Up there might one sit, maybe even with ample space and peace, and maybe even admire those fans who still climb the stadium stairs with hope, as No. 3 Georgia reaches town to play long-woebegone Tennessee, a game promising fascination but not the kind most seek in stadiums.
Somehow, Tennessee’s doldrums have managed to extend themselves into this new autumn of 2019. A program that went 67-32-6 in the 1960s, 75-39-3 in the 1970s, 77-37-4 in the 1980s, 99-22-2 in the 1990s (with a 1998 national championship), and 83-44 in the 2000s, heads for the blessed end of this decade at 56-60, a decade sure to be mourned for decades to come.
In many a college town, football victory can seem to sprout from civic craving, as if the public’s thirst for major success serves to mandate that it happens — at least every now and then, if not at an Alabama rate. Somehow, even after 11 seasons of ricocheting between lukewarm, worse than lukewarm and the occasional turn of quite good, Tennessee has lost games during the last three seasons by 41, 38, 33, 20, 18, 26, 26, 26, 37, 33, 25 and 31 points.
Somehow — there’s that word again — none of those losses qualifies as the worst.
The worst came Aug. 31, when Georgia State, which ended last season with a 2-10 record and began this one with a helpful forecast of last place in the Sun Belt Conference, came to Neyland Stadium, beat the Volunteers, 38-30, and, probably even worse, in a case of near-blasphemy, outrushed them 213-93. It seemed they sort of pushed them around.
“Calling it an ‘upset’ doesn’t do it justice,” wrote John Adams, the estimable columnist and witness to just about everything under the football sun and clouds across the decades. “This was the worst loss in the modern era of Tennessee football.”
It took a hopeful offseason and good recruiting season for Coach Jeremy Pruitt’s second season, and it gave it a mean puncture.
As Georgia State moved on to lose, for example, 57-10 at Western Michigan, in came Brigham Young, which won at Neyland in overtime weeks before losing 28-21 at Toledo, not that Toledo has ever been the easiest. From there, the Vols won, 45-0, against Chattanooga of the Football Championship Subdivision, then lost, 34-3, at their fans’ object of loathing, Florida of the SEC East Division.
This has gone on for so long that it’s possible to have made a trip to Knoxville in 2013 to discuss the malaise, to learn about how the difference between, say, 10-2, and, say, 5-7, matters deeply in apparel sales, in restaurant receipts.
Did you know people don’t buy as many programs for 5-7 teams?
Maybe it’s obvious, but people don’t buy as many programs for 5-7 teams.
Six years later, most of them really long, and through the 34-27 era of Butch Jones, Tennessee has reached this particular week, on which Adams writes, “The bar of UT football has dropped so low that raising the possibility of a competitive game against a ranked opponent seems far-fetched.” No matter whom one blames, it’s just about mysterious that this could happen for so long, given the public’s great interest.
All the way into this week, it seemed prudent to check in on some Knoxville talk radio, still a worthwhile endeavor even in Twitter days because it includes the persistent sound of human voices.
“You know what I’m dreading for Saturday,” said Heather Harrington on WNML, “is for it to be 35-nothing at halftime. And that’s what I fear is coming.”
That’s when sitting in the upper reaches of a stadium so vivid in its days of fullness could reveal some compelling sights and sounds.
Of course, some of the talk centered around the case of linebacker Jeremy Banks, who in the middle of the night of Sept. 15 had a set-to with the police involving an improper U-turn, during which he was arrested on an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court for an earlier citation. Banks has apologized profusely for directing profanity toward the officers, but the whole thing wound up with Pruitt on tape from the phone call with police, wondering why Banks was arrested and saying, “I’ve worked at four places, and I ain’t never had no crap like this except for here.”
It’s some week, among many some weeks, and it even includes glory-days coach Phillip Fulmer, the athletic director, trying to quell rampant chatter by saying, at age 69, “The coaching chapter of my life is long closed.”
An objective heart might weep, and Tennessee fans still investing whole hearts after all this would qualify among the best fans extant. One of them called Pruitt’s show Wednesday night and made what seemed a serious pitch to walk on as a middle linebacker.
On Jimmy Hyams and John Wilkerson’s show Thursday afternoon, a caller named Joe doubtless spoke for many. He talked for a while about the Banks arrest and how Banks might utilize it to spur him toward the better. He closed with, “I love my Tennessee Vols, and like I tell people, it’s gonna be hard, it’s gonna be a long road to get back to where we need to be.”
He added: “Only silver lining, Auburn’s going to Florida and they’re gonna destroy them.”
It has come to wishing for such morsels of distant pleasure. Now comes Georgia, as it did two years ago, in a match that looked somewhat curious in advance of itself. Then Georgia, ratcheted to a new level under Coach Kirby Smart, demolished Tennessee, 41-0, in a fresh statement of the reality of the SEC East.
That, too, could have been an edifying day to sit way up top.