For University of Tennessee football fans, the spring and summer months spent daydreaming about the depth chart are coming to an end. So, too, is the seemingly never-ending parade of preseason hypotheticals and way-too-soon predictions. Tennessee’s much celebrated Bodies-by-Rock (Gullickson) weight training is done. And, regardless of what coaches might be saying into microphones at pressers, UT’s opening-day roster is fully charted. In virtually no time, Team 121 will walk #DatWay into Atlanta to begin the 2017 season against the slippery Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech, rendering all offseason conspiracy theories and imaginary win/loss records moot. Reality is about to set it.
But before the imminent, small-picture reality sets in, maybe there’s a greater actuality that could use some acknowledgment. It’s no fun, but topics concerning fandom rarely are. That reality exists in the form of a long-running identity crisis among the legions of Tennessee football followers. The Big Orange Identity Crisis is simple: It is a matter of who we think we are versus who we actually are.
I use the word ‘we’ as a lifetime fan of UT. Admittedly, this usage is pretty unprofessional of me, and it probably contributes to my continued place outside of the buddy club of Vols beat writers, but so it goes. I was born this way, like many of you were. And every season, I see these final weeks before kickoff as an opportunity to make gut-check evaluations about the team and our expectations to see how closely they line up with reality.
There’s a constant narrative among fans in the modern era about what it will take to return Tennessee to its rightful place among college football’s giants. I hear conversations about this topic all the time, usually in the context of why we should replace Butch Jones and get a “better X’s and O’s coach in there” or something to that effect. I feel like my conversations with UT fans always end with me cast in the role of defending Jones, but here’s the thing: Tennessee historically has been a storied program, an adored national brand that, under Jones, has played competitive, exciting football. But in the modern era – and what presumably will be the forever era – UT is simply an above-average football program with a big stadium.
There will come a day soon when Alabama says goodbye to Nick Saban, and if that change comes with a decline, Tide fans will have a totally justified desire for Alabama to return to greatness, to its place atop the SEC and the NCAA. If their fans are asked to pinpoint a juncture to where they would like to return, they will be able to point to circa right now.
I always ask angry and disappointed Tennessee fans to where they would point. What modern Tennessee era justifies such wildly inflated hopes and near-constant wishes for coaching changeover when those weekly and yearly expectations naturally go unmet? Truthfully, the Vols regularly have been good for about eight to 10 wins per year. Even when Fulmer had his sweet run from 1995 to ‘99, Tennessee mostly struggled with Florida and averaged 10 wins.
Like so many delusional parents seeing their toddlers bang on pianos and thinking that they’re hearing Bach, UT fans just love the Vols so much that they inevitably can envision only an SEC champion at every season’s conclusion, even though such a belief is deeply unsupported by the program’s track record. That, and the fact that Vol Nation is forever chasing the perfectly narcotic high of 1998.
My frustration with Tennessee fan culture was at an all-time high in 2016. It took an unbelievable number of injuries to keep Tennessee out of Atlanta and the Sugar Bowl. The team was fun, aggressive and prolific offensively. They at last beat Florida, and (aside from some dissension) drama was at a minimum. Yet the dominating judgment amongst fans was that the season was a disaster because the Vols didn’t get to play in Atlanta. Never mind the fact that, in the 15-year history of the SEC Championship Game, Tennessee has made it only five times, winning just twice. This is not a thing we regularly do – and haven’t since 2007.
It makes sense to want Tennessee to be there; winning titles is why we play the game. It’s fair to desire it, too, but weird to actively expect it when Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC since 1998. Couple that with the widespread dissatisfaction with Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord, in spite of the fact that his offense last year performed at one of the most productive and prolific rates in school history. Looking back on a 9-4 season chock full of so many extraordinary moments and high points as a negative experience and deeming it worthy of hot-seating a coach is absurd.
Jones has built a football program at Tennessee that is consistently competitive and fun to watch, he recruits at a high level, his players are increasingly successful in the classroom and on NFL Draft night and his players are experiencing far less off-the-field trouble than in Fulmer’s time at the helm. As much as fans want to pin the shortcomings of the Vols on Jones or wave a magic wand and transform UT into a juggernaut, any upward evolution comes only with structure and stability, and the head coach has provided the program with these things.
Is $4.6 million a lot of money for coaching a team that’s not winning championships? Sure. But in 2016, Jones’ $4.1 million salary ranked just seventh out of 14 SEC head coaches. It is simply what the job pays these days. It is a demanding profession with a lot of intricacies. It involves recruiting, hiring, controlling, fundraising, politics and public relations. Having to perform all of these functions at a high level while battling a fanbase with a swollen ego and that wields an inappropriate amount of power with regard to hiring/firing of coaches really is a tough task. In moments of adversity last year for Tennessee coaches/players, the Vols’ fanbase routinely went fully, publicly toxic. And no player or coach is safe from #VolsTwitter.
So the brand new, unsullied 2017 season nearly is upon us, and I challenge you to perform a similar gut check. Know thyself, Tennessee fan. Your team is inexperienced enough to lose to every legit opponent. By the same token, it also has enough natural talent to be able to beat virtually every team on the schedule. In stable times like these, your team typically wins between eight and 10 games, regardless. This prospect is what you signed up for. It is our identity as a team. Can you want titles without expecting them and maintain enough perspective to know a good season if you get one? Embracing the reality of Tennessee’s history and bending expectations around that reality might just be your ticket to greener pastures.