A trip down memory Lane with Fulmer, Shula and Co.
Let’s take a trip back in time. More specifically, a trip five years and 364 days back in time.
The date is October 21, 2006. Seventh-ranked Tennessee is 5-1 after its first six games, led by a future NFL star in tailback Arian Foster, who at times was disinterested at worst during his time in Knoxville and an All-SEC back at best. Orchestrating the offense is a lanky, strong-armed quarterback from Hillsboro, Ore., named Erik Ainge.
Night falls on Neyland Stadium with 3:28 left on the fourth quarter clock and Foster plunges over the pile and in to the end zone to help the Vols to a 16-13 win over an Alabama team that led the game for over 56 minutes.
It would be the last win over Alabama for then-head coach Phillip Fulmer, who was fired two years later.
And it would be the last win over the Crimson Tide for the Vols until, well, that’s yet to be determined.
But for now, forget about where Tennessee was then and where the Vols are now. We’ll get to that shortly.
Instead, let’s take a closer look at exactly who Alabama was then.
To be frank, the Tide was a mess.
On the sideline was head coach Mike Shula, in what would be his fourth and final season leading the Tide. Shula went 26-23 in his four seasons in Tuscaloosa. Including a 4-9 first year in ’03, a 6-6 season in ’04 and a 10-2 Cotton Bowl winning season in ’05 that was rewarded with a contract extension.
But another 6-6 season in ’06, including the loss in Knoxville, sent Shula packing.
But to Shula’s credit, he did what he did after taking over a college football tradition in turmoil.
The son of legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, the younger Shula took over an Alabama program that was trying to forget about Dennis Franchione ditching the Tide for Texas A&M and the off-field trouble of here-today-gone-tomorrow Mike Price.
The constant leave-hire-fire-hire cycle ’Bama went through doesn’t even include the NCAA sanctions the Tide were getting hammered with at the time Shula came on board.
Seeing any similarities here?
A famous last name leading a tradition-rich college football program that’s seen better days, to say the least, and struggling to survive his first contract.
That could describe Shula. It could also describe Derek Dooley.
Dooley inherited a similar mess, minus the NCAA sanctions, just a matter of weeks before National Signing Day. Fulmer’s dismissal and Lane Kiffin’s one-and-done need not be rehashed here.
But that brings us to today, more specifically 7 p.m. tonight, when Dooley, trying to survive his third season in Knoxville in the midst of heavy fan scrutiny after a 3-3 start and another 0-for-SEC in the league standings — and for the record, Dooley’s contract expires on Jan. 14, 2016.
Alabama fired Shula after ’06 and hired Nick Saban away from the Miami Dolphins. The Tide’s lost 12 games since Saban took over. They’ve won 56, including an SEC title game and a pair of national championships.
Those stats have UT fans clamoring for a search for the next Saban. Even if there’s not another one out there.
But an inspired effort against Saban and the top-ranked Tide tonight could make a strong statement and help prove Dooley isn’t Tennessee’s version of Shula.
Moral victories don’t get contract extensions, but they can silence some critics — at least for another week if not for another year.
Grant Ramey is a sports writer at The Daily Times. grantr@thedailytimes Follow him on Twitter @TDT_Sports