My wife and I got a really good deal on a cruise and booked it months ago, without thinking about which basketball games fell on which dates. My brain is hard-wired to memorize where the Kentucky game falls, and Florida doesn't come this way this year. But I have not yet taught myself to circle one other date on the calendar: Auburn Tigers. January 31.
Maybe it's for the best. Because tomorrow is going to be a bit like going to your ex-girlfriend's wedding. Tennessee would be happily married to Donnie Tyndall right now if we could just be sure that thing from his past isn't going to cost us our future. In the moment, we're still happy to be here: 12-7 and 4-3 in the SEC is way better than any of us imagined. Truth is, most of us didn't bother to circle any dates this year.
That's how it used to be in Knoxville. Ten years ago we played Auburn on the last Saturday in January. We lost 62-59, the third of four in a row nine of eleven. That season ended in the SEC Tournament at 14-17 (6-10), Buzz Peterson looking for a new job, and 12,225 in average attendance, the lowest in the history of Thompson-Boling Arena.
It is the last time a Tennessee season ended in Atlanta or Nashville.
Fewer people cared that Tennessee hired Bruce Pearl than any basketball coach I can remember on this campus. And in less than one year, more people cared about Tennessee Basketball than at any point in my post-Ernie & Bernie life.
On the last Saturday in January nine years ago, Tennessee beat South Carolina 81-65. It made the Vols 14-3 (5-1), the third win in what became an eight game streak. When people remember Pearl in Knoxville they talk most fondly of the 1 vs 2 showdown with Memphis in 2008, or two years later when Pearl took a team that just lost four players to suspension and beat #1 Kansas, eventually leading them to the program's first ever Elite Eight. But for those of us that were watching from the beginning, that first year holds a special place in our collective memory. It remains the most surprising season of any sport on campus in the last 30 years, if not more. In 2005 Tennessee wasn't just bad, they created apathy in their own house. In 2006, one coach and several Chris Lofton threes later, they were a two seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It's not just that Pearl had so much on-court success later that the first year got more overshadowed than it should have. His personality cast some of the shadow. There's Pearl on a ladder, using the Fulmerizer to describe to our students what we were going to do (and did) to Florida. There's Pearl coming out of the synagogue, using the Fulmerizer to correct a Memphis reporter about which basketball program runs the state. There's Pearl sweating through his suit in Gainesville and hulking up in the locker room in Rupp Arena, both memories from that unbelievable first year.
The next January I was in Grand Rapids for a church event. I turned on the television in my hotel room at the end of the day, cycled through starting with the local channels, and stopped immediately: there was Bruce Pearl, on the eleven o'clock news in Michigan, with his shirt off and his chest painted.
Perhaps these things only ever last so long; self-promotion is often the road to self-destruction. Maybe it couldn't have ever lasted much longer than it did even if there was no cookout or no photograph. But its end, which came in a swift few days in March, reverberated for years. In the moment yours truly wanted to keep him even in the face of a hypothetical one year suspension. When the reality was a three year show cause and Pearl would've always had to go, none of us had an easy time letting go. The person most responsible for what happened to Bruce Pearl was Bruce Pearl. And on a secondary level, Bruce Pearl was somewhat responsible for what happened to Cuonzo Martin.
It's been easier to move on with Donnie Tyndall, not because he's been so much better than Cuonzo Martin, but in part because he wasn't The Next Guy and in part because Pearl is now taken. And the Vols have avoided what many of us feared would be the worst case scenario: a terrible team in Knoxville this year welcoming another year one miracle from Auburn. The Tigers are 10-10 and losers of three straight, making what Pearl did that first year in Knoxville feel even more special.
And these Vols are way more than "not terrible". After those first two special years, Pearl's Vols were never the underdog. Tyndall's Vols have captured that essence, and done so quicker than Cuonzo's first team did. You know this Tennessee team is playing its guts out and maximizing its potential, all you can ask from your team. They are gritty, they are tough, and they are coming at you. And we love that.
I won't be there to see it, but I hope Tennessee fans give Bruce Pearl a round of applause. There's little doubt he'll get it. There's little doubt he's earned it.
But I hope Tennessee fans give an even bigger cheer for Donnie Tyndall. There may be understandable hesitation because of the NCAA issue. But right now, January 31, he's our coach. And our team has carried on the hope of success we thought might be lost when Pearl was.
Bruce will always be special in Knoxville; I hope he and Donnie have some wars for years to come, because I can't imagine that being much other than lots of fun.
But wherever you're watching in Big Orange Country, I hope we as fans will climb our ladders, and implore our team to kick Auburn's FULMERIZER.