Last place in the SEC. 0–8 in conference play.
Lost to Georgia by 41.
In a shutout. At home.
Come on now. Can you even blame us for how we handled things down the stretch?
Really though, how did we let this happen, Tennessee?! How has our once-proud university fallen on such hard times? How, after all these years, can we possibly ….
Let’s pump the brakes. I don’t want to go back there. It’s too scary. What we need to do right now is take a moment and think about our future. Because that’s what’s really important.
Yes, Volunteer Nation. It’s me, Albert Haynesworth. And before the long, dark off-season winter sets in and completely sours you on all things football for another year, I’m here to tell you that everything’s going to be O.K.
That’s right. I’m the guy that’s supposed to calm everybody down. That’s how you know things have really gone off the rails.
The past few years have been tough, no doubt. But losers live in the past. We’re not losers. We’re going to get through this. We’ve stuck together this long, and now we just have to ride the last of it out. It’s all going to get better soon — we’ll come out the other side stronger than ever before.
Next year we’re going to win some football games.
That national championship ring isn’t going to magically appear on our fingers, but we’re finally on the right track. Some important changes have been made, and some important pieces are in place.
I choose to believe that the worst is over. Tennessee football won’t be the same old sorry thing in 2018. And here’s why:
Even my mom liked Coach Fulmer when we first met him. That’s no small feat. She likes maybe 25 people, total.
There were a lot of recruiters who came to visit me in South Carolina — Georgia, Florida, Alabama — all of the SEC schools had visited at some point. I was seriously pretty set on going to Georgia for a while, to be perfectly honest.
But when Phillip Fulmer walked through our front door, his vibe was just totally different. You could tell right away — Man… this is a great man. It didn’t even have anything to do with football. He just seemed so genuine, like he really cared about me right from the moment he shook my hand.
And this was the summer before the 1998 season — the year Tennessee would go undefeated and win the national championship. So one day he’s at my house eating cookies and talking to me and my mom like football is the last thing on his mind, and then a couple weeks later he’s leading Tennessee to their first national championship since 1967. He just had it all figured out.
The way he treated me didn’t change after recruitment was over, either. When I got to Tennessee the next year, Coach Fulmer was still always available and ready to talk to me about whatever was going on in my life.
“One day he’s at my house eating cookies and talking to me and my mom like football is the last thing on his mind, and then a couple weeks later he’s leading Tennessee to their first national championship since 1967.”
It’s 2018 now, and I still talk to Coach Fulmer and Coach Dan Brooks, my D-line coach from UT, all of the time. It’s been 20 years, and we’re still all a part of each other’s lives. I didn’t have a real father figure in my life growing up but, man, I won’t hesitate for one second now to say that Phillip Fulmer was like a father to me when I was at school, and still is to this day. He is, without question, the main reason I chose to go to the University of Tennessee.
And now he’s back.
The most important figure in football at our university in more than 50 years is back at the helm, and I’m already excited about the potential. When we have an athletic director we can put our trust in — someone who we know is looking out for the well-being of the players and the fans — it’s a positive thing.
If there’s one thing Phillip Fulmer knows, it’s how much Vols fans want to win, and they’ll do pretty much anything to prove that. Which brings me to Reason No. 2.
We all remember early November when this thing was spiraling out of control. Man, if I had written this thing in November, I don’t even know. I definitely wouldn’t be telling anybody to be calm, though. Damn.
I was lucky enough to play in the state of Tennessee for more than a decade. First with the Volunteers, and then for seven seasons with the Titans. So I know that fans in this state are very loyal. And nobody ever tempers their expectations, no matter what the experts say before the season.
Even when we’re unranked, it’s, “I think we got a shot this year!”
It may have been a while since we were a dominant college team, but as far as everyone in Knoxville is concerned, we’re still the team to beat. We’ve always got a shot. And every year we expect our team to win. When those expectations aren’t met, for the most part we can still find a way to manage and go about our day-to-day lives. We’re still human, after all.
… But then Missouri goes and puts up 50 points against us.
When stuff like that happens, the people of Tennessee don’t know what to do or how to handle themselves. Alarms are sounded throughout Knoxville. People pull their kids out of school, board up their doors and windows and don’t leave home for weeks at a time. It’s chaos.
“You saw it on campus, on TV, on social media. There was no outrageous list of demands. It was so simple — we wanted people in charge who understand SEC football.”
Butch Jones got fired and all hell broke loose. The Vols lost their final two games of the season. The front office started a new coaching search, and every day I would wake up and hear about a different candidate. It was just a never-ending nightmare. One day we’re hearing about Chip Kelly, the next there’s a rumor about Jon Gruden and Peyton Manning at some kind of off-the-books, back-alley dinner meeting. Get the heck out of here.
Then it’s Tee Martin. Dan Mullen. David Cutcliffe. And we’re not hiring any of these guys, just hearing about them throughout the week, followed by several days of no progress. Our football team was a laughingstock on television. I’m getting irritated right now just reliving the events in my head.
Something, something, Greg Schiano.
Finally, the fans stepped in and decided they’d had enough.
I’m always going to be biased, but the passion of Tennessee fans is second to none, and it showed in late-November. When we stood up to the old front office and told them we were sick of mediocre hires, and we were sick of being a mediocre program, we were loud and we made sure they heard us.
Nobody was looking to make headlines. We all just wanted our football team back.
The backlash was fierce at the end of November. You saw it on campus, on TV, on social media. There was no outrageous list of demands. It was so simple — we wanted people in charge who understand SEC football. People who have spent some actual time at our University, in our conference — and come to know what it means to play in Knoxville.
And it worked! In fact it worked out so well that we actually replaced our front office and ended up with Phillip Fulmer back in the saddle. I’ve never been more proud to call myself a Volunteer.
After all the turmoil and all the stress, we got what we wanted. We even got a coach, too.
I’m not going to dedicate much, or even really any time right now to discussing Jeremy Pruitt’s integral role in the Alabama defenses of years past. But that’s only because I don’t really want to talk about Alabama at any point, ever. And honestly, I can’t sit here right now and tell you that I know Jeremy Pruitt all that well. Nobody does. He’s a relatively fresh face.
The numbers don’t lie, though. Five national championships under his belt so far shows that Jeremy Pruitt is no slouch. He knows how to coach, he’s been around the SEC, and he’s exactly the type of winner our university has needed for a long time.
In short, I like him.
And more importantly, players like him. I can reminisce all I want about the stories and traditions and the “Volunteers’ Way”, but that’s not going to win us any damn football games.
It’s good recruiting, good players, and good coaches that make it happen on game day.
I don’t expect the world from Jeremy Pruitt next season, but I know that as long as Coach Fulmer is leading the athletic department, we’ll have a team that’s playing for something. And I know they’ll understand family. And most importantly, they’ll be prepared every single week.
It’s not a national championship, but it’s a start.
And you simply can’t deny that we’re a hell of a lot better off now than we were in November.
I know a lot of people will say they’ve heard it all before. For almost a decade, it’s been the same broken record telling us to hold on — just keep waiting and we’ll get back to the promised land.
And we all know none of that shit has worked up to this point.
The truth is that a lot of things are going to have to go right over the next couple of years if we want to get back on top. Tennessee has been through some hard years, and there will probably be a few more before all is said and done.
Like I said, the one constant is that these fans aren’t going anywhere. Now that we know the administration is listening, we’re probably likely to be even louder — and more annoying — if the down years last too much longer.
But right now we all need to recognize — and be thankful — that our voices were actually heard, and that we actually got what we wanted in the end. It’s our responsibility as fans to let this new regime put in the hours — let’s put the pitchforks away and give coach Pruitt time to develop a working program. We found our guy. Let’s stand behind him.
The more we take this power for granted, the more likely it is that, at some point, they stop listening.
And we can’t ever let that happen. That’s all I’m saying.
Right now it’s a new dawn in Knoxville, 2018. For the first time in a long time, hope is in the air. We’re heading in the right direction. Anything is possible.
See you next season.