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Reflections on Tennessee's Wilderness Experience

As the Vols look for big things in 2016, we look back on a decade short on winning in football and big on stories in the entire athletic department.

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This isn't the promised land.  Not yet.  But after a 9-4 season, a Top 25 finish and a consensus way too early Top 10 projection for 2016? This isn't the wilderness anymore either.  And thank God for that.

Has any other program at any point in time had a chart or a decade like this?

Year Football Off. Coordinator Def. Coordinator Basketball Lady Vols
2007 Phillip Fulmer David Cutcliffe John Chavis Bruce Pearl Pat Summitt
2008 Phillip Fulmer Dave Clawson John Chavis Bruce Pearl Pat Summitt
2009 Lane Kiffin Jim Chaney Monte Kiffin Bruce Pearl Pat Summitt
2010 Derek Dooley Jim Chaney Justin Wilcox Bruce Pearl Pat Summitt
2011 Derek Dooley Jim Chaney Justin Wilcox Bruce Pearl Pat Summitt
2012 Derek Dooley Jim Chaney Sal Sunseri Cuonzo Martin Pat Summitt
2013 Butch Jones Mike Bajakian John Jancek Cuonzo Martin Holly Warlick
2014 Butch Jones Mike Bajakian John Jancek Cuonzo Martin Holly Warlick
2015 Butch Jones Mike DeBord John Jancek Donnie Tyndall Holly Warlick
2016 Butch Jones Mike DeBord Bob Shoop Rick Barnes Holly Warlick

The names, numbers, and facts are plenty crazy by themselves.  Four head football coaches with 11 different coordinators, four head men's basketball coaches, and having to replace the one of the greatest basketball coaches of all-time period in leading the university's winningest program.

Those are just the facts.  The stories which make up the truth of the last decade are even richer, and we'll spend some time this football off-season looking back on some of them.  But in hindsight, a few things stand out:

  • 2007-08 was a phenomenal year. Between back-to-back National Championships for the Lady Vols, Tennessee won the SEC East in football and Bruce Pearl led the Vols to a #1 ranking and an outright SEC Championship in men's basketball.  The names on the first line up there - Fulmer, Cutcliffe, Chavis, Pearl, Summitt - were quite a team.  And man, it feels like a million years ago.
  • Look how few of these names left their job because of things that happened on the field/court. And one was Fulmer, who won 152 games in 17 years, a National Championship and two SEC titles before it got away from him in 2008; Dave Clawson is certainly responsible for a portion of that.  John Jancek was replaced in part for a good defense not being great.  I'm not including John Chavis or Jim Chaney on this list, which certainly does include Derek Dooley and Sal Sunseri; Chavis and Chaney have had no problem landing work on the same level, which has not happened for Fulmer, Dooley, Sunseri, or so far Jancek.  But the list of those who left Knoxville for reasons other than losing includes Kiffin, Pearl, Cuonzo, Tyndall, and of course Pat Summitt.  Those stories, varying in degrees of heartbreak and stupidity, have led to much of the most passionate conversation in Knoxville in these last ten years.
  • Were we ever going to be significantly better than we've been given so much turnover? In football I think others certainly could have done a better job than Derek Dooley, but how much better being the third coach in three years while facing 11 Top 15 teams in the following three years?  Even if you remove the negative impact of having Lane Kiffin for only one season and think someone else could have reloaded immediately after Fulmer, consider who else was hired in the 2008-09 cycle.  Dabo Swinney and Chip Kelly have certainly been successful, but both were promoted from within.  Gene Chizik won a title at Auburn but was fired two years later.  Doug Marrone went to Syracuse and then to the Bills but never got over the hump either place.  The only name that really stands out from the 2008-09 hires in terms of "we could have had him" is Dan Mullen.  When you pull the trigger on a known winner, there are no guarantees.  Tennessee football is really healthy right now, but we were really sick for five years and took three more to get better under Butch Jones.  I'll say this, though:  Pearl, Cuonzo, and Tyndall all won more than they probably should have in their very first season, and Barnes may be on his way to duplicating the feat.
  • What have we learned in the last ten years? Replacing legends like Phillip Fulmer and an icon in Pat Summitt is far easier said than done.  Though Bruce Pearl rightfully gets credit for its resurrection, the relative success Cuonzo Martin had here and the potential shown by both Tyndall and Barnes suggests the basketball program is strong enough to find success via a number of different coaching styles.  The Vols went mid-major and worse-than-second-choice on a number of these hires in the middle, but once success began to be re-established and the financial situation recovered, Tennessee showed it can and will pay up, making top-shelf hires in Rick Barnes and Bob Shoop.  There is never a dull moment around here.  And winning is precious.  Heading back toward the promised land, we would be wise not to forget where we've been, and allow it to teach us how to celebrate well.