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Stopping the Unstoppable: A Reasonable and Independent Goal for the Tennessee Volunteers

One goal at a time.
One goal at a time.

After the Tennessee game last night, I shut down and went looking for distraction. I know it leaves me vulnerable to allegations of fair weatheredness, but after my humor is depleted, I prefer disengagement to turpentine as a coping mechanism. Really, it wasn't that bad. I just wanted to check out for awhile. I'm betting I wasn't the only one.

The Stanford-Oregon game was too depressing. Who knew you could gain eight yards on the ground on first down and 50 a few times in a single game? I know! It's apparently legal and won't draw a flag.

Anyway, long forgotten in the DVR queue was Unstoppable, the runaway train movie starring Denzel Washington. It was pretty good, and I enjoyed passively watching something requiring no mental effort from me at all. It was glorious.


Here's a quick recap, all off the top of my head because the details aren't what's important anyway, so pardon any inaccuracies. It all started innocently enough. Some overweight dude and his co-worker are slacking off to begin their day. They're supposed to rearrange something like 39 cars to get the system ready for business. It's a quick easy job, so the guy decides not to engage the air brake safety feature and just starts moving the things. Up ahead, he notices a switch isn't thrown correctly. The train is moving slowly enough that even this overweight slacker can hop off, outwalk the train to the switch and throw it. But when he gets out, the controls on the train malfunction, and the thing shifts into drive or whatever the train equivalent of that is. Fat guy not only loses the race to the switch, he faceplants on the gravel trying to hop back on board. Uh-oh. They have a "coaster," and they're in some trouble. But, of course, it gets worse.

Long story short, the sucker is engaged at full speed, bearing hazardous material, and roaring toward a sharp turn at 70+ mph in a heavily populated area. It narrowly misses an oncoming train full of children when the kids' car barely makes it onto a sidetrack. Meanwhile, Denzel's working with a guy barely out of training who out of the distraction of marital problems adds too many new cars to their train so they can't fit onto a sidetrack to avoid the 777 barreling toward them. They instead increase speed to try to make a "rip" track or something and barely make it, the 777 merely taking out the last few cars. 

All attempts to stop the 777 fail, of course. They try putting another engine in front of it to slow it down so they can land an ex-Marine on the thing by helicopter, but both the Marine and the new conductor get wasted. They try to derail the thing on purpose, but it just barrels on by. So Denzel and the other guy chase it down from behind, driving backwards, couple with the thing, engage as many brakes as they can, slow down enough to take the turn on two wheels, and then make their way to the front and the controls, where they finally, triumphantly, bring the thing to a stop.There are a variety of things that go wrong in the process, of course, but you get the idea. They spent the entire movie stopping the unstoppable train.

And that's where it ends. Presumably, everybody lives happily ever after, but we never see the trains running on time the next day. The story is about gaining control of the out-of-control, and that's it. The end.

That right there is the sole goal of Tennessee athletics right now. The recent demise of the program started innocently enough. A little sloppiness, a little laziness. A consequent failure or two or three that didn't raise any real alarm or sense of urgency. But the small details accumulated, then conspired, and then synergized to build a monumental problem with a momentum of its own, and before we knew it, we had a $100 million catastrophe racing toward disaster and no idea how to stop it. Failure after failure after failure has increased the drama and frustration, and at times it feels like we'll never get back to normal.

But I think I for one have neglected to account for the sheer momentum of the problem and that you can't just replace the problem with normal. Immediately reversing course 180 degrees in the other direction was never going to happen, so measuring success by distance traveled in the positive direction is unreasonable. The real progress -- slowing negative momentum and regaining control -- has to be first and a goal of its own. To further complicate matters, that kind of progress is much more nuanced, and it has peaks and valleys and is difficult to measure.

Is Tennessee making even that kind of progress? I don't know. But I do know that the story we're living right now isn't about getting the trains to run on time. That comes later, in the sequel. Right now, all we're trying to do is stop the stupid thing.