Vol sports: Decade of D words

Marvin Westwestwords

Jeremy Pruitt has claimed the new decade for football. It would be OK if others picked up the pace. There is plenty of room for all-around improvement.


From a Tennessee perspective, the previous 10 years were not all that hot. You can choose the most appropriate D word: Disappointing, dysfunctional or disastrous.

Two deaths made greater impacts than anything the Volunteers did or didn’t do in athletics.

Legendary coach Pat Summitt died June 28, 2016, at age 64. Much of women’s basketball came to say goodbye.

John Ward, Voice of the Vols, died on June 20, 2018 at age 88. A million or more radio listeners remember “Give him six!” and “Touchdown Tennessee!”

Pat won a silver medal as a basketball player at the 1976 Olympics. She won a gold medal as coach at the 1984 Olympics. Her Tennessee teams won 1,098 games and eight national championships.

Summitt was named Coach of the Century in 2000. In 2012, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I don’t know why it took so long but it conveniently fits into this decade review.

Ward was different. He earned a UT law degree but never wanted to go near a courtroom. He was a natural salesman and did very well in advertising. He wasn’t a gifted athlete but he did love sports. He had the rare skill of describing what he saw, with just the right amount of enthusiasm, to make broadcasts come alive.

He did it for more than three decades. It was fitting that Ward’s final football broadcast was the Vols’ national championship game. That he gave back to the university $2 million of what he had earned said a lot about how much he cared.

Several other things happened between the beginning of 2010 and last week. The Volunteers lost 62 football games, including two really bad ones to Vanderbilt and the worst-ever to Georgia State. They managed to lose two they had won. The rule limiting each team to 11 players at a time proved costly.

There were a few memorable triumphs. Tennessee won one of 10 against Florida. It beat Georgia on a Hail Mary pass. The Battle at Bristol was a spectacle.

Twice basketball Vols were ranked No. 1. They came down. The all-time peak remains the Elite Eight.

Former Vol sprinter Christian Coleman grew up to be the fastest man on Earth. Not long ago he ran 100 meters in 9.76 seconds in the World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

Former Lady Vol Kara Lawson, UT torchbearer, pro broadcaster and UT trustee, became an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics.

Lost in space: Alas, blunders and stumbles attracted more attention. The search for leadership, from the top down, went in circles and became a crazy merry-go-round. It was not the kind of fun found at the county fair.

There were times when chancellors and athletics directors appeared lost in space. Football coaches came and went and took away a fortune in contract buyouts. The best basketball coach was fired for lying and another was captured by the NCAA.

Never have so many been paid so much for accomplishing so little.

Here is a wry smile: Because decades begin in January, basketball got the first opportunity in the spotlight. Four Vols were arrested. Those who weren’t stunned Kansas.

The landmark event of the decade happened on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017. John Currie, then athletics director, with support from somebody higher, attempted to hire a football coach. The tentative agreement must have been in pencil on a napkin.

Fan revolt snuffed out the selection of Greg Schiano. Harsh criticism of his possible knowledge of crimes at Penn State was painted on the campus Rock. Talk shows overheated. Politicians got involved. The unprecedented uprising moved the needle on the volcanic eruption scale.

Many who heard about the revolt scorned hillbilly rednecks who butted into company business. Others applauded faithful fans for seizing ownership of their program.

It took a few days but the backlash cost Currie his job. In classic irony, Phillip Fulmer got it. If you are keeping score, Currie was the point man in removing the coach in the previous decade.

There were few consistent bright spots in this past decade. Tennessee softball was successful. Divers did very well. Nobody drowned while rowing.

Consider this progression: Over time, Chris Woodruff went from Bearden High to UT tennis to NCAA champ to pro tour and is now in his 18th season on the UT coaching staff. He was finally promoted to head coach in 2017.

You would have to ask to learn that he had wins over Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Consider this abrupt conclusion: Lane Kiffin, Mike Hamilton’s knee-jerk choice to replace Fulmer on his way to the Hall of Fame, stayed one season. He got a call from Southern Cal. His dream job was open. He wasted three seconds weighing options.

On Jan. 12, 2010, Tennessee was left to face an impossible recruiting dilemma. On top of that, assistant Ed Orgeron tried to steal what the Vols had. Early enrollees were advised to not go to class, to follow the coaches to California. None followed.

Kiffin’s year was scarred. His departure was stormy. Fans felt jilted. Students, with nothing better to do, burned a mattress or two in protest and threw Kiffin T-shirts into the bonfire. Sports information director Bud Ford was caught in a historic crossfire at the concluding press conference.

If Kiffin was the anti-Fulmer, Hamilton’s next choice, Derek Dooley, was the professorial type with three degrees in the wrong field. He had the famous last name but not much football background or foresight. He must have had good luck on his side. He got one of the 10 or 15 best jobs in America on the strength of a losing record at Louisiana Tech. His losing record at Tennessee was 16-21.

Hamilton fired five coaches during his eight years as AD. He was in charge when Kiffin and Bruce Pearl broke rules. The NCAA investigated for 28 months. Tennessee endured a relatively soft two-year probation.

Hamilton departed on June 7, 2011. It was called a resignation. He received $1.3 million in severance pay or a love offering.

He said: “The last several years at UT have been marked by turmoil, fractures and the development of rival camps. This is not healthy, nor is it productive. I want peace for the University of Tennessee.”

Dave Hart era: Nobody will admit to being the muscle behind the move to elevate Dave Hart from a secondary role at Alabama to be the next athletics director at Tennessee. He certainly stirred the pot.

Dave was assigned the awkward task of consolidating the men’s and women’s departments. Somebody’s definition of “One Tennessee” included disposing of the cherished Lady Vols name and logo.

The university was a double loser in public relations, age discrimination and gender equality lawsuits. Serious money changed hands.

From a distance, in 2013, Fulmer delivered a bold summation of the football decline. He blamed Hamilton and the university’s lack of leadership for the three consecutive losing seasons.

“We had four presidents in six years. We ended up with an athletics director that wasn’t prepared for the job. Not a terrible guy or anything like that. He got twisted like a pretzel by middle management of the university.

“When you have a great president and a great athletics director and replace them with substandard people that have no idea, what do you expect is going to happen?”

There is the forever question of whether Hart had the correct answers. He did dispose of Dooley and give us Butch Jones as football coach. Butch gained national notoriety with fancy slogans, brick by brick, five-star hearts and champions of life (media snickered) but he wasn’t very good at fundamentals or player development or when to go for two-point conversions.

Butch did oversee some happiness while Joshua Dobbs was quarterback and Derek Barnett was breaking Reggie White’s sacks record. Butch also delivered the worst season in UT history as a going-away gift, 4-8 record, 0-8 against Southeastern Conference foes.

Grumors: By then, Hart was gone. Currie inherited that mess. He took up donations for a down payment and told Butch to go away. UT is still paying, month by month, million by million.

Replacing Jones turned into a comedy of errors. For the fourth or fifth time, Jon Gruden was the popular rumor. He responded with a devilish grin but did not elaborate on his wife’s degree from UT and the farmland they own in East Tennessee. Gruden never said he wanted to be the coach. He never said he didn’t.

“Grumors” died hard.

After the Schiano rejection, Currie scurried here and there, hoping to find a solution. Possible choices got better contracts where they were. Depending on your point of view, the search was chaotic, sad or tragic. Tennessee people couldn’t believe no one wanted the job.

Currie was out of pocket, out west, negotiating with Mike Leach, when Chancellor Beverly Davenport decided she had had enough. She ordered Currie back to town and dismissed him on Dec. 1, 2017.

Dr. Davenport, with a keen eye or in self-defense, picked Fulmer to unravel the tangle. It took him six days to deliver Pruitt.

Scattered prayers continue, some for the AD and coach, maybe some for the chancellor. Soon and very soon, she, too, was paid off and fired. Tennessee system president Joe DiPietro cited seven reasons for losing faith in Aunt Bev.

Basketball gave us tumultuous times, well, a mix of joy and dismay. Coach Pearl was colorful and some degree of brilliant. Unfortunately, he tried to cover up minor transgressions at a backyard barbecue, was found out, suspended, fired and hammered with a severe NCAA penalty.

It is a losing strategy to fib to investigators who have an incriminating photo.

Cuonzo Martin, next coach, had a spotless reputation for law and order but never bothered to connect with fans. He had one very good season and walked away, to Cal. There was very little weeping or gnashing of teeth.

Hart, no doubt busy with more important things, snapped his fingers and Donnie Tyndall jumped at the replacement opportunity. If there was an examination, Donnie didn’t mention past sins. The NCAA came to get him for what he had done elsewhere. Hart tried to explain away the oversight.

The boss rebounded well. He hired Rick Barnes a few minutes after Texas fired him. Barnes is very expensive. Barnes can coach. He transformed slightly chubby Grant Williams into the very powerful two-time SEC player of the year.

The UCLA flirtation exposed Barnes’ concept of deep and lasting loyalty.

Athletic debt escalated during the decade because of new construction, facility improvements, coach buyouts and lawsuit losses. There was no panic. Donors responded. The SEC paid big dividends. Beer sales were legalized.

There were other reasons to smile. Allan Houston, Dale Ellis and Candace Parker had their basketball jerseys retired. Condredge Holloway was so honored by baseball. Monica Abbott’s softball shirt became a treasure.

Late news: John Majors, all-American tailback in ’56, runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, famous in nine other ways, had his jersey retired – in 2012. You can guess the reasons for the delay.

Indeed, it was a decade of change. Tennessee changed clothes, from adidas to Nike. Baseball changed coaches. Track changed coaches. Soccer changed coaches. Golf changed coaches. Volleyball changed coaches. Women’s basketball endured a traumatic change.

No doubt a few other little changes are coming. Chuck Rohe will undoubtedly be inducted into the flawed UT hall of fame.

The beginning of the new decade is encouraging. Only seven SEC schools are ahead of Tennessee in the Directors Cup comparison of sports programs.

The new decade offers the promise of improved stability. Southern Cal’s untimely interruption of 10 years ago will not be repeated. Notice that Alabama has not yet called for Pruitt to come home.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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