Going into the fall of 2005, UT's football team was a consensus top five ranked squad, while the basketball team was seen as an SEC cellar dweller, coming off a losing season, four years without an NCAA appearance and its third coaching change in less than a decade.
If Vegas booked such action, the UT football team would have been even money to win as many games as the basketball team, while the odds of UT's football team losing more games than the basketball team would have be astronomical. Yet, thanks to Bruce Pearl's miraculous resurrection of Big Orange hardwood fortunes, UT stands 20-4 with three games remaining in the regular season.
That improbable role reversal actually provides a number of positives for Tennessee's football program.
• It serves as inspiration to the football team to see what is possible through hard work, team work, discipline and dedication.
• It helps offset the atmosphere of doom and gloom that has surrounded a football program hit hard by injuries, attrition, mounting losses and negative press.
• Last, but certainly not least, the basketball bonanza benefits Tennessee's football recruiting by showcasing an athletic infrastructure that's second to none, and fan support that's unparalleled.
That is particularly important with Junior Day just two weeks away and Tennessee's Orange and White Game just six weeks in the distance. Many of the top prospect in the Class of 2007 are deciding which campuses to visit, and if their interest is piqued by the national exposure and of aura of success of UT's basketball team, Fulmer & Co. have a much easier sales pitch to make.
Early impressions are vital to recruiting success. You're not just selling a scholarship, you're selling image and opportunity. Getting in on the ground floor with top prospects is surest way to consistent recruiting success. If you get a prospect on campus several times unofficially, then the official visit becomes the close instead of a last ditch pitch.
Tennessee's football games have always been an excellent recruiting tool for the Vols basketball teams, but it's been a long time since the basketball team has returned the favor. Even when Tennessee had winning seasons under Jerry Green, the arena was rarely sold out and the crowds weren't always enthusiastic, which was a nature response to teams that consistently played below their potential.
Finally, Tennessee's football players are seeing a great example of a team fighting to defend its home turf. The Vols were only 3-3 at Neyland Stadium in 2004 and haven't gone undefeated at home since 1999. Since 2001, UT is a mere 17-9 in home football games. Compare that to Tennessee teams of 1996, 1997, 98, 99 when the Vols were a shining 25-1-0 in the House that Bob Built.
That translated to big victories before huge crowds that left lasting impressions on talented young prospects, visiting campus or watching on high-def television. It's no coincidence that the Vols enjoyed outstanding recruiting classes during those years.
And compare UT's home record the last three seasons to the basketball Vols, who are 13-0 so far this season under Pearl on the Summitt —15-0 counting exhibitions — with games against Arkansas and Kentucky still on the schedule.
Moral of the story: To win the home fans, you've got to win the home games.