The Tennessee Volunteers have fallen on tough times over the past few years. A program that was once known as a perennial contender for Southeastern Conference and national championships was relegated to trying to stay out of the cellar in the SEC East.
The downfall started at the end of the Phillip Fulmer Era. During the 2008 campaign, the Vols struggled to a 5-7 record, missing out on a bowl game for the second time in four years. Athletic Director Mike Hamilton elected to fire Fulmer after 16 years as the headman in Knoxville, a tenure that included the 1998 national championship.
Hamilton wanted to put a new face on the program, one that might invigorate the fan base as well as potential recruits. Hamilton hired 34-year-old Lane Kiffin to replace Fulmer. During his time in Knoxville, Kiffin infuriated more people than he inspired, including fellow SEC coaches, the NCAA and the Tennessee administration.
Kiffin’s 2009 team went 7-6, finishing with a 37-14 loss to the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. After the season, Kiffin abruptly resigned to take the head-coaching job with the USC Trojans.
After less than one calendar year, Hamilton conducted another coaching search. After missing on several of his top candidates, Hamilton settled on Louisiana Tech head coach Derek Dooley, son of the legendary coach Vince Dooley, who led the Georgia Bulldogs to a national championship during his time in Athens.
The younger Dooley did not have nearly as much success as his father. His first season in Knoxville produced a 6-7 record, including a controversial loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Music City Bowl, a game that turned out to be Dooley’s only bowl game as the Tennessee head coach.
The 2011 and 2012 seasons both saw 5-7 records, as well as little improvement from the Vols on the field. Near the end of the 2012 campaign, Athletic Director Dave Hart fired Dooley, and shortly thereafter, he hired Butch Jones, head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats.
Hart, Jones and thousands of Rocky Top fans are hoping that this once-proud program can bounce back to competing on a national level. Jones would be wise to first concentrate on competing in his own division, where he will face the Florida Gators, the Georgia Bulldogs and the South Carolina Gamecocks, among others.
If Jones can get the Vols to regularly compete with these teams, he will have brought Tennessee back from depths that Vols’ fans hope they never see again.