Saturday, October 24, 2015

The "Curse" Of Fulmer?

I’m not a big believer in conspiracy theories or curses. I don’t think alien encounters are real (and neither is Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster), I laugh at people who say 9/11 was an inside job, and I don’t think the Red Sox went eighty-six years between World Series wins because their cheap owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, causing them to be "cursed". I think these things develop from not-easily-explainable circumstances, or a desire within people to make the world around them more interesting or mysterious than it actually is.

Let’s take the Red Sox for example. Sure, you can turn you brain off and shout “Curse of the Bambino!” until your lungs bleed, but the bottom line is that for most of the 1900s, the Sox were a poorly run franchise whose glaring flaws showed up at the worst possible moment. Take Game 6 of the ’86 World Series for example. Everybody remembers Bill Buckner letting the ball roll through his legs, but they seem to forget that Boston was one strike away from vanquishing all their demons and finally bringing the title back to Beantown, before things went sour because the bullpen, which had been terrible and had tortured the fan base all year (the team blew 14 saves during the regular season, and no pitcher with more than 25 relief appearances had an ERA lower than 3.92) imploded at the worst possible time. So was it totally shocking that the relievers cost the Sox the title? It was absolutely devastating, but if any group was going to lose it for them, it would’ve had to be their back end.

Now just because I think curses are absolute crap doesn’t mean I think they don’t carry any weight in the minds of the fans, the media, and worst of all, the players. The Cubs, another “cursed” franchise, blew a 9 ½ game lead to the Mets in the month of September during the 1969 season. And not only did they lose the division, they choked away the year so badly that they ended up losing the division to New York by 8 games, meaning there was a 17 ½ game swing in one month. ONE MONTH! Supposedly, things starting turning south after a black cat (an omen of bad luck) walked behind team captain Ron Santo while he was in the on-deck circle in Shea Stadium. Yeah, because that’s completely reasonable…. Here’s what actually happened: the Cubs had a tough stretch early in the month, the Mets started surging, and the fan base started flipping out because of the “curse”, causing unnecessary stress and angst in the clubhouse, which led to poor play day after day after day. The Mets caught on fire and played their best baseball of the season. Chicago got tight and choked. They bought into the whole “curse” narrative, and they let it distract them, consume them, and eventually, destroy them. They let the “here we go again” and “Lovable Losers” mindset take hold of them and creep into the clubhouse, snowballing until it broke them.

I think the same thing has happened at Tennessee. Granted, it hasn’t been more than a generation since they won a big game, claimed the conference title, or been crowned national champions, but the way they’ve lost these games is unfathomable. I can’t remember another college football blowing this many winnable games in such a short amount of time. A lot of people have talked about the program being "cursed" since they fired Fulmer back in '08 because they got rid of the guy that brought a national title to Vol Country, but that's literally insane, particularly if you just speak those words out loud to yourself. Plus, it's not like Fulmer never lost any tough, gut wrenching games (Jabar Gaffney anyone?). However, it's pretty difficult to ignore that the losses since he was relieved of his duties have been much more consistent and soul crushing. Here’s a list (if you have a particularly weak stomach, don't watch these videos. Or just stop reading in general. Because vomiting was the only thing on my mind when I went back and rehashed this):

  • 2009: Alabama 12, Tennessee 10 - Terrence Cody blocks Daniel Lincoln’s field goal attempt on the last play of the game. 
  • 2010: LSU 16, Tennessee 14 - 13 men on the field gives LSU another chance to punch in the game-winnnig touchdown, which they did.
  • 2010: North Carolina 30, Tennessee 27 (OT) - Spike?
  • 2011: Georgia 20, Tennessee 12 - Caused me to mutter about a million times afterwards “Man, we suck….”
  • 2011: Kentucky 10, Tennessee 7 - The ‘Cats end Tennessee’s 26 game winning streak starting a wide receiver at quarterback who completed 4 of 6 passes. FOUR PASS COMPLETIONS??!! FOUR!!! AND A WIDE RECEIVER??? AWESOME!! CLASSIC DOOLEY!!!
  •  2012: Florida 37, Tennessee 20 - Vols get outscored 23-0 in the final 20 minutes, turning a six point advantage into a 17 point beatdown.
  • 2012: Georgia 51, Tennessee 44 - After scoring at will all day, Tyler Bray ends back-to-back potential game-tying drives with turnovers.
  • 2012: South Carolina 38, Tennessee 35 - After holding Jadeveon Clowney in check all day, he bursts through the line on the Vols’ final drive, stripping Bray of the football to secure the Gamecocks’ 3 point lead.
  • 2012: Vanderbilt 41, Tennessee 18 - This one wasn’t close. And that’s a huge problem when you’re playing Vandy.
  • 2013: Florida 31, Tennessee 17 - The Nathan Peterman game. I really don’t need to say anything else.
  • 2013: Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT) - Pig Howard fumbles through the side of the end zone as he attempts to dive for the go ahead touchdown.
  • 2014: Georgia 35, Tennessee 32 - Vols upset bid spoiled by Justin Worley’s elbow injury which caused him to miss three crucial possessions in the second half. His replacement on those drives? Nathan Peterman…. Need I say more? Also, how the hell is Peterman (now the starter at Pittsburgh) quarterbacking a 6-1 football team right now? Where was this bizarro Peterman when he was in Knoxville? And why is Tennessee so unlucky? AAAAARRRGGGHHHH!!!!!!
  • 2014: Florida 10, Tennessee 9 - The worst football game I’ve ever watched. I’m not even sure I feel comfortable calling it football honestly because it was that ugly. In typical Tennessee fashion, the Vols blew/didn’t convert/screwed up multiple offensive opportunities, settled for three field goals, gave up two late scores to backup quarterback Treon Harris, and lost.
  • 2015: Oklahoma 31, Tennessee 24 - Still unbelievable. Tennessee dominated for 45 minutes, led by 14 entering the 4th quarter, got tight down the stretch (a common theme), and lost. You haven’t forgot this one yet, and you never will.
  • 2015: Florida 28, Tennessee 27 - So many mind-numbing and incomprehensible screw ups. Not going for two when they were up 26-14 with ten minutes to go, their inability to get off the field on fourth down, the 4th and 14 sixty-three yard touchdown, and the field goal that missed by a foot and a half. I literally think I lost five years off my life from this one.
  • 2015: Arkansas 24, Tennessee 20 - Vols jump out to early 14-0 lead, before the offense went into a shell, causing them to blow an SEC game to Bret Bielema, a guy who loves winning conference games about as much as Alabama fans love marrying outside their families.
  • 2015: Alabama 19, Tennessee 14 - The Tide dropped three potential interceptions, had more than a few drive-killing penalties, forced only one turnover, and still found a way to win. Of course, it’s not all that shocking when you remember that Vol kicker Aaron Medley missed all three of his field goal attempts, or the fact that the ‘Bama receivers won every jump ball and converted on almost every big play.

That’s seventeen losses in less than six seasons, measuring anywhere from “haunting” to “I don’t think I ever want to watch sports again”. How has this happened? Is Tennessee just the most unlucky team in the history of sports?

I don’t have all the answers. I really don’t. I have a few theories, but nothing provable beyond a reasonable doubt. A lot of it has to do with a lack of talent, lack of experience, and the ineptitude and poor late game decision making by both Derek Dooley and Butch Jones. I also think the whole Chicago Cubs, “Oh god, we’re going to screw this up…. Again” mindset has taken hold more than a few times on the Tennessee sideline, and I think you can feel it in the stadium during Vol home games. There’s a nervous energy, an expectation of mediocrity and disappointment, and despite the occasional win, like the one over Georgia two weeks ago, the program hasn’t quite been able to shake it. And I don’t know if they’ll be able to do it for a long time. Once that stigma becomes engrained in a program or organization, it’s really difficult to eradicate it. Just ask the Red Sox, who needed a miracle, down 3-0 to the Yankees comeback in the 2004 ALCS to break the “curse”. Or ask the Cubs, who are embedded in over 100 years of this stink.

How do you avoid the snowball effect? I have no idea. And I don’t think Tennessee does either. At least not yet. 

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