And what you learn along the way is, these little moments are always available. Your team doesn’t have to win it all before they can do something meaningful, before we can enjoy them.
Whenever I hear people asking if this – right now – is as good as it’s ever been, I feel my age. In March and April of 1998, the men’s basketball team made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years, and the Lady Vols went 39-0 to win their third straight national championship. You’re probably aware of what the football team did that fall. Those were some pretty good days.
But what I really think back to is 2007-08. In the summer of 2007, Lady Vol softball played for the national championship. That fall, we won the SEC East in football. In February, we beat #1 Memphis and went to the top of the polls ourselves in basketball. And in April, the Lady Vols won their second straight national championship. It felt like a time less reliant on purely what we did in football, and more about the overall health of the athletic department.
There’s an image from back then that I can’t find, but often reference: Pat Summitt, Phillip Fulmer, and Bruce Pearl sitting together at a Lady Vol softball game. Two Mount Rushmore faces of Tennessee Athletics, and a young (47 at the time!) coach you thought might join them one day. You just knew we were in good hands, and those hands would have us in the hunt.
That’s the real prize, to me: are we in the hunt?
Define success only by winning championships, and you will spend most of your fandom disappointed. But are your teams capable? When you sit down to watch, do you believe they can win? That’s the prize.
Things changed faster than any of us would’ve guessed from those 2007-08 seasons, now 15 years ago. There have still been moments along the way, always accessible. We’ve just had a really hard time lining them up:
- Men’s basketball went to the Elite Eight in 2010, two months after Lane Kiffin left in the middle of the night.
- Pat Summitt was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2011, still helping the team win the SEC Tournament and reach the Elite Eight in 2012, her final season.
- Cuonzo Martin’s 2014 team came within a charge call of the Elite Eight. He left for Cal soon after.
- The 2015 and 2016 football Vols went 9-4, 3-1 against Florida and Georgia in those two years. Those seasons carried their share of what could’ve been, but still represent the high-water mark for football since 2007. Meanwhile, men’s basketball had their low-water mark for the same span in 2015 and 2016 during the transition from Donnie Tyndall to Rick Barnes.
- Barnes got it going with an SEC Championship in 2018 and a month at #1 in 2019. Those years were preceded by a 4-8 football season in 2017, then a handful of 25+ point losses in 2018.
We got close enough to consider asking the question two ago, after football rallied from a 1-4 start to finish 8-5 in the fall of 2019. Some of those moments were both fun and meaningful. And that remained the struggle soon after, certainly impacted by the pandemic: how to string meaningful moments together, to make one year build on the next.
On the football side of things, credit Josh Heupel and his staff for making his year one far more competitive and exciting than most had planned, then building on it with real momentum in recruiting. And since football season ended, we’ve seen this:
- Men’s basketball won the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1979
- The Lady Vols made the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016
- Baseball spent most of the season ranked #1, winning the SEC regular season and tournament crowns
It’s not that every program on campus is ready to be considered the best in the land. But in those sports, Tennessee is in the hunt. Softball hasn’t left the hunt.
And that question now turns to football, the biggest hunt of all. The Vols haven’t won 9+ games in the regular season since 2007.
Meaningful Saturdays are out there, and not too many from now. What will this team do this fall?
On a personal note: I started writing about Tennessee 16 years ago, about 10 days after I became a pastor. I’d lived in Knoxville all my life, then moved to Virginia to begin serving churches. And I just missed talking about the Vols.
I did that for a few years just on my own, as it fit into the rhythm of my life. And then Joel Hollingsworth asked me to join the team at Rocky Top Talk, which I did right after Kiffin was hired. And it had such a profound and positive impact on my life, all those years getting to talk about the Vols with so many people, even if the years were often confusing and it felt like no two sports could get it going at the same time.
We left RTT and restarted over here five years ago now, with kids on the way and another move back to Virginia, and more time to write about other things. And through all of that, up to and including a pandemic, sitting down at the keyboard to do this has remained such a positive thing in my life.
Two weeks ago, after 16 years away, my family and I moved back to Knoxville. And starting this Sunday, I’m elated to be joining the team at Powell Church. We’re so thrilled to be part of such a great community, and to be back home in the area. More than anything, we are incredibly grateful.
I still plan on sitting down at this keyboard trying to figure things out, with the Vols and otherwise, and finding its fit in the rhythm of our lives here. Frankly, I don’t know how to be a pastor without it. I just wanted to say thanks – for wherever you’ve read for however often – for making a difference in my life.
The good old days are always out there. And sometimes they seem closer than others.
But they look pretty good from here.