I’ve been thinking about the fortunes of the football Vols lately, now that all of the media-storm surrounding the hiring of Derek Dooley, spring practice, and the promotional caravan has died down (it never really dies in Tennessee). I’ve considered what a whirlwind the last two seasons have been – two of the most eventful, for reasons other than winning championships, that I can remember.
Naturally, the big weight hanging around the neck of all thoughts on this subject is what 2010 will bring. The circles of thought bring me ’round again and again to the same thing, a point in time, the 1977 season.
Circumstances then were similar but significantly different than today. Back then, we were very near the end of a long, dreadful, steady, and precipitous decline that began after the 1970 season. Today, we certainly can look back at the decline since the early 2000′s (and some say since 1998) that has brought us here, but this recent decline has had some remarkably decent seasons along the way (2006 and 2007 sandwiched between the losing 2005 and 2008 years), unlike the notable consistency of the downward spiral from 1971 to 1977. And, even though 1977 brought us a new head coach as does 2010, Dooley is not the proven commodity that was Majors, not to mention that Dooley is the second new Vol commander within a year.
The thought of 1977 is frightening. The unbridled enthusiasm that came with Majors’ arrival was soon replaced with the stark reality that we saw on the gridiron – we were in deep trouble. We suffered the worst season arguably ever seen in Knoxville. That was a bad football team. Worse, the road back to the top took many seasons. It was the ultimate test of patience for Vols everywhere. But that patience paid off with big dividends.
To understand 1977, and its impact, you have to go as far back as 1964, a year that saw the Vols bring another young, untested head coach to Knoxville.
The untested, 31-year old Doug Dickey was selected to replace Jim McDonald who’s one season at the helm of the Vols (1963) was an appendix to Bowden Wyatt who couldn’t keep the Vols at or near the top of the SEC after the wild success of 1956′s undefeated regular season.
Dickey was seen as a savior to the slow but fairly steady downward drift of Tennessee football. Mind you, this was Doug Dickey who played his college football at Florida, hired by Bob Woodruff, Tennessee’s AD who was Dickey’s head coach at Florida. After his first season (1964) that saw the Vols finish with a losing record, it was nothing but winning seasons, bowl appearances, and two SEC titles until Dickey resigned shortly after the Gator Bowl loss to Florida in 1969 to go to his alma mater, a school that had never won an SEC title.
Woodruff then chose another and even younger outsider to be the Vols’ next head coach, 28-year old Bill Battle who had played his college ball under Bear Bryant at Alabama. Big stars had graduated after the 1969 campaign, leaving many to worry that the job of coaching a bunch of unknown quantities was too big for such a young head coach. But on the heels of a 24-0 shutout of his alma mater and a 38-7 romp over Doug Dickey’s Florida Gators, the Vols cruised to a 10-1 regular season record in 1970 followed by a walloping of Air Force in the Sugar Bowl.
Unbeknownst to Big Orange Country, it was the beginning of a steep decline in Vol football fortunes instead of a step away from national championships. After two consecutive 9-2 regular seasons followed by 1973′s 8-3 season, things started to turn sour.
I remember 1974, my sophomore year in college and my first as a student at UT: you could begin to hear the rumbling of the artillery from some distant horizon following Tennessee’s 21-0 loss to Auburn in Birmingham. Then, but for a Stanley Morgan TD in the last minute on a punt return against Tulsa and a miracle Larry Seivers catch of a pass from Condredge Holloway in the corner of the Shields-Watkins Field endzone, the Vols would have had a five-game winless streak. The cracks had appeared, unable to be papered over during the following two seasons.
The stench really started to be noticeable during the 1975 season. In late October, The Vols suffered one of the most humiliating losses a Big Orange Fan could imagine: a defeat to North Texas State at home. Fans reacted by (1) dispatching a moving van to the Battle’s house; (2) posting a For Sale sign in the coach’s front yard; and (3) summoning an exterminating company to inspect his office on campus. But the worst was yet to come. On November 29, Vandy defeated the Vols at Neyland Stadium, and the Commodore players carried off their coach, Fred Pancoast, on their shoulders. A streak of ten consecutive seasons of bowl appearances (back when there weren’t many bowl games) was ended. The fans were ready to torch Knoxville.
The pitifully sad 1976 season saw Battle becoming fed up with the writers and Gay Street experts, lashing out during a couple of press conferences. After the team put up some pretty gritty performances in close losses to Alabama and Florida, it was the 7-0 loss in Knoxville against (a pretty good) Kentucky team that was the final straw. Battle resigned the following Monday.
Battle had strong critics of his coaching. But, nobody attacked him as a man. He was respected by everyone. But as we learned in 2008, that is far from being enough to keep your job as a head coach in the SEC.
The rumors had started weeks earlier as to who would come to Knoxville and ‘save us’.
No more of the very young, first-time head coaches who were outside of the Vol family. No sir. In came a proven winner and native son. Johnny Majors had accomplished a near miracle at Iowa State by bringing the Big 8 doormat to winner-land. Then, Majors in 1973 went to Pitt who had won only one game the year before his arrival, and in four years, Johnny led the Panthers to the National Championship.
When the rampant rumors were finally confirmed on December 3, 1976, the UT campus went absolutely berserk. The crazy feeling running through the student body was something like a combination of Abraham, Jesus, Muhammed, and Buddha were all being combined into a single corporeal body and being sent to earth from another galaxy with the single mission to save Tennessee football.
After Majors led Pitt to a mauling of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to win the title, Johnny came to Knoxville and concentrated on understanding what he was inheriting and the arduous job of recruiting. It didn’t take Majors long to see that the cubbord was pretty thin in the ration department.
Majors knew exactly what he was getting into. He’d been around the block a few times – he’d seen this movie twice before. During his very first press conference, Majors uttered his now-famous line “I’m a hard worker, not a miracle worker.” Some in the Vol Nation didn’t take kindly to what sounded to them like pessimism. Majors was simply telling it like it is. I remember attending the 1977 season opener against Cal, and I also remember remarking to the person next to me, “Those Cal players are HUGE compared to our boys.” The bitter pill of his first season, a 4-7 campaign, the first Vol team to lose more than six games in a season, was the dose of reality that Majors had tried to warn everyone about.
Midway through the following season, the Vols had a 1-4-1 record, and with the East Tennessee mountains in full fall foliage, it looked like the bottom was yet to come. But the Vols rallied going 4-1 over the last half to avoid a second consecutive losing season, and a disaster far worse. Tennessee had seemingly “turned the corner” toward a more prosperous future.
The corner looked real with a winning 1979 season, including a massive 40-18 win over Notre Dame in Knoxville, and the Vols’ first bowl appearance in five long seasons. But, the corner-supposedly-turned was a mirage. The 1980 season began with two heartbreaking home losses to big teams: Georgia and Southern Cal. We were dubbed by one national sportscaster as “The Best 0-2 Team in the Country.” A three game winning streak that included a 42-0 pasting of Auburn on the plains had the Gay Street Quarterbacks thinking a 3-2 record (and with luck could have been 5-0) had the corner in the rearview mirror. But a five-game losing streak that included one of the worst losses by any Vol team, a 16-13 homecoming loss to lowly Virginia, put Majors’ resurrection project squarely in the crosshairs of the doubters’ rifle. A 5-6 season was a huge step backward.
Thankfully the Vols made their return to winning football in the 1981 season – it would be seven consecutive winning years, highlighted by Tennessee’s astounding 1985 season that was capped with a seismic upset over Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl, a team that was seemingly an easy win away from the National Championship. And following a one-year losing interlude of 1988, Majors nearly ran the table in 1989: but for a mid-season loss to Alabama, Tennessee would have been a perfect 12-0.
The glory years for the Vols continued throughout the next decade under Majors and then Phillip Fulmer, who brought the second consensus National Championship to Knoxville followed by more winning seasons and SEC championship game appearances. But The Road from 1977 to Glory was a long, uphill grind that was full of setbacks, testing the allegiance of every Vol fan.
Even though the details are different, there are enough significant similarities between our situation today and 1977 that make me shudder, as if I’ve seen this train wreck before.
As John Adams wrote in his column on Saturday, “check out the News Sentinel’s complete player-by-player accounting of the recruiting failures that have piled up at UT’s doorstep over the last few years. When you see all the players gone wrong or gone elsewhere, there’s no mystery about the mess left behind. And you can’t clean it up in a year or two.”
I’d be pretty happy with a year or two, because this is the SEC, and Tennessee is a school that has to heavily rely on recruiting in states other than our own. Therefore, Tennessee has to maintain an image of a winner for which the best young talent desperately want to take part. But when you fall off the mountain, followed by seasons that get you painted as just another school in the mind of the impressionable young, and one that has had its share of inner turmoil and external embarrassment, it can take a very, very long time to get back to where you used to be.
I will not be surprised if 2010 delivers no more wins than 1977. And I’m fine with that as long as it serves as the low-point from which improvement comes. This season is not so much a test for Dooley as it is for the Vol Nation. Can we fathom a season worse in terms of wins and losses than 2008? Can we offer the patience necessary to allow a rebuilding project that begins at the rank bottom that 2010 might bring?
And, if you have got some time for a little time travel, just click on the pics and fly away…
UPDATE: If you want a slightly alternative view, check this out. I hope the ol’ boy is spot on. Fantabulous.
Have a great summer.