On Patience & Paying Dues in the SEC

Living in southwest Virginia for the last six years, Virginia Tech has become my secondary team. The Hokies have won 10+ games eight years in a row, the only school in the nation to do that. They've won the ACC Coastal Division five of the last seven years, won the ACC Championship three of the last five years, and played in BCS bowl games four of the last five years. And after several less glamorous matchups in their three previous BCS appearances (Kansas, Cincinnati, Stanford), now they get to face the team that's won more college football games than any other. In New Orleans, no less, after three straight trips to Miami (when I was talking about this point tonight after church, someone instantly and rightfully said, "You forgot one.")

The vast, vast majority of college football fans would trade their team's last eight years for what's gone on in Blacksburg. But though the Hokies continue to pack Lane Stadium every Thursday/Saturday, ticket sales for their Sugar Bowl matchup with Michigan have been way down: two weeks in, Virginia Tech has barely sold half of their allotment according to The Roanoke Times. There are reasons both good and bad for that, but it's interesting to read the "Virginia Tech fans speak out" section at the end of that article, as well as this story and the comments from Gobbler Country. (And to be fair, perhaps I'm failing to understand why everyone wouldn't want pay hundreds of dollars and travel hundreds of miles to put a beatdown on Michigan; maybe that's just us.) But I say all of that to say this: whether it's at the top of the list or simply on it, complacency is a significant factor in Virginia Tech's lagging ticket sales. They win at an extraordinary rate...and they're far too used to it.

See, I remember when Tennessee was the school that traveled well. And I also remember how few people cared about playing in our third straight Bowl Alliance/BCS game after the 1999 season when the Vols faced Nebraska at the end of a 9-2 campaign that was one or two plays away from being a chance at a repeat National Championship. The Vols went 54-8 from 1995-1999, winning a pair of SEC Championships and the big prize in 1998. Winning wasn't just what we did, it was who we were.

That stretch of years is why I laugh every time someone described a loss this season as "the worst, ever." Because even though Arkansas became the first team to beat us by 40+ in my lifetime and we lost to Kentucky for the first time since 1984, the cold and sad fact is losses don't hurt nearly as much when you're so used to them. The first seven of those losses during that 95-99 run were devastating. The eighth was Nebraska in that bowl game that we decided we didn't really care about, because a BCS at-large bid wasn't good enough for Tennessee.

You know why the best coaches and athletes usually say they hate losing more than they love winning? It's because winning is just another weekend for them. When you're that good, it's losing that stands out.

And when you're this bad, losing is normal. And you tell yourself that if you ever got back - whatever you've decided that looks like - you'll never, ever be complacent again. Because you've lost for so long, now you start to realize that what you once took completely for granted - "Tennessee is good at football" - was and is never guaranteed.

The good news here is, we're not alone.

It's probably also in our nature as fans to assume that whatever is happening to us is better or worse than whatever has happened to anyone else. No team has ever had a defense they believed in more than we did in 1998. No team has ever had a quarterback they loved more than we love Peyton Manning.

And of course, no program has gone through as difficult a time as we have in the last four years.

But Tennessee's struggles, while unique in their specific details, are not generally alone. In fact, if we take a look at our contemporaries in the SEC, we'll find at least a few similarities in the last thirty years.

To be a college football fan for life is to embrace the roller coaster. If you're of my generation, there was no way to understand this when the Vols were winning from 1989-2001, a remarkable period when Tennessee won at least nine games eleven out of thirteen years, and only went 8-4 in the other two because of early season injuries at quarterback.

But we also struggle with the truth of the roller coaster now, when it's all come hurtling down at breakneck speed and seems to refuse to climb again.

But take a look around, and we'll see we're not the only ones to experience its rise and fall:

ALABAMA

The Run: 1991-96: 63-11-1 (.851), 1992 National Champions, 4 division titles (all Gene Stallings)

The Fall: 1997-2007: 74-61 (.548), 1999 SEC Champions, 5 head coaches in 11 years

The Rise: 2008-2011: 47-6 (.886), 2009 National Champions, 2 division titles, 3 BCS bowls

(...as you know, these records come with a healthy dose of asterisks)

The best comparison to what's happened in Knoxville comes from our greatest rivals. Alabama's run under Gene Stallings may have lacked the hardware outside the 1992 season, but as is the case with us in the early-to-mid-90s as well, just because Steve Spurrier was at Florida doesn't mean you didn't have a really good football team too.

The eleven year period following Stallings' retirement featured a distinct pattern: two down years, one up year, one coaching change. Mike DuBose went 4-7 and 7-5, then won the SEC at 10-3 in 1999. He was fired after the Tide went 3-8 in 2000. Dennis Franchione went 7-5 and then 10-3, then left for Texas A&M. Then the whole Mike Price thing happened, and while it lacked the sense of personal betrayal we experienced with Lane Kiffin, its potential consequences were just as devastating. Mike Shula went 4-9 and 6-6 in his first two years, then went 10-2. Raise your hand if you'd take 10-2 next year, Vol fans. If you're going to be a fan of the "Derek Dooley is Mike Shula" comparisons, Year Three is the time.

But alas, Shula went 6-6 (plus Joe Kines did this, which shouldn't be forgotten, en route 6-7) the next year, and he was gone. Nick Saban went 7-6 and lost to Louisiana-Monroe in his first season (Kentucky is the new Louisiana-Monroe, you know. I guarantee you Dooley has a good line about Pearl Harbor if someone would just ask him.)

And then - in the season opener in the Georgia Dome against an ACC foe, no less! - everything changed for Alabama.

But before we get to the good part, take the time to appreciate that overall, Alabama was an average football team for eleven years. The three ten win seasons stand out, but they were all quickly swallowed up by the sudden departure of the coach who led them there, all less than one year later.

Which was worse: an Alabama fan from 1997-2007, or a Tennessee fan from 2008-now?

FLORIDA

Act One: 1990-2001: 122-27-1 (.818), 1996 National Champions, 6 SEC Championships

Intermission: 2002-2004: 23-15 (.605), zero division titles, zero bowl wins

Act Two: 2005-2009: 57-10 (.850), 2006 & 2008 National Champions

The Present: 2010-2011: 14-11 (.560)

Steve Spurrier at Florida was the bane of everyone's existence in this league, and if you're reading here you don't need me to explain that to you. An interesting question for Florida fans would be to compare their feelings during the Ron Zook years to the last two seasons. Zook was easily forgotten when Urban Meyer rode into town, who sandwiched a Tim Tebow Heisman Trophy with a pair of National Championships, then followed up with an undefeated regular season.

And then it got weird. Meyer was sick, Meyer was stressed, Dan Mullen was replaced with Steve Addazio was replaced with Charlie Weis, and Florida has been an average football team for the last two years. In the grand scheme of things, two years isn't a very long time. But I guarantee you for Florida fans, it feels a very long way from 2009. They're living vicariously through Tim Tebow right now, but what's the guarantee the Gators will be much better in 2012? How sure is anyone that Will Muschamp can do it at this level?

Their suffering is shorter and their issues fewer in number. But Tennessee's excuse under Derek Dooley has been talent, plain and simple. What's Florida's excuse right now?

GEORGIA

The Dooley: 1980-83: 43-4-1 (.914), 1980 National Champions, 3 SEC Championships

The Good But Never Great: 1984-2001: Vince Dooley 40-17-3, Ray Goff 46-34-1, Jim Donnan 40-19, Mark Richt 8-4: Combined 134-74-4 (.644), zero SEC Championships, zero division titles

The Rise of Mark Richt: 2002-2008: 74-18 (.804), 2002 & 2005 SEC Champions, three division titles

The Fall of Mark Richt: 2009-2010: 14-12 (.538)

The Now of Mark Richt: 2011: 10-3, SEC East Champions

It was a different SEC, perhaps, but good grief Georgia was stout in the early 80s. In places outside Knoxville, they may also refer to this as, "The Herschel".

And then Georgia spent eighteen years being generally good but never great. From 1984-2001, the Dawgs had only three losing seasons. But they only won ten games twice...and they never won the SEC, and never sniffed Atlanta.

This is probably a different brand of frustration, but I have no doubt that it was frustration all the same. When Georgia was at their best during this run under Donnan in the mid-to-late-90s, Tennessee and Florida were simply better. Once Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer arrived on the scene, Georgia went a combined 2-18 against the Gators and Vols until Richt arrived.

Though Richt still hasn't mastered the Gators overall, he did bring massive improvement to Athens: Georgia got over the proverbial hump, won a pair of SEC Championships and finished third in the 2002 AP poll. While Ron Zook was at Florida, Richt made sure it was Georgia and not Tennessee who took advantage, as the Dawgs went to Atlanta three times in four years from 2002-2005.

But Richt has some Fulmer in him: setting the bar so high so fast that you catch heat when you're unable to reach or exceed it every season. Some may also want to make the Fulmer comparison to this season, where the Dawgs lost early and had fans in an uproar, but rebounded to win the SEC East before losing to what could be another National Champion LSU team in Atlanta. But the difference in Fulmer 2007 and Richt 2011 is who they lost to: while we do share the non-conference season opener, Georgia's only other loss came in a close game to South Carolina. Fulmer was blown out by UT's two biggest rivals. I would think Richt's seat now would be considerably cooler than Fulmer's was in December 2007, because Georgia beat Tennessee, Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech this year. Still, one has to wonder about what would happen if Georgia went back to struggling next season.

Nonetheless, while we can easily see that the Vols have had as many losing seasons in the last four years as Georgia did in that eighteen year stretch, we can also easily appreciate how frustrating it must have been to be a UGA fan during many (most?) of those same eighteen years. If Virginia Tech fans can find it increasingly difficult to enjoy eight straight ten win seasons today, how hard must it have been for Georgia to find the joy in another eight win season during that stretch?

SOUTH CAROLINA

Everything before the last two years in the SEC: 101-99-1 (.505)

The Last Two Years: 19-7 (.730), 2010 division title

South Carolina fans have always been, to me, the most pleasant to be around. I'm sure there are parts of this that had to do with their inability to beat the Vols between Steve Tanneyhill and Steve Spurrier. But still, this has to be the most appreciative bunch in the SEC. True story: their victory in the Carquest Bowl in 1994 was the first in the history of the program. That wasn't that long ago. Four years later they were 1-10, then put the goose egg up the following season.

Fans tend to take on the nature of their head coach, and so the more success Spurrier has in Columbia the less we'll be inclined to use words like "pleasant" to describe them, I'm sure. But this program is a study in more than just patience. For instance, that eighteen year stretch that Georgia "suffered" through? I'd imagine Carolina would've traded with them.

And that's the thing: it's all relative, and every season is unique. Which would be a good lesson for us to learn:

TENNESSEE

The Good Old Days: 1989-2001: 120-29-3 (.805), 1998 National Champions, 4 SEC Championships

The Slide: 2002-2007: 52-25 (.675), 2004 & 2007 SEC East Champions, zero SEC titles, zero BCS bowls

The Crash: 2008-2011: 23-27 (.460), three head coaches in four years

Here's a question I like to ask Tennessee fans: did you enjoy 2007?

Not did you enjoy The Swamp, or watching DeSean Jackson run a punt back, or watching Alabama inexplicably blow us out and set records in the passing game. But when we blasted what would become #2 Georgia, did you enjoy it? And when we beat Kentucky in that final overtime and won the SEC East, did you enjoy it?

Were you capable of calling that a good season? Because it was, you know.

We've repeatedly tried to point out that it can't be about "getting back". In part because that phrase will get used way too early and way too often; if you know Bammers or owned a computer in the last fifteen years, you heard it prematurely on three different occasions from our friends in Tuscaloosa. In hindsight, we can say that Bama was "back" they night they beat Clemson in 2008. But it takes years of consistency and winning at a high level and, of course, a ring, to really prove it. One season - good or bad - can be a fluke.

But you also shouldn't focus on "getting back" if you're looking for the Tennessee team that went 45-5 from 1995-1998, or the one that went 37-0 against SEC teams not named Florida from October 1994-November 1999.

I'm not saying it can't be done: Nick Saban and Urban Meyer (when he retired the first time) both had higher winning percentages than Gene Stallings and Steve Spurrier at their respective schools (which is really impressive, by the way).

I'm saying we shouldn't act like it's the standard. Like if Derek Dooley or whoever might one day follow him doesn't go 45-5 in a five year span, they're not doing their job well.

And remember, there are no guarantees. When Alabama was in the midst of that eleven year stretch of scandal and the average football that comes with it, I'm sure their fans wondered when they would ever play good football again. I'm sure Georgia fans wondered if they could ever consistently compete in an SEC East that was once so thoroughly dominated by Florida and Tennessee. Notre Dame has spent almost twenty years waiting to "get back", Florida State more than a decade.

There are never any guarantees, but it's also not coincidence that traditional powerhouses - though they ultimately can't escape the roller coaster - tend to return to the peaks. Traditional powerhouses are so for reasons that run deeper than in-state recruiting talent. They have the structures and the support in place to sustain themselves. They've done the work of giving themselves a chance. It may be easier to win big at Texas or USC than it is in Knoxville, but it's still easier to win big in Knoxville than in most other places in college football. The University of Tennessee will do everything it can to put its football program in the best possible position to win. But it will always be up to that team that season to go out there and do it.

It's never as good or as bad as you think it is, but that's really only half-true. Because to the fans and players and coaches involved with their teams, it's always exactly as good or exactly as bad as you think it is. For our generation of Tennessee fans, the past four years have been the lowest valley we've ever known. But I also know that when we asked last week if 2011 was the worst year in the history of UT's athletic department, I got a lot of emails telling me about 1977-78. Those older and wiser than me have more perspective, while my generation struggles with our own personal rock bottom.

But fans always share a common bond of struggle and celebration. While each experience remains unique, I would imagine there was something very similar about the way Alabama fans felt for eleven years and the way we feel now. Or the way South Carolina fans felt to finally get to the Georgia Dome compared to some of our biggest moments. Being a college football fan is the same as everything else in life: you get out of it what you put in to it. And as fans in general and Tennessee fans specifically, we're never alone.

Because it's the ride itself that keeps us all coming back.

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