As bad as it gets

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

This is George Cafego memorial day.


Let us remember the late, great Tennessee Volunteer, one of the genuine good guys who gave more than he got, an all-American, No. 1 pro draft choice and Hall of Fame honoree.

Please join me in a moment of silent reflection on this fiercely loyal player and assistant coach – who turned into a flame-throwing dragon at the mere mention of Vanderbilt.

Thank you.

Cafego never did like Vanderbilt. He called it Harvard make-believe.

He mostly despised the Commodores. He and they were polar opposites. He grew up in poverty. He resented their silver-spoon birthright and nose-in-air elitism.

Sometimes, when he thought about it, he just plain hated them. History says that started in ’37, when Vandy star Carl Hinkle slammed George to the ground, injured his knee, mocked the grimace and pain and told trainers to haul him away.

“He’s finished.”

After that, all Vanderbilters were guilty by association.

Incidentally, George wasn’t finished. Vandy didn’t score when he was a junior and senior tailback and safety. Vandy won three times in his 30 years as an assistant under Bowden Wyatt, Jim McDonald, Doug Dickey, Bill Battle and John Majors.

Cafego’s animosity made him a natural motivator, spirited cheerleader and sparkplug – guaranteed to light a fire. His pregame pep talks were legendary. You can only imagine.

Had George Cafego been forced to watch what happened on Saturday, he would not have gone quietly into the Nashville night.

This third consecutive loss to Vandy was as bad as it gets. Three in a row last happened in this series in the 1920s. This was no contest, a rock-bottom performance by players and coaches. The Missouri rout was humbling. This was an embarrassment. There was a hint that some surrendered.

How do you explain 38-13? Is it possible Vanderbilt has that much better, stronger and faster players? Smarter coaches? It was obvious the Commodores had a greater hunger for success. Why? Same mediocre record going in, same reward to the winner.

Could it be some from Tennessee didn’t want another month of football drudgery and an exciting bowl adventure in downtown Memphis?

Defensive Vols supposedly prepared to stop the run. They did it. They were inept against Kyle Shurmur passes. His pre-snap reads were flawless. He picked the Vols to pieces. He completed an astounding 31 of 35 and deserved two more.

Tennessee also lost on offense. It didn’t get the football a fair share, couldn’t keep it and had only a few seconds of true happiness.

Ty Chandler broke away for a 75-yard run. The Vols were three and a half touchdowns behind when off-target Jarrett Guarantano finally delivered to a perfect spot, to Marquez Calloway. After that, Jauan Jennings caught a ball, refused to be tackled and gained 43.

Those three plays represented more than half of Tennessee’s entire production. Think about that.

Punting was substandard, and the obligatory onside kick hopped directly into enemy hands.

Tennessee lost more than a game. Gone is any pretense of fundamental development, late-season improvement. November will be remembered, all right, but for the wrong reasons.

If you had any doubts, Jeremy Pruitt has provided clarity about the future.

“Lord knows, we got a long ways to go.”

Immediate recruiting is of critical importance. The early signing date is three weeks away. Pruitt has said repeatedly that he must get better players. All opponents are trying to do the same thing.

This is not a race to overcome Alabama, Georgia or Florida. The first order of business is to somehow catch the commoners. The solution is different from stirring up instant potatoes.

Tennessee needs robust linemen on both sides of the ball. High school talent seldom defeats grown men. Physical and mental development is the equalizer. That usually takes time.

The deficit is greater than I imagined. Vanderbilt, up by 25 and eager to launch the celebration, called a cocky, late timeout so the Vols could ponder the historic smack in the mouth.

Cafego might have used some cusswords.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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