The University of Tennessee's athletic department, now combined under one banner for all men's and women's sports, has the privilege of being known first and foremost for success in women's basketball. What Pat Summitt built in Knoxville transformed not only Tennessee, but her sport itself. Eight national championships from 1987-2008 made the Lady Vols our most recognizable and most successful brand, and Summitt's 1,098 wins are the most for any college basketball coach ever. It will be another three years before Mike Krzyzewski has a chance to pass her and at least five before a host of chasers in the women's game might catch up.
And it has long been the case that Tennessee's second most famous brand is its checkerboard end zones, home to the football team that is its second most successful program. In the late 90s both teams were at their competitive peak: the Lady Vols won three straight titles from 1996-98, while the football team captured back-to-back SEC Championships in 97-98 with a BCS title on January 4, 1999.
Football left the land of the nationally elite after 2001 and the land of the nationally relevant after 2007, though we're hopeful Butch Jones is getting ready to take us back to at least one of those places this fall. There will never be a time Lady Vol Basketball isn't nationally relevant because of what they've meant to the game itself. But since their last national title in 2008, they haven't returned to the Final Four in Summitt's final four years or Holly Warlick's first three years.
There was a brief moment in these last six or seven years, with football rebuilding and Lady Vol basketball failing to reach its usual heights, when men's basketball had a chance to become the torchbearer for this university in terms of championship opportunity. The Vols reached #1 in the polls in 2008, then reached the Elite Eight and just missed the Final Four in 2010. Tennessee then raced to third in the AP poll a month into the 2010-11 season, but by then the die was cast for Bruce Pearl, who was eventually terminated for lying to the NCAA a few months earlier. Men's basketball has since had three other head coaches but only one NCAA Tournament appearance. A couple of non-revenue sports have had their moments, including tennis and currently women's golf.
But this past weekend revealed more of a truth that's been growing in Knoxville for much of the last decade: the best program on campus right now is softball.
Tennessee just earned its seventh trip to the Women's College World Series in the last 11 years, taking down Florida State two games to one in the Knoxville Super Regional. People smarter than me say this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Instead the Lady Vols will be playing for it all once again, in what's becoming a happy and welcome tradition in what used to be the slowest month of the year for fans of Tennessee athletics.
The fact that they haven't won it all yet - finishing second in 2007 and 2013 - has in a sense made following them more attractive. Some of their most important games have featured some of their most heartbreaking losses, including an extra inning defeat in the championship series in both 2007 and 2013, and another most recently in this year's SEC Tournament final. Being so close but not breaking through just yet has caused both their current legacy and the (hopefully) eventual payoff to grow. You haven't really loved a team until you've suffered with it.
I'm not really the person to make that argument. I find myself now following the Lady Vols in softball much the way I did during Summitt's heyday in basketball: there's no need to pay attention until you get to this part, because they're going to win anyway. The Lady Vols made the Final Four 11 times in 14 years from 1995-2008. There was little drama involved until then.
What's different with softball now (and where fans like me are really missing out) is the rest of the SEC has rapidly caught up to Tennessee's initial success. When the Lady Vols made their first WCWS appearance in 2005 it was the first time two teams from the SEC had appeared in Oklahoma City this millennium. This upcoming week there will be five teams from the SEC in OKC, including Tennessee's entire half of the bracket with #1 Florida, the #8 Lady Vols, #4 Auburn, and #5 LSU (fun fact: all eight top seeds made it to OKC, which means the Lady Vols are the lowest seeded team left standing). #6 Alabama will join the party there, as a west coast game has quickly become a sport the SEC dominates now, even more than football. Half of the Super Regional field was from the SEC, including Kentucky who went 5-19 in the league this year but still made the NCAA Tournament due to the league's respect.
This means the Lady Vols played six regular season series against ranked foes, which you and me missed out on because we assumed, even if correctly so, that they would get to the Super Regionals. The good news is they're not really missing us over at Lee Stadium, which hosts sellout crowds at a better clip than both basketballs and football right now. And the better news for everyone is the sport itself only grows more and more popular, not just in an SEC Network sense but in its growing presence on the ESPN family beyond the week in Oklahoma City.
I'm ready for Lady Vol basketball to return to its rightful place in the Final Four, and we're all more than ready for the football team to get to the proverbial "back". But right now, the best team wearing orange is playing for a title once again this week, starting against the number one team in the land (who the Lady Vols beat in the SEC Tournament) on Thursday at noon. Lady Vol softball has been doing the heavy lifting around here for a while now. With or without the big prize this week, many of us have been missing out on being part of something special and successful in Knoxville, a combination we haven't seen enough of lately. Here's to more and more eyeballs on a deserving softball program as it goes for its first championship once again this week.