Tennessee football from 30,000 feet

By Mark Nagi

It is just after midnight local time as I write this article from 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. That makes it 5 a.m. in Knoxville.

I’m coming back from a vacation in Hawaii. This was my first time out there. It took me 48 years to make the journey and I hope it doesn’t take another 48 to make it back there.

I’m exhausted and can’t sleep on the plane because while the cabin is mostly dark, my seat is right next to the brightest lightbulb in this hemisphere. Like John Currie during a coaching search, I also inadvertently picked a plane without Wi-Fi, so the struggle is real.

Folks, I’m not writing all of this to look for sympathy, but only to let you know that I care about you so much that I’m willing to put up with this much hardship to write this article.

While I have been away, new Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel finished assembling his offensive coaching staff, and finally got someone to fill the defensive coordinator opening.

As I type on my tablet this high in the sky, I wonder what Tennessee football looks like to those far removed from the football program.

Since most of us live in Knoxville, we are inundated with Tennessee football news 365 days a year. There is no off season anymore. From recruiting to spring practice to SEC media days to the season itself, we don’t get much of a break from the trials and tribulations of this program.

While the national sports media looked at the 2017 coaching search as a group of country bumpkins getting upset and pitching a fit because Tennessee didn’t hire Jon Gruden, those truly connected to the program knew that the issues dug much deeper.

I mean, how could you truly understand what had been going on at Tennessee if you weren’t there for every misstep along the way?

Now it is 2021, and Tennessee has had over three years of more mistakes. The glorious times are further and further in the rearview every day. Heck, the biggest connection to those halcyon days, Peyton Manning, hasn’t thrown a football in a competitive game in over five years.

From 30,000 feet, Tennessee’s football program looks like it is a relic, stuck in the past with no plan to mend their litany of self-inflicted wounds.

At least, that was the case before the hiring of Danny White as athletics director.

Whether you agree with his hiring of Heupel or not, the University of Tennessee has realized that the old ways of doing business, both on and off the field, won’t work anymore.

Former AD Phillip Fulmer’s heart was in the right place, but his hiring of Jeremy Pruitt will not be looked at fondly as the years pass. Pruitt was trying to win the Alabama way… but the Alabama way as it was about ten years ago. The game has changed, and you have to be able to put points on the board to have a chance to compete in the SEC.

Pruitt’s stubbornness didn’t just make Tennessee boring. It made the Vols an afterthought. It wasn’t just that they weren’t winning (16-19 in his three years). It was that they were getting throttled by their biggest rivals, as well as the teams they should always beat (I’m looking at you, Kentucky).

From 30,000 feet I can tell you that Tennessee’s problems are indeed large… but they are fixable.

I get asked quite often if Tennessee will ever be Tennessee again.  That is an open-ended question. Forever is a long time.

Let’s just hope it happens in our lifetime.

Josh Heupel… you are on the clock.

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