For the past decade-plus, I’ve worn my Power T with pride, but there have been a lot of times where I’ve looked down forlornly at it, wondering if it was my scarlet letter. Living in Alabama, it’s been a burden to carry around with me. I’ll never shun my alma mater, but there have been countless times when a scoff or a joke from a stranger lurks right around the corner.
For years, I lashed back defensively. After a while, failures in virtually every sport humbled me to the point where I’d grin and endure it, apologetically making a self-depricating quip about what it’s like to be a Vol in the midst of what has been a Volpacolypic era.
Tonight — and all throughout this basketball season — it’s been great to be a Tennessee Vol yet again.
After everything we’ve endured this season, I feel like erecting a statue of Rick Barnes somewhere on campus. Heck, let’s at least name a crosswalk after him or something. What we’ve seen from him as a coach and this team as a whole has been nothing short of remarkable. It’s also been everything we needed.
We’ve stood on our own social media or Internet platforms for years, defending football coaches who wind up stabbing us in the backs or reddening us in the face. All of that culminated this past year with what seemed like a surreal football season where Butch Jones’ tenure as head coach spiraled out of control with the worst season in school history. A year after back-to-back 9-4 seasons, UT’s football team laid a 4-8 egg and went an unheard-of 0-8 in the SEC. We were embarrassed, frustrated, ridiculed, and we deserved it.
Following that horrific, forgettable season, our absolute joke of an athletic department led by incompetent power-booster Jim Haslam and his puppet — former athletic director John Currie — tried to force Greg Schiano down our throats after finally, mercifully giving in and firing Butch. It incited a revolt, a mini-riot and a national firestorm where the media played the part of the trailer park frenzy.
Currie was fired. Legendary football coach Phillip Fulmer was hired as athletic director. Jeremy Pruitt was hired as the new head coach after about 736 coaches turned down the Vols, and life returned to normal. But, then, after a successful early signing period, Tennessee’s new football staff largely struck out on national signing day, failing to sign any marquee prospects they were in on down the stretch.
Happiness, seemingly, decided to throw all the orange out of its closest years ago.
All the while, though, Tennessee’s basketball team lurked back in the shadows, winning games. Amid the darkest final days of the football season, UT’s hoops began with dominant defensive showings in wins over Presbyterian and High Point. Then, the Vols went to the Bahamas and beat Purdue and North Carolina State, along with playing Villanova to the brink in a close loss.
A team that was picked 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC believed all along it wasn’t going to be that kind of team. Most importantly, it began to show us. The months wore on, the football drama unfolded, and — even while we fretted and stewed and watched our frustrations unfold with our once-proud football program — we tuned in every Wednesday and Saturday to watch our hoops team.
What started as a nice little diversion grew into something more. This was for real, and we began to believe what the Vols believed: That they were potentially in store for big things.
A hiccup came around the New Year, when UT lost consecutive tough games to open the SEC slate on the road against Arkansas and at home against Auburn in a game that seemed like an awful loss at the time but would age well. When we feared they’d slip back to reality, they whipped Kentucky by 11 at Thompson-Boling Arena on their way to winning nine out of 10, a streak that ended with another hard-fought victory in Rupp Arena.
Yes, that’s right: the Vols swept Kentucky. They also swept Vanderbilt and beat Florida. The only real hiccup of the rest of the season came on the road at Tuscaloosa on Feb. 10 when a mediocre Alabama team demoralized the Vols. But it’s basketball; those things happen. Still, in the scope of things, there were no “bad” losses.
Saturday night, Coach Barnes’ team overcame a torrid shooting start by Georgia with some clutch play from Admiral Schofield and Lamonte Turner (as well as a massive defensive play by Kyle Alexander) down the stretch to even the score with the Bulldogs after losing to them on the road a couple weeks ago. The victory gave Tennessee a share of the SEC regular-season title with an Auburn team that is now depleted by injuries heading into the tournament. Remarkably, UT is 13-5 in the SEC and on another four-game winning streak.
There are so many heroes on this team, though. Throughout the year, nearly everybody in Barnes’ regular rotation have had spotlight moments. The Vols have shown they can get in 3-point shooting contests and offensive-shootout games and win. They’ve also shown they can grind it out and win close, rugged battles. They’ve beaten bigger teams, and they’ve beaten smaller teams. Rarely does UT’s defense take nights off. They may not be more talented than you, but they’re tougher.
As Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said after the Vols embarrassed the Bulldogs in Starkville last week, Barnes has two “bulls” in Schofield and Grant Williams who are difficult for anybody to match up with. They’ve got a cold-blooded killer in Lamonte Turner who needs to shoot more, a point guard in Jordan Bone who needs to attack more, a streaky scorer in Jordan Bowden and a former national leading scorer in James Daniel who can shoot or dish, depending on the moment.
Alexander has shown up at key times this season and is Tennessee’s truest NBA prospect, and then freshman Derrick Walker is turning into a valuable minutes-eater on the interior. Fellow freshman Yves Pons has enjoyed some nice moments, too. Every week we watch. Every week, there’s a new star.
Most importantly, they’ve made us feel good again. I love this team. You love this team. They love their coach. They love each other. They play hard. They play well. And they play for each other. Entering next week’s SEC tournament in St. Louis, the Vols will get the all-important two-night bye and play Friday night for the first time. Whether that’s a benefit for UT or not remains to be seen, but this team has rarely had outings where they’ve not been ready to play.
Barnes has put together perhaps the best coaching job of his career, and for a guy who gets ridiculed for not being able to recruit, he’s built a championship team in a year when the SEC is arguably the best conference in the nation. Without question, it’s the best the league has been top-to-bottom in a decade. Every night is a rugged showdown, and the Vols were built for this kind of play.
They’re rough. They’re gritty. And, after Saturday night’s regular season-capping victory over UGA, they’re champions.
Thank you, Coach Barnes and thank you Vols for making us all wear our Power Ts with pride again.
I said it’s great to be a Tennessee Vol!