Volunteers pass in review: Good but not great

Marvin Westwestwords

The wait is over. Maybe nothing after Nico will belong to 2023. It was a year of ups, downs and a few sideways for Tennessee, a school with the goal to be great in everything:

January 5 – Quarterback coach Joey Halzle was promoted to offensive coordinator for his 15th season working with Josh Heupel.

January 24 – Heupel became college football’s newest $9 million man. Based on the 11-2 record of ‘22, a few minutes atop the college football playoff rankings and that Orange Bowl triumph over Clemson, the coach cashed in.

“The results over Josh’s first two seasons speak for themselves,” said athletics director Danny White. “He and his staff have energized our program and our fan base with an aggressive brand of football, a competitive culture that creates leaders and a relentless approach to raising the bar every single day.”

White noted that Heupel said the best is yet to come.

January 28 – Olivier Nkamhoua scored 27 and Zakai Zeigler had 22 points and 10 assists to lead No. 4 Tennessee over No. 10 Texas, 82-71, in an SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Rick Barnes, former coach of the Longhorns, was pleased.

February 15 – Alabama wilted in the face of a smothering second-half defense and the Volunteers knocked off the No. 1 Tide, 69-59. Big win. Lots of noise.

February 18 – Lady Vol swimmer Mona McSharry, a Tokyo Olympian from Ireland, recorded the third fastest time in the nation to win the SEC 200 breaststroke in 2:05.11. She won the 100 in 56.87.

February 28 – Zeigler suffered a torn ACL in the Arkansas game and doctors were correct in saying he would miss the rest of the basketball season.

March 11 – Dylan Jacobs, best distance runner in the SEC, pulled away in the last few laps to win the NCAA indoor 5000 in 13:37.59. Jacobs came to UT with distance coach Sean Carlson from Notre Dame.

March 18 – Tennessee defeated Duke 65-52 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Nkamhoua conducted a shooting clinic – 27 points, 10 of 13 from the field, including three of four three-pointers. Alas and alas, next time out the Vols found a way to lose to upstart Florida Atlantic.

March 25 – Jordan Crooks, UT sophomore from the Cayman Islands, SEC swimmer of the year, won the NCAA 50-meter freestyle.

March 28 – Jordan Horston finished her basketball career with 1,445 points, 731 rebounds, 455 assists, 163 steals and 109 blocks. Only Alexis Hornbuckle (2004-08) had similar basic numbers – 1,333, 740 and 503. The team lost to Virginia Tech, 73-64, in the Sweet 16. The signature win of the season was 69-67 over eventual national champion LSU in the SEC tournament.

April 23 – The Vols swept Vandy in baseball. At the mid-point in the SEC season, Tony Vitello’s team was 5-10 in league play and had lost four of five weekend challenges. Tennessee turned its season around. Chase Burns was brilliant in his first real relief work.

April 28 – Johannus Monday, junior from England, fifth-ranked singles player in the country, was named SEC tennis player of the year.

May 13 – Jacious Sears scored 20.5 points in the women’s SEC track championships. She won the 100 in a school-record10.96 and contributed in the 200 and two relays.

May 13 – Tennessee women swept the SEC softball season and tournament for the first time. Alabama fell victim in the finals, 3-1. Centerfielder Kiki Milloy set a school record with 25 home runs, most in all of Division 1. This was UT’s only team title of the year.

May 18 – Dr. Daniel J. White, vice chancellor and director of athletics, shocked Big Orange Country and part of the world with the idea of creating a Tennessee Entertainment District along Neyland Drive from the south end of the football stadium to the basketball arena. Plans included a boutique hotel, retail shops, restaurants and space for tailgating.

“Innovation is at the forefront of everything we do,” said White.The idea for this new project exemplifies that mindset. This is a massive project that has the potential to impact our entire city positively.”

First reaction: Biggest pie-in-the-sky since Bob Woodruff was going to encapsulate Neyland Stadium and create a basketball arena with a bubble roof.

Second reaction: The Danny Whitehouse and table-top extension is likely to become reality.

May 28 – Tennessee won the 2022-23 SEC all-sports trophy for the second year. Florida was second, Georgia third.

June 3 – Late-inning heroics continued in baseball. Burns wiggled out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the 10th inning and Tennessee scored in the top of the 14th to defeat Clemson.

June 17 – Multi-talented prep football star Boo Carter of Cleveland committed to the Vols. As recruiting victories go, this was big.

June 19 – Vols defeated Stanford, 6-4, for the first College World Series win since 2001. After trailing 4-0, Tennessee racked up 12 hits in the comeback.

June 28 – Tennessee finished sixth, best ever, in Directors’ Cup standings, the national comparison of college sports teams.

July 14 – Finally, closure descended upon us. After 30 months, Tennessee and the godfathers settled on punishment for more than 200 NCAA violations. The Vol goal was simple, no bowl ban, no crippling scholarship reductions. In a messy, losing situation, we have a winner!

UT paid $10.4 million in fines. It vacated 11 victories, including the 2019 bowl victory over Indiana. There were cuts in scholarships, prospect visits, recruiting evaluation days and communication with prospects. None were viewed as fatal.

Jeremy Pruitt and seven former staff members got multi-year show-cause penalties.

July 19 – Five-star receiver Mike Matthews committed to Tennessee. Clemson was supposedly runner-up.

August 21 – Edge rusher Jordan Ross, another football five-star, chose Tennessee over Alabama, Florida and Texas.

August 23 – Food City committed $20 million for 10 years of naming rights to Thompson-Boling Arena.

September 2 – Nico made his debut late in the Virginia game. Fans cheered. The freshman quarterback completed two of three passes for 11 yards and ran once for eight.

Tennessee middle linebacker Keenan Pili, former BYU captain, suffered a season-ending arm injury that affected the remainder of 2023.

September 16 – Trevor Etienne ran for 172 yards and a touchdown as Florida upset No. 11 Tennessee, 29-16, in Gainesville. The Vols last won in The Swamp in 2003. The skid started under Phillip Fulmer and includes leadership by Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt and now Heupel.

October 2 – Chuck Rohe died at 92. The legendary track coach led the Volunteers to 21 consecutive SEC titles in outdoor, indoor and cross country. In his spare time, he recruited great players for Tennessee football (think Richmond Flowers and Chip Kell).

October 14 – Heupel’s Vols won a football game without scoring 30. That was a first. Texas A&M fell, 20-13. Tennessee was bad offensively. Dee Williams’ punt return for a touchdown was the difference.

October 29 – Dalton Knecht scored 28 on eight of 16 shooting in an exhibition basketball win at Michigan State. He later had 24 in a win over Wisconsin and 37 in a loss at North Carolina. Fans immediately connected Knecht to forthcoming championships.

November 18 – Women distance runners reached the 2023 NCAA cross-country championships for the first time since 2006 and finished sixth in the country. Ashley Jones was 41st in a tough race.

November 25 – Joe Milton completed 23 of 32 passes for 383 yards and four touchdowns (no interceptions) and added two short scoring runs against Vanderbilt. Jaylen Wright finished his race to break 1,000 yards rushing. The 8-4 record and fantastic fan support gained the Citrus Bowl bid against Iowa.

November 30 – Dr. White added former Auburn athletics director Allen Green to his all-star staff.

December 1 – Tennessee again led the SEC in average home attendance for football – 101,915. For the first time since 2006, all games were announced as sellouts. Total ticket sales: 713,405, third nationally behind Michigan and Penn State.

December 7 – Women’s volleyball made it to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005 but lost to Texas, 3-2. Tennessee was the only team to take eventual champion Texas to five sets in the NCAA tourney. Morghan Fingall was exceptional.

December 22 – Three starting defensive backs plus four others from the secondary departed through the transfer portal with eligibility remaining.

Notable happenings, start dates difficult to determine: Construction is underway on multi-million-dollar renovations to Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Permanent seats are being built down the left field line. Improvements at Neyland Stadium are ongoing.

What did I miss?

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


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