The last two days of 2010 found us on the wrong end of the Music City Bowl fiasco and losing to Charleston by thirteen points in Thompson-Boling Arena. The headline on our recap of the latter read, "2011 can't get here fast enough."
This year still has twenty days left, but I'm ready to call it now. The fact is, this post could've been written before we lost to Austin Peay on Saturday; I'm worried if we don't just go ahead say it like it is now we might go oh-for-the-state in basketball this month just to hammer home the point.
Is this the worst year in the history of Tennessee athletics?
We can debate the "merits" of our football team - we've got time, since we're not filling this space with any bowl previews. I'd lean toward words like "least talented" over "worst"; the 2008 season was much more painful, to me, both in terms of the product on the field and the consequences for our head coach. But though football is the breadwinner, you have to consider men's and women's basketball when taking the overall pulse of Vol Nation; in 2008 the men were ranked #1 in February and the women won it all in April.
So the most recent contender to 2011's claim is 2005, the final year of Buzz Peterson and Randy Sanders on campus. 1988 may also be a popular choice, when the Vols started 0-6 in football. And I'm sure there are others before my time.
Things can always get worse, of course - the football team could lose eight games for the first time ever, or the basketball team could repeat Wade Houston's 5-22 campaign. And every year is unique. But when we take everything into account, I'm willing to go as far as saying that 2011 is at least the worst year I've ever experienced in my thirty years of life. And if there's something worse than this year in UT's past, I'm not sure I want to know about it.
So after the jump, we'll take a look back at everything that went wrong this year, a trip down memory lane through the RTT archives. It's always enlightening to go back and read not just the posts, but the comments. And cheer up: tomorrow, we'll take a look at the best moments of 2011.
On to the madness...
(All orange links take you to RTT's story on these events as they happened)
The basketball team had already begun their turn when the calendar hit January 2011. Bruce Pearl began his eight game suspension as SEC play unfolded, with the Vols going 5-3 under Tony Jones. Pearl would actually fare worse against a more difficult back-half, as the Vols finished SEC play 8-8. Particularly frustrating were a pair of losses to Florida, in overtime in Knoxville and by one point in Gainesville.
Limping into the NCAA Tournament, what was perhaps obvious to the powers that be all along suddenly became clear to Tennessee Basketball fans. In a brutal six day period, Mike Hamilton stunningly gave Pearl the death sentence of "will be evaluated at the end of the season" in an ill-advised radio interview on Wednesday, just 48 hours before the Vols faced Michigan in an 8/9 game in the NCAA Tournament. It was the final insult to a team that had spent all year breaking under the situation, and Michigan tore us apart by thirty points in a second half beatdown.
We immediately turned our thoughts to the topic that caused the most disagreement on our site all year: Save Bruce Pearl. I vividly remember sitting in a hotel room in Kentucky and writing that post, feeling like everything good about Tennessee Basketball was getting ready to senselessly slip right through our hands. The paragraph in italics in that post turned out to be true: the NCAA gave the Vols no choice (which is to say, Bruce Pearl gave the Vols no choice), and Tennessee couldn't have kept their coach in the face of a three year show cause penalty. And they didn't: Pearl was fired on March 21.
But the lengths I and many others were willing to go to argue for him to stay shows just how much Pearl meant to us. The way the basketball season unfolded would've been bad enough, or just the single act of getting blown out by 30 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But to lose the savior of our basketball program over a BBQ and a lie...it remains senseless, stupid, and tragic.
The last really good year Tennessee Athletics had was 2007: Lady Vols won their first title in almost a decade, football team won the SEC East, and Pearl got us to the Sweet 16 for the first time in his tenure. But consider 2010, with Lane Kiffin's midnight ride and the LSU and North Carolina losses. It was only the basketball team's magical run to the Elite Eight that saved us, a season that remains my favorite to write about. It's the pinnacle of Tennessee Basketball...but because all of this happened with Pearl so soon after it, and now he's gone, its memory is a bit tainted...and the dominant emotion surrounding Pearl isn't celebration, but tragedy.
The year went on; the Lady Vols made it to the Elite Eight but fell to Notre Dame 73-59. Then the worst case scenario unfolded for the men: Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson went pro, while incoming freshmen Chris Jones and Kevin Ware both decided to attend college elsewhere. We headed into the dead months of May, June, and July with a new basketball coach and the hope that the football team would show real improvement in Derek Dooley's second season.
Along the way, the Vols fired baseball coach Todd Raleigh on May 23. We found out about Herman Lathers' fractured ankle on June 4, which would cause him to miss the entire 2011 season. And then three days later, Mike Hamilton resigned his position as athletic director - some will argue that was a good thing, and I'm not here to disagree, but the fact that Tennessee lost its basketball coach, baseball coach, and athletic director in a span of less than three months speaks to exactly what kind of year it was. The Vols self-imposed a two year probation on July 23.
In many ways, the hardest day of the year was August 23. Pat Summitt's disclosure of her early onset dementia blindsided all of us, a new way for life to be cruel to Tennessee fans. Both Brad and Chris had great thoughts on this the day it happened.
The very next day, Janzen Jackson was dismissed from the football team. We argued the move was bad for the present but good for the future of Tennessee Football; while I do think it fundamentally changed Tennessee's defense, I'd still agree with that argument today.
And then, there were two weeks of joy. We'll talk more about them tomorrow, but the first two weeks of Tennessee's football season felt exactly the way we remembered them feeling in the good old days: hope was real and so were points. It's not that any of us thought we were "back"...but this year, in this SEC East, we all felt realistic in having hope that the Vols could beat Florida and get to Atlanta.
That all went down when Justin Hunter did. And that's the thing about this year: the feeling was so very familiar. The way you felt when Hunter crumpled to the ground and the first three letters you heard in your head where A, C, and L? It's the same feeling we got when Bruce Pearl was fired, when the Summitt news was released, and the same feeling that would eventually make its way to Lexington: "I can't believe that just happened, how will we ever recover?" Hunter's ACL wasn't the first gut punch of the year, but because it was football, it may have made the biggest impact. The Gators won for the seventh year in a row, just another cup of cruelty for the Vols.
Fate reloaded and dealt the Vols another body blow at the end of the Georgia game, as Tyler Bray broke his thumb on a defender's helmet. That led directly to a pair of 31 point beatings at the hands of the two teams that will play for the National Championship.
And yet somehow, it felt like it kept getting even worse. With Justin Worley making his first start, the Vols lost an agonizing game to South Carolina 14-3, and for the first time we started questioning the head coach. MTSU was only the interlude; up next was the worst loss of my entire life, a 42 point beatdown at Arkansas.
We'll get to Vanderbilt tomorrow, though it's worth pointing out here that a good indicator of the quality of your year is "beat Vanderbilt in football" showing up as perhaps its greatest highlight. But once that was done, at least we had the bowl game to look forward to. At least positive momentum, even if only by a thread, could be saved.
And then all arguments for patience and all hope of positive momentum went right out the window against Kentucky. It's fresh, so of course you still remember that not just any Kentucky team broke our 26 year hold, but one that hadn't played within a possession of any other non-Ole Miss SEC team, and one playing a wide receiver at quarterback. Not only did the loss break the streak and keep Tennessee home for the holidays, it ensured the longest of offseasons with all the pressure now on Derek Dooley in Year Three.
Did I mention we just lost to 1-9 Austin Peay in basketball?
The unique and tragic fall of Bruce Pearl, the sad and stunning news of Pat Summitt's health, and a football season with more injuries and blowouts than any of us can remember, all capped off with a loss to Kentucky for the first time in many of our entire lives?
This is as bad as it gets.
Now it's time to start getting better.