Tennessee's best player was dismissed from the team this morning after failing a drug test. It is the end of the Tennessee portion of Janzen Jackson's story, a chapter that included his involvement in several memorable moments on and off the field. Janzen was there to make this hit against the Gators and this play in the Music City Bowl, both displays of his amazing ability as a safety. And Janzen was also there at the Pilot in the Prius in November 2009, and missed bowl practice and all of spring practice dealing with some or all of the same issue that got him kicked off the team today.
Consider this: with Herman Lathers out and Art Evans buried on the depth chart, Janzen Jackson was the only two year starter who would take the field first against Montana next weekend. Now he becomes one more name on Lane Kiffin's infamous list, one more highly touted recruit that never finished what he started at Tennessee. Jackson had shown, by far, the most ability out of any of those players. And now the giant crater where the 2009 recruiting class once stood leads many to believe that it will set the program back years.
And of course, it makes sense to say that. I'd point out that we have so much experience with adversity that it doesn't matter, but losing your best player ten days before kickoff is always going to matter.
But what also matters is the way Derek Dooley has handled this situation, beginning to end. For Janzen Jackson the person, it certainly seems like Dooley did everything he could. His statement today:
"Our program has devoted a tremendous amount of energy, resources, support, and care in an effort to help Janzen manage his personal challenges," said Dooley. "I will always be there to help him as a person, but there comes a time when a player's actions preclude him from the privilege of playing for the University of Tennessee football team.
"Although I'm disappointed with this outcome, we will never compromise the long-term organizational values and goals we maintain here at Tennessee."
I don't know the full extent of what's gone on with Janzen. I don't know if he's failed additional drug tests in the past, though it's obvious something negative was going on. I do know he sat for three games after the Prius incident and missed bowl practice last year.
I also know that any coach on any level in America would think long and hard before dismissing their best player on the cusp of a new season. It's possible that Dooley had no other option with Janzen based on institutional rules (though flashing back to this story, we do know that our previous institutional rules left plenty of room for second and third chances). But if - if - Dooley moved by choice and not force to dismiss Janzen Jackson, it's an incredibly strong statement. There was no two-game suspension and then he's back to play Florida. This is Dooley making clear that, as he said in the statement, Tennessee will not compromise itself. For anyone. It's a tougher stance than either of his two predecessors would've taken. And I, for one, trust Dooley and support it.
We're so battered as a fanbase and a university that even the news that the program will escape any additional NCAA sanctions has to be sandwiched between the stunning illness of our best coach and the swift dismissal of our best player, all in a less than 24 hour period...and though the circumstances surrounding Summitt's illness are unique and heartbreaking, adversity feels like home at this point.
And we're in no place to assign any real praise or blame to the coaches of the three biggest men's sports, being that two of them haven't coached a game yet and the other is coming off of Year Zero.
So this may be the sort of grasping at straws that stubborn, beaten optimists do...but with everything we've been through in the last three years, I do feel good about having Derek Dooley, Cuonzo Martin, and Dave Serrano lead our football, basketball, and baseball teams. I feel like all three are the right men for the job right now, all three have a plan, all three can win, and - especially in comparison to their immediate predecessors - all three will do it the right way.
This is a sad day for Janzen Jackson and a tough day for the football team. But one of the other ways Dooley was working on Janzen Jackson's issue, from a team perspective, was to sign a small army of defensive backs in February. Right now, Tennessee will not be better without Janzen Jackson. But our secondary will still be in a better place this year than last with Marsalis Teague and Justin Coleman at corner, Prentiss Waggner at free safety, Brent Brewer at strong safety, and the best player to be named later at nickel. We may not be as spectacular in the defensive backfield, but I think we'll be okay.
The loss of what feels like an entire recruiting class should hurt a program for years...but I feel like we've already been through the worst of that. The Vols are already playing sophomores who already played as freshmen because most of Kiffin's kids had already not worked out. And Dooley has recruited well enough, in both talent and character thus far, to make sure it didn't get any worse. The final word on Lane Kiffin will always be that he didn't make Tennessee better, he made it worse...but Derek Dooley has also already laid the foundation, long before today, to ensure that it started getting better again.
Here's what I also know after the last 24 hours - in ten days that T will still open and the team will still come rushing out. Because there are some things in life that simply refuse to disappoint. And that moment is one of them.
Dawn is still coming. The Vols will have to face it without their best player, but in Derek Dooley's hands I still believe we'll see it.