Two years ago, the Kentucky Wildcat basketball team looked broken. They were led by a strange coach who was in over his head. The quality of the players wearing the big blue seemed unrecognizable in comparison to Kentucky standards.
Tubby Smith had been forced out for only recruiting a “few” McDonald’s All-Americans only to be replaced by a coach who led the Cats to the NIT. Billy Gillespie, some thought, was the nail in the coffin of Kentucky basketball.
It’s hard to remember those times now. Not after a year of first-round draft picks and star-studded visitors like LeBron James in the bleachers at Rupp Arena during John Calipari’s season in the bluegrass.
Three years ago, the Alabama Crimson Tide were fighting for relevancy. They suffered through four straight losses to Auburn, and at one point went through three seasons with no bowl game and fired Mike Shula after finishing 6-7 in 2006.
In 2010, Alabama is expected to win its second national championship with a returning Heisman Trophy winner and 5-star recruits lined up as far as the eye can see.
USC had history followed by mediocrity before Pete Carroll returned them to glory. There's Ohio State before Jim Tressell. Texas before Mack Brown. The short-lived weakness of Ron Zook before Urban Meyer in Florida. The list goes on. The big programs sometimes struggle, but they all bounce back eventually.
As Tennessee fans face the beginning of the Dooley era, no matter what happens they should remember that history in college sports, especially football, has a way of repeating itself. Whether it is two years or 10 years from now, programs like the one in Knoxville always find their way home.
Tennessee football history is an example of this cyclical nature as coaches like Neyland, Dickey, Majors, and Fulmer brought championships and built nationally competitive programs between short stints of harder times in Volunteer history.
Why do they come back around? Take a look around Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
In a down year against a team like Tennessee-Martin, any casual observer could tell you that few sporting events in the country could compete with the electric and pressured environment that surrounds Knoxville on game day. It’s not a place where long-term losing can find acceptance.
Furthermore, few programs have the resources in the midst of such a mini downward spiral to commit to significant cosmetic changes like those to be unveiled Saturday at Neyland Stadium—an outdoor amphitheater for viewing pre and postgame radio sessions, eventually a life-sized statue of Robert Neyland, and enough bricks to cover a 106,000 seat venue. The Vols also have more plans and funding for a multi-million dollar training facility that will replace an already first-class space they currently use.
University of Tennessee Athletics was one of a handful of BCS schools to actually make a profit last year. How much? Enough to contribute to their school instead of borrowing from it like most FBS schools do. Think they can afford the right coach and coaching staff when he comes along?
Schools like Kentucky in basketball and Alabama, Ohio State, and Florida in football—they all go through these spells, but they don’t stay down long. They always find their way back to the top.
Recruits want to play in historic stadiums that fans have turned into shrines, want to train in the NFL-like spaces that players at such programs practice in, and want the exposure of playing for schools so closely followed and financially supported that ESPN features them every week on one of their networks.
These are the built-in advantages of being at a school like Tennessee, even if you only win three, four, or five games in an occasional down spell. It’s also why 5-star recruits still look at schools like Tennessee and Auburn in down cycles after a game day visit while less established programs struggle to reel them in even when they have great years.
The Vols have everything they need to compete nationally every year. All they have to have now is the roster of high-grade recruits that comes with consistency and having the right coach that can take them to the promised land—that may be Derek Dooley. Only time will tell.
If not, he will likely be the Gillespie, Shula, or Zook to the next great Vol coach.
Either way, even if this season is hard to stomach at times, Vol fans should study their history and take it to heart, remembering the plight of their southern neighbors just a few years ago. Tennessee Volunteer football and all the expectations that come with it will return.
On the day of Dooley’s first game, it's just a matter of when and with whom.
Johnny Lewis is a Bleacher Report featured columnist for the Tennessee Volunteers. Read his other articles at www.kentuckyvols.com and follow him on Twitter @kyvolunteer.