When we search for the good old days, we don’t have to go back quite as far as you think. Pat Summitt, Candace Parker, and the Lady Vols finished off their second straight national championship in the spring of 2008, probably the last major mountaintop for the University of Tennessee. But for the athletic department as a whole, consider how good life was in that moment. While the Lady Vols had claimed back-to-back titles, the men’s team was ascending to new heights, less than two months removed from a week at number one and an SEC Championship. The football team played in Atlanta in December 2007. And the softball team was rapidly ascending, having just missed a national championship of their own the summer before.
The apparent weakest link in that moment was baseball: Rod Delmonico wasn’t retained following the 2007 season, but the diamond Vols made the College World Series just two seasons earlier in 2005.
I have a memory from that 2007 WCWS run, though I can’t find it documented anywhere online, of Phillip Fulmer, Bruce Pearl, and Pat Summitt all together in attendance to watch the softball team. It was a picture of not only current success, but what we all believed to be a bright, stable future. Fulmer was 15+ years in, Summitt 30+, and Pearl seemed like someone you’d want to keep around for that long too.
It got away from us in a hurry, of course. Fulmer was out in November of 2008, Pearl in the spring of 2011, with Summitt’s diagnosis soon to follow. We think of the wilderness as football, but the athletic department has been in search of its own cohesion and elite success for 10+ years now.
There have been moments, for sure. Softball found its way back to the Women’s College World Series four times after that near miss in 2007. Rick Barnes has elevated our idea of program success in men’s basketball. And as football resets again, new athletic director Danny White is fond of pointing out how well so many of Tennessee’s programs are actually doing.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in baseball: SEC East champions for the first time since 1997, destined to have a shot to host a regional and super regional. And they’ll take the field in Hoover today in the gauntlet of the SEC Tournament, looking for the type of success that has eluded all of Tennessee’s big five programs for a very long time.
How long it’s been for each in winning an SEC Tournament doesn’t tell the full story, of course, as the longest drought currently belongs to the healthiest program among them all. But it does give us an excellent sense of what kind of history could be made this week.
The last time Tennessee won the SEC Tournament/Championship Game in…
Men’s Basketball: 42 years
- Last SEC Tournament title: 1979
- Other SEC teams to win it since then: 10
Aside from things that Tennessee has never done before (Final Four in basketball, national championship in baseball/softball), this is the longest drought on campus. One of the worst parts: the only teams who haven’t won the SEC Tournament since 1979 came to the league via expansion. South Carolina (1992), Missouri (2012), and Texas A&M (2012) are the only programs other than Tennessee who haven’t cut down the nets on a Sunday afternoon in March in the last four decades. The Vols have made it to Sunday four times sinced 1979 (1991, 2009, 2018, 2019), but were thwarted each time.
Baseball: 26 years
- Last SEC Tournament title: 1995
- Other SEC teams to win it since then: 9
Tennessee’s greatest baseball success in the Todd Helton/R.A. Dickey era came with some of the weirdest formats, something I’d forgotten until Wikipedia reminded me: the SEC played only divisional tournaments from 1993-95, and the Vols won all three SEC East Tournaments, including the ’95 title on their home field in Knoxville. The league switched back to a full conference tournament in 1996, and the Vols have never won it. Fun fact: neither has Arkansas, the tournament’s top seed this year.
Football SEC Championship: 23 years – SEC East Championship: 14 years
- Last SEC Championship: 1998
- Other SEC teams to win it since then: 5
- Last SEC East Championship: 2007
- Other teams to appear in Atlanta since then: 7
Just getting to Atlanta is a prize in football, where the Vols haven’t been since 2007. The usual suspects have ruled the SEC West since then, with only Alabama, Auburn, and LSU getting to Atlanta. But in the East, while the Vols have been away, South Carolina (2010) and Missouri (2013-14) broke through, along with Florida and Georgia. The other five traditional powers have all won at least three SEC titles since Tennessee won its last two in 1997 and 1998: eight for Alabama, five for LSU, and three each for Auburn, Florida, and Georgia. Gross.
Softball: 10 years
- Last SEC Tournament Championship: 2011
- Other SEC teams to win it since then: 5
The Lady Vols won the SEC Tournament in 2006 and 2011, and made the Women’s College World Series seven times in eleven years from 2005-2015, coming in second place twice. Since then they’ve been bounced in a super regional four times, and knocked out in the opening round twice, including this year. The SEC is vicious in softball, with five different teams winning the tournament in the last ten years.
Women’s Basketball: Seven years
- Last SEC Tournament Championship: 2014
- Other SEC teams to win it since then: 2
Not sure if it’ll make you feel better or worse, but since the Lady Vols cut down the nets in 2014 (a 29-5 squad that was third in the AP poll but got bounced by Maryland in the Sweet 16), South Carolina has won six of the last seven SEC Tournaments. Mississippi State took the prize in 2019.
Even for the flagship sport on campus, it’s been a while…which would make a title run in Hoover this week all the more memorable.