The dark days pass into light
Close the book. Then take it off the shelf and throw it in the trash.
Or have a ritual and light the thing on fire. Do whatever you need to do. Just get rid of it.
This era of Tennessee football, the darkest of the dark in more than 120 years of the sport’s organized existence on campus in Knoxville, is over — if all things go to plan.
It ended, at least in theory, with Tennessee’s 37-17 win over Kentucky as the credits rolled and the curtain closed on a disaster-filled season that saw coach Derek Dooley opt to avoid the final scene after getting fired last week.
But this is where the story of The Dark Days ends.
It started with Phillip Fulmer in 2008. The beginning of the end for the legendary coach was the season-opener, when his 18th-ranked Vols were upset in overtime against UCLA in Pasadena, Calif.
Eight games later, Fulmer was fired. A loss to Wyoming on homecoming ensued, along with just the second seven-loss season in the history of Tennessee football — the other was Johnny Majors’ debut season, 1977.
Two head coaches and an two interim titles after the ouster of Fulmer, Tennessee finished 5-7 for the third time in five years with the win over Kentucky Saturday — including back-to-back 1-7 Southeastern Conference records the last two seasons.
But that doesn’t begin to describe the truckload of awful this era of Tennessee football has been.
Add it all up and the Vols are 28-34 since the start of ’08. The 5-7 record that year, 6-7 in 2010, 5-7 in 2011 and another 5-7 mark this season account for four of Tennessee’s five seven-loss seasons in program history.
Tennessee and Ohio State are still the only two major college football programs in the country to never lose eight games in a season.
That record is still intact when a lot of others fell this season, just like Tennessee’s national relevance. At least not for now.
In 2007, the Vols’ last 10-win season, Tennessee was one errant pass away from an SEC championship ring against LSU. Then 2008 was one disaster after another, one year after another.
Lane Kiffin, the quick fix to Fulmer’s fire after the ’08 season, made Tennessee an oft talked about topic, but his 7-6 season in Knoxville had more off-field relevance than on.
Then, just weeks later, Kiffin bounced for Southern California in the black of a January night.
Enter Dooley, his orange pants, seemingly awful luck and all the things that came with him. He never beat Florida. Or Georgia. Or Alabama. Or anyone that really mattered on Tennessee’s schedule.
The loss last week in Nashville to Vanderbilt, the team Tennessee is always supposed to beat regardless of circumstance, was the final straw.
Now, after Saturday, Tennessee has active conference win streaks against only Kentucky (34-17), Ole Miss (52-10, 2010) and Texas A&M (38-7, 2004 Cotton Bowl). That’s it.
It’s been eight years since Tennessee beat Florida, six years since a win over Alabama, five-straight against Auburn, four against LSU and three to both Georgia and South Carolina.
All told, Dooley was 4-18 in SEC games in three seasons. Tennessee is 12-28 since The Dark Years started in ’08.
But that’s neither here nor there. That’s the past.
As of Saturday, the end of The Dark Days, Tennessee’s countdown to a new coach and a new start begins in earnest.
And regardless of the candidate or his resumé, his ties to this program, this state or this part of the country, it has to be a step up.
Not when he’ll enter town by the light of smoldering fires.
Grant Ramey is a sportswriter at The Daily Times. He can be reached at 865-981-1145 or (firstname.lastname@example.org) He wrote from Knoxville.