There's this thing we do when a player who frustrates us, even a little bit, leaves school. Even the slightest level of disappointment with a player's performance - especially at quarterback - leads us to say things like, "Thank goodness Erik Ainge is gone, now we can really get somewhere with Jonathan Crompton!" (Fans who are wishing good riddance to Tyler Bray would be wise to remember this idea right now.)
You really need time to fully appreciate a player's career. For instance, now we not only know that Ainge was, in fact, better than Crompton, but we actually had it pretty good during #10's career.
Ainge was the last in an unbroken line of strong Vol quarterbacks, running from Kelly to Shuler to Manning to Martin to Clausen and finally to Ainge. Each had their growing pains and their less-than-stellar moments, but on the whole Tennessee was very good under center for the better part of 18 years.
For those of us who saw all six of those guys, there's often a tendency to put the Iceman at the bottom of the list. Shuler and Manning were clearly more talented and Ainge definitely had a better arm; Martin won it all and Kelly won back-to-back SEC titles.
Even while he was in Knoxville, Clausen wasn't the most popular guy. When things went poorly in 2002 it was a new experience for us, and #7 got much of the blame. He was the guy with his hands on (or off) the ball in crucial situations against Florida in 2002 and Georgia in 2003. Between that, his California cool demeanor, and the fact that the previous starting quarterback won a National Championship and Clausen did not may have contributed to some of the disgruntledness Vol fans may still point in his direction.
And yet, many of us - including yours truly, who has been driving the "Casey Clausen is underrated and why won't you love him?" train for a decade - would take the guy over Ainge, or Tyler Bray, or just about anyone else. Because Casey Clausen was a winner.
It's a passionate conversation. Before moving to Virginia in 2006 I shared an apartment with a friend of mine who was an all-state lineman in high school and played at Carson-Newman, and the most passionate argument we've ever had was over whether or not Casey Clausen was a good quarterback.
His arm wasn't quite as strong as those before and after him, and his numbers never quite reached the top of the leaderboard (though let's face it, you go to school at Tennessee, you're looking up at Manning for four years). But here's what he did do.
He took over an obvious rebuilding campaign in 2000 and led the Vols to six straight wins to close the regular season, including six in a row over Alabama in his very first start (17 of 24 for 213 and 2 TDs). As a sophomore he was at the controls for one of the best UT teams of all-time, and yes he was throwing to Stallworth, Witten, and The Future while handing off to Travis Stephens, but the kid could still play. At Alabama that year he went 21 of 28 for 293 yards and a pair of touchdowns to make it seven straight against the Tide. And you can't blame the SEC Championship Game on him (27 of 43 for 332 and a pair of TDs). The best statistical game of his career came in the aftermath against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
Casey Clausen didn't get enough credit in 2001, then got too much blame in 2002 when the Vols suffered a ton of injuries and went 8-5. But as a senior, the guy won at Florida, at Alabama in five overtimes, and at Miami while throwing to James Banks and C.J. Fayton.
In the most memorable wins of his era he didn't put up huge stats: 17 of 25 for 168 yards passing in the 2001 Florida game, 12 of 23 for 235 yards in the 2003 Gainesville win, 11 of 18 for 81 yards at Miami. But he never got us beat. And more than that, he led Tennessee on must-have 4th quarter drives time and time again. In 2001 he did it at Alabama, at Notre Dame, and at Kentucky before Travis Stephens took over at Florida. He did it in 2002 against Arkansas in overtime with a separated shoulder. And in 2003 he made every play to beat Alabama in five overtimes, while keeping the Vols out of danger against Florida and Miami. That's his thing: ice cold, no mistakes.
When you needed a big fourth quarter drive, Clausen delivered. And while we can and will argue about what percentage of a victory belongs to the quarterback, at the end of the day Clausen goes home with a 34-10 record as a starter and an unbelievable 14-1 on the road. I'll take that from my quarterback every day.
It's been ten years, believe it or not, since Clausen walked away. I hope our appreciation for what #7 did during his time here has increased, because we could sure use some of whatever you want to call what he did at quarterback right now.