Recently, I stumbled upon a tweet that again triggered Tennessee Vols football nostalgia and managed to discredit the current regime.
This sentiment stems from Butch Jones’ comments at SEC Media Days where he proclaimed that while the Vols didn’t accomplish everything they wanted to in 2016, the season wasn’t a disappointment.
Predictably, that statement pitted both sides of the Tennessee fan base against one another. While one side expects the 1990s to rinse and repeat itself every decade, the other side has examined a contraption known as a calendar, allowing them to effectively move on from the past to better understand the current situation. There’s really no right or wrong perspective in this situation, but the sharp divide has led to countless hours of debate and entertaining social media conflict.
“Is 9-4 good enough?”
“Shouldn’t we win 10 games every season? After all, we were great in the ’90s!”
No matter what lens you view Tennessee football through, a 9-4 season isn’t a disappointment. It’s par for the course. Every program rides the college football wave, where sustained dominance is never a guarantee. The Vols aren’t immune to this and it’s evident by their history, both recent and distant.
From 1941-1952, Tennessee lost a grand total of 22 games. Over the next 12 seasons they more than doubled that total, losing 49 games from 1953-1964.
Immediately following that window of mediocrity, Tennessee compiled an impressive 73-15 run from 1965-1972, but were only 49-40 from 1973-1980.
The Vols reached their highest point from 1989 until 2001, going 129-29 in that stretch. Predictably, the next 13 years didn’t bring the same success, as Tennessee went 92-72 in that stretch.
To further put this dip into perspective, a quick examination of other programs proves that fans in East Tennessee aren’t experiencing anything unique.
Under Nick Saban, Alabama is a mind-boggling 114-19 with four championships. In the ten previous seasons, Roll Tide was 67-55. Texas was arguably the best program of the 2000s, as Mack Brown led the Longhorns to a 101-16 record from 2001-2009. Since the turn of this decade, Texas is a painfully mediocre 46-42. From 1969-1989, Michigan finished in the AP Top 10 a staggering 16 times. Since 1990, the Wolverines have finished in the top 10 only eight times.
Before Oklahoma’s current run (14 10-win seasons since 2000 with eleven AP top-10 appearances), Boomer Sooner compiled zero 10-win seasons with just as many top-10 finishes from 1988-1999. Since 1994, Notre Dame has recorded only four 10-win seasons. In that same span, Tennessee has eight such seasons and haven’t accomplished the feat since 2007. From 1987-2000, Florida State ended each season in the AP top 5. It would take 13 years before the Seminoles reached that point again.
Perhaps the most impressive streak comes courtesy of Nebraska. From 1969 to 2001 (33 seasons), the Cornhuskers worst record for an individual season was 9-4, which occurred only once. They lost only 61 games in that span. Since 2002 (15 seasons), Nebraska has lost 71 games.
I could go on and on, but it’s probably a moot point to some. After all, they appreciate Fulmer’s view that 10-3 was a disappointing record. I’m not in the business of chopping down high expectations, but I’m also a proponent of reality. As great as Fulmer was, the Vols weren’t Alabama, whose worst record since 2008 is 10-3.
On this matter, I side with the fans who are appreciative of Butch. He has flaws in his coaching, but because of him, Tennessee’s fall from grace is over. Now, the Vols are either an adequate team on the cusp of national relevancy, or a legitimate contender for the SEC East crown. Did Johnny Majors accomplish that in four years? No. In fact, Tennessee didn’t culminate a season ranked in the top 25 until Major’s ninth season as head coach. Did Bill Battle and Fulmer take over bad situations? No and no. They both inherited situations far superior to that of Butch’s.
For fans who opt to live in the past, at least take the time to understand the past. The sun wasn’t always shining on Neyland Stadium. Arguably the gloomiest days came before Butch, but in the history of the program, no coach has taken a gloomy situation and turned it around quicker than he has.