Is Tennessee Still a Football School?

David Parks@DavidParks10Correspondent IJuly 27, 2008

In the SEC, football is king, and no one can dispute that.  When September rolls around on the calendar, everyone in the south stops what they're doing and turns their attention to football.  

The SEC is home to the last two national champions, and both Georgia and Florida figure to be in the running for the championship this year.  But lately, the conference has been enjoying success in basketball.  

The Florida Gators won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 and were joined in the 2006 Final Four by the LSU Tigers.

Some schools in the SEC have been able to field consistent basketball teams to go along with their football teams.  Schools such as Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, and LSU have been able to produce basketball teams with a high success rate of making the Big Dance.

Every year, those teams, along with a couple of other teams from the conference, are a good bet to make the field of 65.

But lately, there has been a team that has risen out of the SEC cellar to take the conference by storm in basketball.  That team is none other than the Tennessee Volunteers.

Over the past three seasons, the Vols have been to the Big Dance every year, and it can all be attributed to one man.  Bruce Pearl, the man that everyone loves to hate.  

After winning the National Title in football in 1998, the Vols have regressed, not winning an SEC championship since then.  The Vols have still been able to produce quality players such as Albert Haynesworth, John Henderson, and Donte Stallworth.  

Neyland Stadium underwent a renovation and an addition of some club level seats.  The Vols still pack more than 100,000 fans for every home game and sell out virtually every home game they play.  

Head coach Phillip Fulmer recently received an extension, and the Vols recently introduced a new offensive coordinator, Dave Clawson.  

Even though the Vols aren't as dominant as they were in the 90's, they are still considered to be one of the nation's elite football programs as evidence by their ability to go out and still be able to recruit with the likes of the Ohio States and USC's.  

But could it be possible that football has been overtaken on the campus of the University of Tennessee?  By basketball?

Before Bruce Pearl was hired, Tennessee was coached by Buzz Peterson.  In his tenure on rocky top, Peterson was never able to lead the Vols to the NCAA tournament, instead settling for first-round NIT losses to the George Masons of the world(pre Final Four, of course).  

Pearl, of course, arrived on the national scene when he led Wisconsin-Milwaukee to a Sweet 16 birth, upsetting the likes of Alabama and Boston College before falling to eventual runner-up Illinois.  

After seeing the job that Pearl did in Milwaukee, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton jumped at the opportunity to hire Pearl.  That move would turn out to define Hamilton's legacy in Knoxville.

When Pearl came to Tennessee, he said that changes would have to be made.  Starting with the students.  As anyone knows who follows college basketball, there's one constant with having a good home court advantage.  The students.  

Upon arriving to campus, he went out to the student body, urging them to come and support the team, telling the students that in a close game it is often the students who can help decide the outcome. 

When the basketball team was mired in mediocrity under former coach Buzz Peterson, it was easy to get tickets to home games.  Oftentimes, students could walk in at the middle of a game and get first row seats in the student section because of the lack of support the team had.

Thompson-Boling was and still is one of the biggest arenas in the country.  While the Lady Vols often sold out their home games, the men's team almost never sold out home games under Peterson.  

In terms of seating capacity, Thompson-Boling is the biggest basketball arena in the country.

After leading the Vols to a 21 win season and a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance in his first year, it was apparent that Pearl had once again put Tennessee Basketball on the map.  

Seeing that attendance records were being shattered at almost every home game, Hamilton decided that it was time for Thompson-Boling to be renovated.  On November 30, 2006, plans were announced at to add new renovations to the arena.  

Renovations included black seats, a huge center scoreboard, and concourse refurbishments, such as graphics and other amenities.  Also added were luxury suites with flat screen televisions overlooking the court.  

When the renovations were done, it looked like an NBA arena inside.  All over the country, it was being regarded as the nicest arena in the country.  Not only that, but Tennessee never lost there.  

In fact, the Vols support a current 31-game home court winning streak, the third longest in the country.  

But not only did the Vols have the nicest arena in the country, they also had one of the nicest practice facilities in the country.  Pratt Pavilion was built right next door to Thompson-Boling, adding yet another chapter in the growing legacy of Bruce Pearl at the University of Tennessee.  

With these additions and the teams' continued success people were starting to wonder.  Is it really possible that Tennessee, a school that has been defined by football for decades, was turning into a basketball school?

The football team never had a problem attracting five-star recruits to come play for UT.  The basketball team was lucky if they could get a three-star prospect from their own home state.  

But all of a sudden, something started happening.  With the success that Pearl was having, those five-star recruits that one time shunned the Vols starting listing another team among the ones they were considering.  Tennessee.  

The Vols reeled in the best recruiting class in school history in 2005 with the additions of two five-star recruits.  

Pearl led the Vols to another NCAA tournament appearance in 2006, falling in the Sweet 16 to another eventual runner-up, Ohio State.  

But still there was reason for optimism in the Volunteer state as the team returned everyone and was getting a boost with the addition of two transfers, Tyler Smith and J.P. Prince.  

The 2007-2008 season was shaping up to be the best basketball season ever in Knoxville.

The highlight of Pearl's tenure came on the night of February 23, 2008 in Memphis, Tennessee.  

That night was the most anticipated college basketball game of the season, and it matched two in state rivals, the Tennessee Volunteers, ranked No. 2 at the time against the Memphis Tigers who were undefeated and ranked number one at the time.  

It was every college basketball fans’ dream.  Two bitter rivals ranked No. 1 and 2, battling it out for the No. 1 ranking, bragging rights, and the inside track on recruiting in the state of Tennessee, all in prime time.  

The Vols ended up winning the game 66-62, and for the first time in the history of Tennessee Men's Basketball, the team was ranked No. 1 in the country. 

The 2008 season did not end with the National Championship that many fans had hoped for before the beginning of the season.  The team lost to Louisville in the Sweet 16.  To this day, the Vols have never advanced past the Sweet 16.  

But there is once again reason for hope again in the Volunteer State that this could be the year that the Vols finally break through and advance beyond the Sweet 16.  

With the return of Tyler Smith and the arrival of another top-10 recruiting class, chances are good that the team will be a top 10 team in the country and will be the choice of many to win the SEC and advance far in the postseason.

So while the Tennessee football team continues to struggle competing with such schools as LSU, Georgia, and Florida on the gridiron, the basketball team continues to have fans in frenzy for basketball season.  

The team has sold more season tickets than ever before and figures to be near the top in attendance once again this season.

As I'm sitting in a student section seat in Thompson-Boling arena an hour and a half before tip off watching the team shoot around, I look around and see the luxury suites, the big scoreboard, and the black seats and think to myself all of this, everything that I was seeing was due to one man.  Bruce Pearl.

Usually people in Knoxville keep a countdown for football season.  This year, people are still keeping a countdown on their refrigerators.  Only this time, it's counting down the days until basketball season.


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