Movies Hold Key For Tennessee

If we accept the axiom "art imitates life" — then it follows there are significant lessons to be learned from the cinema. In fact, a character played by Steve Martin made that exact assertion in the critically acclaimed film Grand Canyon when he said: "All of life's riddles are answered in the movies."

It's a common practice for college football teams to watch a movie the Friday night before a Saturday game. The idea being that the team has a chance to bond in the face of battle, relax, thereby conserving crucial emotional energy and, perhaps, become inspired by the movie's message.

Sports films are popular fare as are action-adventure movies. "Rudy" was a true story with an overcoming-the-odds formula that serves as a near perfect pre game selection. (Unless, of course, you're playing Notre Dame the next day.) Inexplicably, Rudy didn't make a recent list of the 50 greatest sports films of all time recently published by Sports Illustrated while "It Happens Every Spring" and "Searching For Bobby Fisher" did. (Is chess is a sport? What about backgammon, bridge and boggle?) Despite SI's slight, Rudy may be the most popular college pre game flick of all time and one that realistically depicts the rigors faced by a walk-on football player at a big-time program.

So is there a film out there that answers the riddles of Tennessee's collapse in 2002? Some might suggest "M.A.S.H." would be the most appropriate given Tennessee's long list of causalities that transformed the trainer's room into a Mini Army Surgical Hospital. Then there's the Marx Brothers classic "Horse Feathers" which might offer some insight given it is a comedy of errors played out on the gridiron.

True, it's hard to distinguish whether most of the Vols' problems last season were because of injuries or ineptitude. But there's little doubt that the loss of key personnel for long periods made it difficult for UT to develop consistency, just as it's correct to surmise the lack of playmakers severely limited the offense. However the margin and method of four of the five defeats to Florida, Alabama, Miami and Maryland can't be explained away by injuries alone.

Those losses were too decisive; three occurred on Tennessee home turf while the Maryland defeat was before a predominant UT crowd at a venue the Vols had played in for the SEC title game the year before. No, injuries can't easily explain these one-sided whippings for a program that annually attracts a significant number of the nation's top athletes. All programs suffer some injuries and their impact can often spell the difference between a championship season with a BCS bowl and a winning season with a second tier bowl. In that respect, the Vols did well to achieve the latter when they could have settled for far less. The Vols didn't quit, neither did they ever resemble a championship caliber squad.

One sports movie that captures a portion of UT's plight last season was the documentary film "When We Were Kings" which follows the George Foreman-Muhamad Ali Rumble in the Jungle title fight of 1974. As history records Foreman was perceived as invincible by most after he destroyed Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, two fighters that had beaten Ali. Foreman was the younger man, entering the prime of his career and had an unbeaten streak the preceded the 68 Olympics in Mexico where he won a gold medal.

Foreman suffered an unusual cut to his eye during training camp that delayed the fight several weeks and seems to have cost him his edge. During the fight he was befuddled and frustrated by Ali's defensive tactics and eventually suffered a ninth round knockout. He complained after the fight of feeling sapped of strength from the first round and never looked sharp. An African mystic supposedly placed a curse on Foreman before the fight and speculation arose if the well publicized action had a physical or psychological effect on the heavyweight.

While you're free to draw your own conclusions about such skullduggery, it is true Foreman never entered the ring with the cloak of invincibility again. He would lose a bout to Jimmy Young the next year and enter early retirement to pursue a ministry. He came out of retirement a decade later and became a fan favorite. He beat many younger men along the way to recapturing the heavyweight title at age 45.

Tennessee may have come into last season overconfident after some heady performances in 2001 which included come-from-behind road victories over Notre Dame, Alabama and Kentucky. The Vols also had a breakthrough win over the Gators in Gainesville and a route of Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. Only a bad half against a LSU team they had beaten earlier in the year cost them an SEC Championship and a Rose Bowl bid against Miami for the NCAA title.

Older and wiser they were expecting to overpower opponents with their depth and talent last year. But their offensive punch never developed and, like Foreman, the Vols appeared lost in a fog unable to focus, execute their game plan or adjust to new rules of engagement.

Additionally, there were so many things that went wrong last season it seemed like the Vols were cursed — from losing their two best defensive players before the second series of the first game to losing their starting quarterback, tailback, best receiver and place kicker — the bad breaks continued throughout an injury plagued, error filled campaign. Instead of Unfinished Business a better the slogan for 2002 would have been Risky Business.

On to this fall and the impending season which is now only T-minus 12 days away and counting. Is there a movie that captures the essence of what the Vols face in 2003? The answer is a resounding YES. In fact all the challenges of the coming season are encapsulated in the opening 10 minutes of Ridley Scott's visionary film "Gladiator" which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2000. The movie stars Russell Crowe as General Maximus Decimus Meridius commander of Rome's northern legions, and opens before a climatic battle against the last stronghold of united tribes in Germania.

As Maximus walks among his amassed troops before the beginning of the battle he pronounces them LEAN and HUNGRY: The Vols will have to be lean and hungry to tackle the challenges of this season which includes road games against Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Miami. That means coming into the season in the best possible condition with an insatiable appetite for victory.

Before departing to lead the cavalry in its phase of attack, Maximus repeats a motto that served the Roman Legions well for over 1,000 years. STRENGTH AND HONOR: The Vols will have to be not just physically strong but also resilient in mind and spirit to overcome the self doubts created by last season's failures and the strength of this season's schedule. The matter of honor is simply playing to the best of one's God-given ability while putting the needs of the team ahead of the needs of the individual.

The last instructions Maximus gives his subordinates is, "Upon my signal UNLEASH HELL." It's not supposed to be politically correct to compare a sport like football to war but, in truth, modern football more closely resembles classic warfare with hand-to-hand combat and tactics than modern warfare does. The reality is that football is a violent game that's ripe with risks and peril. The Vols didn't appear to be battle ready on several occasions last season and must improve if they are to reverse their fortune. Tennessee has to hit its opponents with everything in its arsenal from the beginning of each contest and "pour on the steam" as another General by the name of Neyland was fond of saying.

Contemplating retirement to life as a farmer in Spain, Maximus tells his cavalry, "In three weeks I'll be tending my crops. "IMAGINE WHERE YOU'LL BE AND IT WILL BE SO": Part of success is the ability to envision and pursue goals. The Vols have to collectively imagine where they'll be come January, 2004, in order to win a championship. Otherwise, they'll find themselves somewhere they never imagined, like last year when they went to the Peach Bowl.

Before launching his horsemen into battle, Maximus solemnly reminds them: "WHAT WE DO IN LIFE, ECHOES IN ETERNITY." This addresses the importance of every action we take or omission we allow. That's why football is more than a game like our work is more than a job. Does this team want to be remembered as the one that turned things around for Tennessee or as the one that allowed the downslide to continue? Reduced to its simplest component we all have to account for giving less than our best, regardless of the pursuit.

On another occasion in the opening scenes of Gladiator, Maximus is asked whether he thinks the opposing Germanic forces will decide to fight or accept an offer of surrender. His response: "WE WILL KNOW SOON ENOUGH."

And so we shall.

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