Tennessee wants Bama ... to put the Vols out of their misery

From ESPN - October 20, 2017

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It was the early morning hours of Nov. 2, 2014, and for the first time in what felt like forever, the University of Tennessee football team boarded a flight home to Knoxville as winners. All it took was overcoming a two-touchdown deficit, overtime and a mountain of grief to beat South Carolina on the road in Columbia.

No one cared that Tennessee was still one game under .500. It did not matter that South Carolina was not all that good, either. This was a program that had endured turbulent years under Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, a program that had fallen short of bowl eligibility in four consecutive seasons. It was desperately searching for a turning point under second-year coach Butch Jones, and it believed it had finally found one.

Exhausted, but too wired to sleep, players and coaches celebrated the whole flight home. Linebacker Curt Maggitt seized control of the plane's intercom system and blasted music throughout the cabin. No one dared tell him to stop. Thirty thousand feet in the air felt like a different orbit. For Kyler Kerbyson, a veteran offensive lineman and lifelong Tennessee fan, the pain of years of frustration melted away. He was so thankful for his new head coach. Jones, he thought, had changed everything.

Aboard the flight, Jones told his team, "This is the feeling that you want. This is what you are looking for, boys."

Tennessee appeared to be on its way back. But when the wheels touched down, gravity took hold, and a once-proud program came back to Earth.

Three years later, and in the middle of Jones' fifth season, it's as if Tennessee has not moved an inch. Worse, it's slipped further into national irrelevance. Last Saturday, the Vols settled back into the familiar territory of a .500 record after unranked South Carolina came into Knoxville and won, 15-9. Jones saw how hurt his players were in the locker room afterward. He was disappointed with the way the season had gone, too.

"Love is conditional," he said, "and it's, 'What can you do for me next?'"

And therein lies the problem. Because what's next might mean going from bad to worse. On Saturday, Tennessee visits its bitter rival Alabama in a game that has become an annual reminder of everything the Volunteers are not: SEC champions, No. 1 in the country and a perennial playoff contender.

Phillip Fulmer sat on a bench in Circle Park, located in the heart of the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus. His arms were crossed to shield his chest from the breeze whipping among the buildings on the first cool day of fall. A short road leading out of the park is named after Peyton Manning, his star quarterback when he coached the Vols. Peyton Manning Pass leads into a road just outside Neyland Stadium called Phillip Fulmer Way.

Fulmer, who turned 67 in September, wore an easy smile and a patterned tan coat, his orange dress shirt faded from years of use. He's an administrator now -- "special adviser to the president," he said -- but reminders of his nearly two decades as football coach here are inescapable. Students and professors nodded his way as they walked by. "Hey, Coach," one twentysomething said. Fulmer smiled and tapped his gold national championship ring, which has picked up a warm patina since he first slipped it on after Tennessee's 1998 national championship season.

It's the week of the Alabama game, and Fulmer reminisced on an SEC rivalry that was first played in 1901. Growing up in Winchester, Tennessee, near the Alabama border, he was actually a fan of both schools. Doug Dickey, the Vols coach at the time, and his staff convinced Fulmer that Tide coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was on the verge of retirement, so Fulmer packed his bags and headed to Knoxville, where he's been almost ever since.

When Fulmer took over as Tennessee's head coach in 1992, the Vols had lost to Alabama six years in a row. But over the next decade, he captured seven wins and a tie. The 2003 game, a five-overtime thriller that ended on a game-winning, 1-yard Casey Clausen sneak into the end zone, is Fulmer's most unforgettable installment of the rivalry.

"There's nothing like it in my book," he said. "Fall, the Third Saturday in October, the colors -- orange and crimson -- which are the colors of fall."

But one of the most tradition-rich rivalries in the SEC has gone bankrupt since Fulmer stepped down in 2008. Nick Saban and Alabama have won every year since by an average of more than three touchdowns per game. It would be one thing if the rivalry was competitive, but Alabama has moved into another stratosphere in the intervening years and is a 36-point favorite on Saturday.

Even more unforgivable is Jones' failure to bring Tennessee to the top of a floundering SEC East. The owners of six national championships and 13 SEC titles have not won their division since Fulmer's next-to-last season in 2007.

"There's nothing like it in my book. Fall, the Third Saturday in October, the colors -- orange and crimson -- which are the colors of fall."

Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer

Fulmer, for his part, understands the anxiousness among fans. He was on the field last Saturday when Tennessee followed up one embarrassing loss -- a 41-0 beatdown at the hands of Georgia, the most lopsided in Neyland Stadium history -- with another, the 15-9 loss to South Carolina. Both the empty seats and the "Fire Butch Jones" T-shirts were noticeable. "It's a prideful fan base," Fulmer said.

He's both earnest and to the point: "I support Coach Jones," he said. He called the program a work in progress. Injuries and other factors out of the coaches' control have contributed to this season's predicament, he pointed out. People are emotional, he said, but it's "the 20 percent minority that's the loudest."

And to that very vocal, very disturbed section of the fan base, he preached patience. Remember the "bad hires" after him and the change in athletic director. He reminds them of the uptick in recruiting, the improvements in facilities, the revitalization of the academic center.

"Before you can achieve what you want to achieve, you have to have stability," he said. "We have just gotten there."

Fulmer was nudged out the door late in 2008 and watched as Tennessee football crumbled under Kiffin and Dooley. Making a change now -- a fourth head coach in 10 years -- does not sound appetizing to the man who now serves both as an adviser to the school president and a constant reminder of what the program is capable of in the right hands.

"I am in the president's office now," Fulmer said. "I am not in practice every day to make that decision. But I'd sure hate to see us go through that again."

Anger is turning into apathy for listeners calling into "The Swain Event," a morning radio show in Knoxville hosted by former Tennessee receiver Jayson Swain.

One caller, Nathan, said: "It was interesting ... bringing up Alabama and what they have been able to develop there. As a Tennessee fan, you are envious. It's got to make you sick a little bit after all these years."


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