by Tony Basilio
Some things just weren’t meant to be. Tennessee’s ’05 football season is really something. From the get-go it seemed this season just wasn’t going to happen. There was a pall cast over it from first glance. It was over before it began. What a strange ride it’s been.
Flash back to UT’s first “closed” scrimmage of the summer. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, and a couple hundred contributors and media members were gathered in Neyland Stadium. Following a spirited period of stretching, Tennessee seemed to have that bounce befitting of a No. 3 pre-season ranking. UAB was but a couple of weeks away. Tennessee was on cruise control.
Then the scrimmage began, and reality set in. As the horn sounded signaling the beginning of the first period, the offensive and defensive teams gathered around their position coaches for some final instruction. There’s nothing like the first hits in summer scrimmages. Jobs are on the line. There’s an obvious survival mentality.
The scrimmage cranked up with optimism. First up was a running play to the right side of the line. Appropriately, the play went for a short gain, but it yielded a major loss. Starting center David Ligon went down with an injury. He was prone on the turf for at least 15 agonizing minutes. It seemed like hours! His father, beside us in the stands, immediately jumped on his cell phone while gathering his stuff. Mr. Ligon had to be thinking, “Why us? Why our son, and on the first play?” David Ligon was a guy Tennessee could ill afford to lose. Unfortunately, the trainers were inflating an air cast on his ankle. Since the original first-team center Richie Gandy was on the mend from a winter basketball injury, losing Ligon for any length of time had the potential to be catastrophic. As Ligon lay flat on the natural surface, Mother Nature made a guest appearance. Without any warning the day was about to go from bad to worse.
All of a sudden, the skies opened up and poured on the Vols. Here we sat (the lucky few on hand for the one-play scrimmage) in Neyland Stadium with lightning popping around us. It was about as safe as a gold watch in an unlocked Florida State football locker. We knew the conditions had worsened past the point of no return when Coach Fulmer brought his troops off the practice field. The promise of 20 minutes before (the anticipation, the build-up, the No. 3 ranking) gave way to an omen that would haunt the Vols for the duration of the season. It had begun to rain on UT football’s parade.
Instead of a minor, brief shower, the storm intensified to the point where the weather forced the Vols indoors, where the scrimmage finished in artificial conditions. That occurrence was both emblematic and prophetic regarding what awaited this collection of once mighty Vols.
Just as the storm forced the Vols inside, the storms of the ’05 season have pushed Phillip Fulmer into an almost nuclear bunker, the likes of which he has never seen. Katrina was actually a highlight to this bunch as it helped yield the lone bright spot of the season in the “Cajun Comeback.” A win later that same week in Neyland Stadium over Ole Miss meant that UT had collected two of its three wins in a five-day stretch.
The season has been so odd that UT’s first home night game came in the last weekend of October. That’s when Hurricane Spurrier struck in Neyland Stadium and left an offensive coaching staff at the brink of ruin in its wake. That Spurrier was the latest storm on Tennessee’s Big Orange Doppler Radar is not coincidental. It’s part of Tennessee’s lost season.
When Spurrier left Florida for the NFL, conventional wisdom stood that Tennessee would take over control of the SEC East. Not only has that not happened, but Tennessee has slipped past the point of upper-level mediocrity. In his first eight years, Fulmer didn’t record his 15th loss until his 92nd game as UT’s head coach. That’s a 77-win 15-loss clip. His start included a National Championship and consistency befitting the College Football Hall of Fame.
Now, get ready for this: Fulmer’s last 15 losses have been recorded in 42 games. In mostly the post-Spurrier era, Tennessee has logged a 27 and 16 mark. Those are the kind of numbers borne of cataclysmic storms and a program that seemingly all at once just wasn’t meant to win.
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