Here's to a new day for Tennessee Football.
To grace, which every first year coach needs, deserves, and gets. To the rebirth of patience, a rock in 2012 around Derek Dooley's neck that will become an attaboy in 2013 beside Butch Jones as he finds his way. To the loss of pressure, at least on the surface, so the losses that will come won't feel quite so heavy in hopes that they won't hang around quite so often.
Here's to this coach being about this coach. The last two hires carried so much baggage from their immediate predecessors, Kiffin simply because he wasn't Fulmer and Dooley especially because Kiffin was Kiffin. The time for looking back is over, and the chain from Phillip to Butch broken in all the right places. None of his players, none of his recruits, none of the weight of expectation from the ground up. The 2013 and beyond Vols are now separated by enough years, enough losses, and enough head coaches and coordinators to separate their story from past success where it needs to be separated. When they write books about this stuff generations later, they will now have to speak of a transition period between the days of yore and the days of whatever future yore we hope to find.
The 2012 season was incredibly important, featured some very close games, but ended very painfully every Saturday after the Georgia Dome. And so I for one greet the reset button, knowing it in the end had to be pushed, with open arms. It's a new day for Tennessee Football, and it should be celebrated and anticipated.
But new has its costs too.
Consider what an 18 year old high school recruit knows about the University of Tennessee.
The night we hold most dear in Tempe, Arizona? They were three years old. The Golden Era of Tennessee Football from 1989-2001? They know absolutely nothing about it. Their best and only connection to those days is the only one left standing, and he's a good one, but I'm not sure how much of an impact even Peyton Manning makes on high school recruiting in 2013.
Consider the current state of the Southeastern Conference.
It's not just the seven straight National Championships, which is an absurd statement to begin with. Here's the difference right now: this time last year, the league was lamenting the gap between Alabama, LSU, and everyone else (not unlike the gap between the Gators, Vols, and everyone else a decade and a half ago). But this time, this January, you can make a very good argument that three of the best five teams in all of college football are from the SEC. And that doesn't include LSU, who got a little Milesian in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl but, remember, should've beat Alabama. Nor does it include a Florida team that was a fumble away from an undefeated regular season.
When we talked to T Kyle King on our podcast the week of the Georgia game, he mentioned the growing hope that the Dawgs could be as good as Alabama and LSU, could compete for the same championships. Turns out that hope paid off; I don't think many will argue that UGA was one play away from winning a National Championship. Georgia almost beat Alabama. Texas A&M did. That means there are as many as five SEC teams who, at this very moment, feel like they really could have won the whole thing not a year or two down the road, but right now. And that doesn't include South Carolina or the best Vanderbilt team of the modern era.
And then there's the rest of the league: Auburn won a National Championship two years ago, Arkansas played in a BCS bowl that same season, and both replaced their head coaches on this round of the carousel. Ole Miss is trending rapidly in the right direction. Mississippi State, you may recall, had one of the best seasons in school history before it met the upper tier of this league in November.
That leaves one newcomer, one basketball school, and the second winningest program in the history of this conference. But history is written by the winners, and we haven't had the pen in our hands in five years.
If you're an 18 year old high school recruit, what's the difference between Tennessee and Missouri right now?
Truth is truth is truth. Do you know who the winningest program in college football is in the last five years?
Okay, well, it's technically Boise State (61-5). But Alabama is second (61-7). 2013 Vol opponent Oregon is third at 56-10. (Got some time on your hands? You don't anymore thanks to this database/calculator from stassen.com.)
Tennessee is 28-34 in the last five years. Do you know where that ranks in all of college football? Go ahead, guess. I'll wait.
Here's the rest of the SEC while you try and convince yourself it can't really be as low as you hope it's not:
Florida is 52-15, tied for fifth nationally. LSU is right behind them at 51-15. (For reference, that means even the vaunted Gators and Tigers have averaged three losses per year for the last five years. Life is tough in this league.)
Georgia (46-21) and South Carolina (45-21) are 21st and 22nd, respectively. The difference between Missouri and Tennessee right now? A whole bunch of wins while those kids were in high school: Missouri is 41-24 the last five years, 30th nationally.
We'll keep going. Arkansas is 39th, 38-25. Auburn 41st, 38-26. Then A&M at 44th, 37-27.
Still going. Mississippi State is 59th, 33-30. Ole Miss is one game under at 31-32, which is good for 70th.
And then, only then, do we arrive at Tennessee. Because 28-34 in the last five years is good for a tie for 79th nationally. Which means in the last five years, only Kentucky (27-36) and Vanderbilt (26-37) have been worse, and those two just barely. And they've played more games because they've been to bowl games three of the last five years, while we've showed up just twice.
Teams from BCS conferences with worse winning percentages than Tennessee the last five years: Wake Forest, Kentucky, Purdue, Washington (still a sub-lateral move), Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Maryland, Minnesota, Virginia, Illinois, Duke, Kansas, Colorado, and Washington State. That puts the Vols in a tie for 50th out of 68 BCS programs. Three other teams have gone 28-34 in the last five years: Marshall, Syracuse...and Bowling Green.
What's the difference between Tennessee and Missouri right now? The good news is, the answers to that question that help Tennessee haven't changed through all the doom and gloom: the facilities, the budget, and the fan support are all very much intact. I honestly don't know how much bang for the buck the T on the helmet and the checkerboard end zones are worth to a group of kids who never knew Tennessee's glory days and most recently know Tennessee as a losing program. But I do know there are still a lot of significant things that separate Tennessee from many of the 49 programs who have won more games since 2008.
This is the world Butch Jones and his band from Cincinnati find themselves in. You can complain about using winning percentage as a fair metric because of strength of schedule, and that's fine, but then you also have to throw out Cincinnati the last five years at 47-18, tied for 11th nationally with two years of Brian Kelly and three years of Butch; Central Michigan (33-31) is also higher than Tennessee over that span. The Bearcats' 24-14 record with Butch at the helm is 38th best over the last three years.
I've found it helpful to go back and read some of the things we said during Lane Kiffin's year in Knoxville. One of the underlying themes in what we wrote then, in both the big win over Georgia and the heartbreak loss at Alabama, is a desire, stated or otherwise, to go into every game believing Tennessee could win.
That's the thing that always held on under Fulmer even after 2001 and really until early 2008. Looking back, there was still really only one time in that span - Miami in 2002 - where I look back and think, "Yeah, we're probably losing that game 9 times out of 10." Even when the Vols struggled, even in 2002 and 2005, we were always good enough to believe we had a real shot at victory. The kind of good not just Alabama is right now, but half the league.
It's what we wanted and believed was maintained under Kiffin. But between his departure, Dooley's tenure and the recruiting failures that surrounded both, that belief died.
But right now, honestly? It's good for Butch Jones that it's dead.
Everything about Phillip Fulmer - all the wins, all the memories, all the division - is gone. We can't blame Lane Kiffin anymore. And we don't have Derek Dooley to kick around.
This - more than at any point since Johnny Majors was hired in 1977, which means more than at any point in my lifetime and many of yours - is the real new era for Tennessee. The slate is cleaner than it's been for any of our last four hires over five decades. The expectations are lower, but the competition is higher.
And as we should've known then and definitely know now, there are no guarantees. If it's not Butch Jones, we stay in the desert. And every year we're in the desert, we celebrate anniversaries (15 years for the '98 Vols this fall) instead of victories a little more, and those checkerboard end zones mean a little less.
Lots of teams have found success in Year 2, but things don't just happen in a vacuum. The Vols could literally lose every starter on the offensive and defensive lines after 2013. That doesn't spell automatic success in 2014. In fact, I can very easily see a scenario where the Vols are a little better than you think they'll be now before being a little worse than you think they should be in Year 2. Derek Dooley called it Year Zero, and we'll try to avoid that, but I mean hey, look at the roster. The word "rebuild" gets used for every new situation and they're all different. I don't know how often we'll be throwing it around, I just know it may not be a direct ascent.
But it doesn't mean success won't come.
With a new era also comes hope, a hope that needs not be resurrected because it cannot be killed. At least not around here.
It's a new day for Tennessee, full of grace, full of danger, and full of hope. We'll do our thing and get worrisome about recruiting rankings, and rightfully so. But then we'll embrace spring practice because it's new, in both coaching staff and quarterback. And then we'll line 'em up and see what Butch can do, because the most important part of his job will always be Fall Saturdays.
And on those Saturdays, it's worth repeating that while we may be skeptical, beaten down, and worried about the health of the entire program right now, it's also true that wins for Butch Jones will be appreciated and celebrated with the exuberance of much younger men and women, because that's what we were the last time Tennessee won one that really mattered. We won't always celebrate something as "small" and once-common as a bowl appearance. But you'd better believe we will right now.
So, as the man says, we lay the foundation. The architecture of Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer is in the Hall of Fame. I think Kiffin's name is still on a sewer treatment plant somewhere, and Dooley's never got off the ground. The soil is harder than before, but in Knoxville it will always be fertile.
So here's to the ground floor. The new day, everything hard and everything exciting that comes with it, and the hope that one day we'll see you at the top, one step at a time.