Six years ago Tennessee faced one of its most frustrating football seasons in recent memory. A consensus preseason top five, the Vols struggled to a 5-6 finish with a home loss to Vanderbilt as the icing on the cake. Randy Sanders lost his job, Vol Nation was furious, and no one was happy.
Bruce Pearl walked into that depression quietly, but that changed in a hurry. A Tennessee team picked to finish worse than the one we'll see this winter played their way to a stunning SEC East title and a two seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Vols' first appearance in five years. At one point during that run, Pearl said, "This team got us through the winter," and he was right. From the despair of a football season gone wrong, Pearl resurrected a basketball program and brought something good to Tennessee again. It wasn't just that the 2005-06 Vols won, it was the way they played: hard, tough, the underdog almost every night despite their eventual end result. They weren't just fun to watch because they scored points and shot threes. They were fun to watch because you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were putting their hearts on the floor every single night.
In twenty-four days, the Cuonzo Martin Era will officially begin. It has been another frustrating football season, though for very different reasons. But Martin can't come in quietly, because the guy he follows both lived and left very, very loudly.
It would be just as crazy now as it would've been this time six years ago to say that the head coach's first team is going to have immediate success on a national level. But based on everything we've heard about Martin and his practices, where half the team loses blood, the quality fans should value the most in an underdog should be present.
This should be a team that fights. A team that makes its identity on the defensive end with ferocious ball pressure. A team that embraces the underdog role and plays with a chip on its shoulder and its heart on the line every single night against every single opponent.
A team that no one expects anything from. Except in the last six years, we turned into a program that we expect everything from.
This team could have all the qualities that should make us love and appreciate them...but they carry the baggage of Elite Eight banners and the shadow of Bruce Pearl. Not only is the coaching staff gone, but the entire meaningful experience roster save Cameron Tatum and the Kansas game performances of Renaldo Woolridge and Skylar McBee has disappeared. Almost everyone responsible for the success the program earned is gone.
Now a new coach and inexperienced players step into strange expectations. They'll do so against a schedule fit for the kings they used to be, making Martin's task even more difficult.
Some will leave this team when it becomes clear that they can't compete at the level Pearl did in Year One, which could happen as early as Maui. But if you stay and support them - and if Tennessee Basketball has truly become a good program in the last six years, people will - you might find reason to believe again.
This should be the type of team that people can get behind: the scrappy underdogs, laying it on the line for their new coach and for each other. Don't let what's happened in the past keep you from not only supporting, but enjoying the way this team should play in the present.