The unpardonable sin

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Warning: Losing to Vanderbilt may be hazardous to your professional health.

A loss to Vandy in 2005 cost Phillip Fulmer much of the equity he had built up as Tennessee's head football coach. A loss to Vandy in 2012 cost Derek Dooley his job.

Big Orange fans will endure a lot – losing records, bowl snubs, sputtering offenses, porous defenses and shaky special teams – but they will not abide losses to Vanderbilt. Many see losing to the cross-state rival as the ultimate insult to Tennessee's program, the unpardonable sin. That's why a Vandy loss was the beginning of the end for Fulmer in 2005. That's why a Vandy loss was the end for Dooley seven years later. He was fired mere hours after a 41-18 beat-down in Nashville by a UT administration reportedly desperate to keep him.

This is not to suggest that first-year Vol head man Butch Jones will mount the hot seat if he drops Saturday night's home finale against the Commodores. It just means that his approval rating will take a hit … just as Fulmer's did in '05 and Dooley's did last November.

Simply put, losing to Vanderbilt is devastating. The backlash is amazing.

Tennessee has suffered 27 losses since senior kicker Michael Palardy arrived on campus four years ago but only two of those sent the fan base over the edge: The first was the loss to a 2011 Kentucky team quarterbacked by a converted wide receiver. The second was the loss to Vandy last November.

"People were upset, and people had every right to be upset," Palardy said. "Everybody has their opinions. It was obviously an upsetting loss, something fans aren't used to seeing. They're OK for reacting that way. They have a right to."

Palardy was upset, too. That loss to the Commodores was utterly gut-wrenching.

"Getting beat like that on national television is something you don't want to happen," he noted. "I remember being upset but, at the same time, telling myself to do everything I possibly can to make sure something like that never happens again."

Senior center James Stone, a Nashville native, also recalls feeling disgusted as he left Dudley Field following that awful performance against Vandy. It's a memory he has tried to suppress.

"I just remember it was bad," he said. "I tried to do my best to erase it. It was just a letdown, a disappointment."

Making that Vandy game even more unbearable for Big Orange fans was the fact several Vols seemed to give up during the course of the contest.

"That's not the way we play Tennessee football," Palardy said. "Coach Jones understands that, and he's going to make sure that doesn't happen ever again."

A defeatist attitude permeated Tennessee's program late last fall that was difficult to overlook. Even before the Vanderbilt game many players decided they had no chance to win.

"At one point last season we felt we didn't," Palardy conceded. "I think that's where everything kind of went wrong…. As a team, we just slowly started to deflate toward the end of the season, and it showed in our play."

Inheriting a program with mediocre talent last December was a challenge for Butch Jones. Inheriting a program with a losing attitude was even worse. That's why he has worked diligently to fix the Vols' team psyche.

"Coach Jones has changed that culture," Palardy said. "He makes it known that we're going to a bowl game … no ifs, ands or buts. He's really pushed that into our brains … made sure we have that goal, that standard of going to a bowl game and winning a bowl game."

First, the Vols must beat Vanderbilt. Losing to the Commodores is unacceptable. Phillip Fulmer and Derek Dooley can attest to that.

Marlin Lane (15), James Stone (64)

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