this:
"I don’t know why things would happen like that to us, especially the seniors, man. All we did was work hard and buy into every system there was, to every new coach there was, and we fought our hardest. It’s like, ‘Did we deserve that? What did we do to deserve that?’
"But that’s just the way it is."
No one is more heartbroken over the Music City Bowl than those guys. What Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, Nick Reveiz, Chris Walker, Luke Stocker, and the rest of those guys deserved - even Daniel Lincoln - was a happy ending. That was the way the story was supposed to go.
But what's also true is that we at Tennessee don't define ourselves by what we do in the Music City Bowl.
If Derek Dooley is the man for the job, he'll prove it by doing more important things in more important places than Nashville in December. And if he's not, we'll be spending more time there.
These Vols didn't get their happy ending, but it doesn't mean their story is unsuccessful. Whatever good Derek Dooley does here, they will always be its foundation. The last word may have been spoken on their individual UT careers...but not their collective legacy. And whether it's 2011 or a later date, if Dooley gets us where we want to go, we should all remember the guys who gave their all for Tennessee for the journey's first steps.
(It also seems appropriate somewhere in the midst of these 2,000 words to point out that their struggles as players do not define them as people, and may ultimately make them better in that department, something many of them already seem to have a handle on. These are the cliches we're not used to having to fall back on, because we're not familiar with how to respond to an 18-20 record over the last three seasons.)
The burden of making that record and our future different is now off the seniors, and on the collection of talent assembled by three different coaching staffs that remains.
Consider this: barring injury, 2011 will be the last time anyone who played for Phillip Fulmer plays for the Vols.
The group that remains is a snapshot of what we've been through in the last four years, a unique collection of players that will inherit both the bad taste of the Music City Bowl and the expectations of a hungry fan base. The 2011 Vols will contain players who were:
- Recruited by Fulmer, Played for Fulmer (Tauren Poole, Ben Martin)
- Recruited by Fulmer, Played for Kiffin (David Oku, Montori Hughes)
- Recruited by Kiffin, Played for Kiffin (Janzen Jackson, Marsalis Teague)
- Recruited by Kiffin, Played for Dooley (Tyler Bray, Eric Gordon)
- Recruited by Dooley, Played for Dooley (Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers)
We knew many of the 2010 seniors would be key contributors before the season began, despite the small sample size. Who are the 2011 seniors who will step up and fill their void?
The list of junior contributors from this year's team reads like this: Anthony Anderson, Art Evans, Malik Jackson, Austin Johnson, Tauren Poole, Cody Pope, Shane Reveiz, Mychal Rivera, Matt Simms, Rae Sykes, Daryl Vereen. That's eleven players, twelve when you throw in Ben Martin. We're not sure if Art Evans or Cody Pope will return, Malik Jackson and Mychal Rivera just got here, and Reveiz, Simms, and Sykes may not see any meaningful action.
When the new Vols look for leadership, they won't find any guys who've been contributing for the past three years as this team enjoyed with Jones, Moore, and Stocker. Whatever bond exists among the 2011 seniors, it's relatively new...which makes the upcoming offseason absolutely critical.
Tennessee will rely on so many sophomores in 2011, it's entirely possible if not probable that much of the leadership on the new team will have to come from somewhere besides the senior class. That's not to say that Tauren Poole isn't a leader or that Malik Jackson can't be one because he's only been here one season...but this is a very random group of players all thrown together...and under Dooley's watchful eye, they'll have to develop chemistry and find leadership between now and September.
But as we also know, the questions about leadership outnumber the questions about talent. And while depth will still be an issue in some places, inexperience is no longer a factor.
It's obviously unfair to expect championships from a team that just went 6-7, and competitiveness in year one is no guarantee for success down the road. In Buzz Peterson's first year, the basketball Vols lost eight games by three points or less in a 15-16 season. We applauded his effort and the team's heart, wished we'd been able to write a better ending but assumed better days were ahead. We were wrong.
With Dooley, all we know is what we've seen so far. And while the Year One ending wasn't what we wanted and may never feel right, we like what we've got coming back for Year Two. We won't enter the year with championship expectations coming from outside the program, but we will enter a year where the SEC East will be completely up for grabs.
If this collection of players can be motivated by more than the bad taste of the Music City Bowl, but a continued belief in The Process - look in the mirror, make yourself better, and put the outcome in your own hands instead of the officials' - then Dooley and the Vols will continue to move forward.
The seniors have laid the foundation. I believe with this coach and this team, it will not fall.