With so much uncertainty following Tennessee's second consecutive bowl-less season, the one certainty is the university must prove its commitment to winning football.
To start this story of potential resurrection, one must look in the mirror at a dark-but-certain reality.
Despite all the redemption songs we've sung over the past several years comparing our current plight to the one of rival Alabama not so long ago, there is one final step that has to be taken:
We have to copy the Crimson Tide one final time before we can ever dream of returning to national relevance.
The University of Tennessee already has sold its soul by going down the once-unthinkable road of reaching deep into the coaching tree of Nick Saban for embattled, lame-duck head coach Derek Dooley, even consulting with the man himself before hiring his disciple. We've outfitted our rebuilt athletic department with compliance personnel, support staff and even an athletic director whose previous stops were in Tuscaloosa. When Dooley needed a defensive coordinator, he settled on Alabama assistant and future train wreck Sal Sunseri.
Heck, we even took on a graduate assistant in Nick Gentry who was on last year's Crimson Tide national championship team.
It has been sickening to say the least, enough to make anybody who can reach the second stanza of "Rocky Top" want to throw up his Cocke County moonshine. There are Tide fans I work with who now refer to Tennessee as "Bama North."
Following Saturday night's rock-bottom 41-18 shellacking at the hands of Vanderbilt and loudmouth coach James Franklin, I hope the powers-that-be in Knoxville finally saw that there's no choice but to take a page from Bama's book once more. We have to pony up whatever it takes and hire a can't-miss, mega-star, unite-the-fanbase coach to replace Dooley.
With Dooley's ouster reportedly becoming public later today and no bowl game on the horizon, the attention immediately pivots toward replacing Dooley, whose comedy of errors began with too many men on the field against LSU, included every way humanly possible to lose a football game, and culminated in Saturday's death knell. One must not look too far in the past and not too far to the south to see what has to happen next.
Alabama had spent years as a laughingstock. Following the years of Gene Stallings' success, the Tide sought answers to return to glory with Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula at the helm. Despite momentary flashes of competitiveness, it was a largely embarrassing effort that went on for a decade.
When a long-and-more-embarrassing coaching search followed the ouster of Shula in 2007, Alabama finally settled on its man as Rich Rodriguez was all set to be announced the new Tide head coach. But he backed out overnight, choosing instead to return to West Virginia. Rivals laughed. Fans made jokes over the Internet and all over message boards. It seemed as the search started over that Alabama would remain irrelevant for more years, and the long-time powerhouse and proud program would have to settle yet again.
That's when the money-men and athletic director Mal Moore became fed up. They took the purse and turned it upside down, handing over an unprecedented amount of money to lure former LSU national champion coach Nick Saban away from his job with the Miami Dolphins to come to Tuscaloosa.
You know the rest. Two national championships, multiple top-ranked recruiting classes and yet another title run this year later, UA is the cream of the nation's crop once again. Saban has a statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, and you can't drop a double-wide trailer around my neck of the woods without killing 10 people in houndstooth.
Alabama football is Big Business. For every "S: The Coach" bumper sticker sold, there are 15 houndstooth articles of clothing or script A polos. Big plays become paintings people hang over their televisions. Players are worshiped and called by their first names. Football has transcended all but religion -- and in some cases, even that. "Alabama" is on the tip of every nationally-relevant high school player's tongue and all over every national college football telecast.
It cost an unheard of amount of money to nab Saban. It has meant that money times a thousand for the University of Alabama. Any businessman worth his Rolex will tell you it costs money to make money, and Bama bought the best.
[At this point, it's perfectly fine to go take some mouthwash, rinse it around in your mouth a few times and spit. Trust me, this column is tough enough for me to write as it is...]
That brings me to Tennessee and the decision we're facing.
The Vols are 0-7 in the Southeastern Conference. We're arguably the worst team in the SEC. Despite a plethora of offensive talent, we have no continuity, no guidance, no leadership, no defense. Not 60,000 sat in the Neyland Stadium stands to watch UT squeak out a victory over Troy three weeks ago. A Vanderbilt stadium normally 2/3 full of orange was mostly awash in black-and-gold Saturday. A VU team that started the season 2-4 and lost 48-3 to Georgia put a beatdown on the Vols normally reserved for that mighty neighbor in crimson we've discussed.
Within the university itself, there are reports of internal strife. The university's athletic department is operating at a deficit. A reserve that should be swollen to $20 million sets at a shade over $2 million. The athletic department only two weeks ago rid itself of a bit of the shadow academics cast in fundraising efforts. There are still squabbles with the university over donations from the athletic department, academic qualifiers for athletics programs and how much money to spend on a new coaching staff.
The consolidation of the men's and women's athletic department over the past year has resulted in some hurt feelings and some shallower pockets thanks to a lawsuit currently being waged against the university. On top of all that, the gift that keeps on giving -- Lane Kiffin -- just resulted in another two years' probation for a football program that already feels like it's suffering from the Dooley Death Penalty.
Quite simply, these are dark days in Knoxville. I've used a lot of words, presented a lot of facts and stated some opinions to say this -- we're on the brink of the college football abyss.
Earlier this season, the college football nation focused its sights on Knoxville for the Florida game. Win that one, and WE'RE BACK! You could almost feel everybody either really wanting to see it happen or watch it crash and burn. ESPN Gameday was there. Everybody was talking about the showdown. Our offensive superstars were squarely in the spotlight. The storylines were bountiful.
And, of course, we laid an egg. Since then, we've been spiraling farther and farther into The Worst It Has Ever Been. Now, we're there. A 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt?? It doesn't get any worse than that in my book. Make a poor hire -- or even a hire like Al Golden who may be a good coach but one that would be met with even more apathy -- and you're bordering a total collapse of care in Knoxville. Fail here, and we could be looking like a Colorado Buffaloesque fall.
All of that is negative, I know. Some of it may even be hyperbole, but here's the thing: WE. ARE. STILL. NOT. THAT. FAR. AWAY.
This is the most bizarre situation I can remember in college football. We are 4-7 on a one-way course to the first eight-loss season in program history. Yet, we totally blacked out for 7 minutes against Florida or that's a close game. Georgia is a one-possession game. Mississippi State was a one-possession game until a last-second touchdown. South Carolina was a one-possession game. Those are good teams, folks. We just didn't have the coaches or the leadership to get it done.
You just have to hire the coach who can instill the leadership to get the job done.
We stand today at a crossroads. There is seemingly a shallow pool of candidates out there on the market, guys who we know are open and attentive to coming to coach at UT. There will be some who see that scoreboard this morning and think, "Do Not Want." But this is how I choose to look at the Nightmare in Nashville:
Prior to Saturday, it's a possibility that there were important people in Knoxville who could look at the overall big picture, look at the potential of finishing 7-6 with a bowl win, look at all the close losses and think, "This is progress. We should give Dooley and Co. another season." I'm not saying Dooley hadn't already been let go before VU ... I believe he had ... I'm simply saying there may have been people who weren't completely sold.
Even more realistically, there may have been people out there who are in the decision-making process at UT who believed that the university didn't have to hire a slam-dunk, everybody-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya coach before we stepped onto that field in Nashville and blew our program's brains all over the field.
But now, I believe, everybody knows.
This program is broken. This fanbase is fractured. If we're ever going to be TENNESSEE again, this hire has to hit -- no questions asked. Even if it doesn't hit, you've got to go big enough to where everybody in the nation is talking about you, everybody is wondering aloud if you should have done what you did and everybody is buzzing about the ramifications.
You know I've got Jon Gruden on my mind when I'm writing this, but he isn't the only one. There are others UT could hire that would fit that bill. And they have to hire one of them. You can choose one of two paths right now.
Alabama stood at that crossroads not so long ago. With an eye toward a decorated past, they bit the bullet of the present to secure a promising future. Millions upon millions of dollars later, they'd make that same decision a million times out of a million again.
Now is the time to prove we're not content with being what we are. Now is the time to take yet another page from Alabama's storybook run and make an investment in a football program that has paid out more money to the university than any other public school in the country. Now is the time to make a commitment to winning. Or keep dying this slow death until Neyland becomes that great mausoleum on the river.
What will we choose?