Following the Vols is like anything else: you get out of it what you put into it. So while this year has taken its toll on all of us, its brighter moments - though fewer and farther between - still produced the feelings that always keep us coming back to Rocky Top.
So here's a look back at what went right for Tennessee in 2011. Let's hope this post is a little longer in 2012.
Sweeping Vanderbilt in Basketball
The biggest win of last basketball season may have come in December 2010, but it's always good to get the best of our little brother in Nashville. With Tony Jones on the sideline in the orange jacket on January 15, Vanderbilt had a 17 point first half lead in Knoxville. The Vols got it to 10 at the break, then slowly but surely battled back in the second half. Skylar McBee got hot from the outside, and the Vols finally took the lead on a Cameron Tatum three with 3:06 to play. John Jenkins would answer with a three of his own and a pair of free throws pushed Vandy's lead back to three, but the Vols scored the game's final six points, with Tobias Harris getting the go-ahead shot and two late free throws, and Brian Williams stealing Vandy's final inbounds pass for a 67-64 win that sent Tony Jones and the student section into a frenzy.
Six weeks later in Nashville against a ranked Commodore squad, the Vols again fell behind early and were down eleven with thirteen minutes to play. Melvin Goins had 15 points and pulled the Vols close, then Tennessee realized that Vanderbilt couldn't guard Scotty Hopson. It was the smartest Hopson played all year, drawing calls that fouled out Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang on three consecutive trips down the floor as the Vols pulled away 60-51. It is the last good moment of the Bruce Pearl Era.
Hiring Cuonzo Martin
We'll have to wait and see, obviously, but I'm putting this option here because I still very much believe that the Vols not only made the best hire they could've made given the circumstances, but made a better hire than any other school with a job opening this offseason.
Martin's first team has shown us most of the spectrum in just eight games, playing well enough to beat Duke, Memphis, and Pittsburgh but poorly enough to lose to Austin Peay. But his cool demeanor will hopefully bleed through to a team that should continue to grow as the season progresses. Despite the loss to Austin Peay, in the grand scheme of things I still like this hire and like most of what I've seen so far; hopefully we look back on this as a good move in the years to come.
Hiring Dave Serrano
This one too we don't know about yet, but here it literally can't get any worse. Todd Raleigh made Tennessee Baseball irrelevant, but in one hire the Vols may have changed all of that. Serrano, who was with the Todd Helton-Vols in the mid-90s as an assistant, will take over in Knoxville after having guided UC-Irvine and Cal State Fullerton to the College World Series. The hire was widely celebrated and made an instant impact in recruiting. Tennessee hasn't even made the SEC Tournament (top eight teams) since Rod Delmonico left four years ago. Anything will be progress, and under Serrano and with a ton of in-state talent to draw from, the Vols should matter on the diamond again very soon.
Replacing Mike Hamilton with Dave Hart
And once again, we don't know yet. But many Vol fans will celebrate the simple fact that Hamilton - who did a lot of things right from a financial standpoint but put the Vols in bad situations with key coaching decisions - is no longer calling the shots. Hart steps in with experience at Florida State and Alabama, and though we haven't seen The Hitman do anything of great significance in his very short time in the big chair yet, it will be very interesting to see how he handles a trio of new coaches he inherited, the coming merger of the men's and women's athletic departments, and continued facility upgrades. On our podcast with the fine folks from Roll Bama Roll on the Third Saturday of October, they mentioned that the key to turning Alabama around wasn't the Nick Saban hire, it was changes in university leadership above and before him that moved the athletic department in the right direction. The Vols have changed all the players and have a new man calling the shots, with great hope that he can do the same and more for us.
NCAA Investigation ends with no further punishment
The timing on this was weird, coming less than 24 hours after Pat Summitt's diagnosis and just hours before we would learn that Janzen Jackson had been kicked off the football team. But still, it was a huge sigh of relief: the Vols escaped punishment from the NCAA after a lengthy investigation into the football, basketball, and baseball teams. Bruce Pearl suffered the most, and Lane Kiffin may have been in their crosshairs as well, but the Tennessee program defended itself well and escaped any sanctions that could've made the depression of the last few years last even longer. At the time, we thought dawn was breaking for our program and at the very least, it wouldn't get any worse.
Cincinnati: The Shape of Things to Come?
It was fun at the time, but now the win over Cincinnati feels even more important. The game itself found the Vols excelling on both sides of the ball, turning away the Bearcats twice on fourth and one while exploding for an insane thirty-four first downs on offense. Tyler Bray became the first non-Manning to throw for more than 400 yards in the history of Tennessee Football. And most of that came via the hands of Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, who had 10 catches each and were simply unstoppable when they were on the field together...which of course, would be the last time they would be. But at the time, this win stirred the emotions of the past and made us believe we could beat Florida.
The Bearcats went on to win a share of the Big East, and were a really good football team until their quarterback got hurt. But more than that, this game stands as the greatest reason to hope that good things can still happen for Derek Dooley's football team. If what we saw on September 10 in Neyland Stadium manifests itself next fall, we're going to be a very good football team.
Vanderbilt: Instant Victory
It wasn't really instant, but that was really even better: the Vols not only beat their in-state "rivals", but finally came out on the right end of a post-game official review. Tyler Bray's return and Da'Rick Rogers' work on a pair of touchdowns gave the Vols a chance, while Vanderbilt did some Vanderbilt things along the way as well. But it was the defense - Prentiss Waggner at the end of regulation, and Eric Gordon with the play of plays in overtime - that won the day for the Vols.
This was a really fun and dramatic football game, which will probably get forgotten because of what happened in Lexington the following week. And maybe it's best that we don't remember all that well a year in which beating Vanderbilt might be the pinnacle. But in the moment, walking out of Neyland Stadium singing "IT'S GREAT...TO BE...A TENNESSEE VOL!", it felt right.
Here's to the hope that it'll feel right much more often in 2012.