I have been arrogant. I was often haughty. Many times I bragged about the Vols in a venal nature. I was often merciless in my dealings with friends who were fans of lesser teams. I have taken for granted that the Vols would always be a national power.
As an act of contrition, I will live humbly. I will recite the Generals' Maxims ten times, sing Rocky Top ten times, and I will run stadium steps in July.
I didn't set out to become one of "those" kinds of fans. I hated those kinds of fans when I was a kid. You know the sort. Yankees fans. 1970's Steelers fans. Alabama fans. The kinds of guys whose teams always seemed to be on top and they took it as some kind of birthright to look down on you and tease you. It wasn't my intention to become one, but something happened as the 80's became the 90's. Tennessee became one of "those" teams. Sure, we had our struggles with Florida, and Nebraska steamrolled us in a couple of bowl games, but more often than not UT was the hunter rather than the hunted. The polls usually had UT high on the leaderboard. The dark days of long losing streaks to Bama were replaced with a long winning streak of our own. New SECE annual foe Georgia was an annual whipping boy. South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt could have fielded an all-star team and they wouldn't have touched us. (Actually, a Hal Mumme offense coupled with a Woody Widenhofer defense would have made a formidable team, but let's not let get too far off point.) About that time Phil Fulmer's record was trumpeted far-and-wide as the best in the nation, major bowl games were a given, and we began to look at leading the all-time vs Bama as an achievable goal. I became one of "those" guys.
I remember meeting my wife in 1985. Early in conversations I sought to find out her college football loyalties. Later there would be plenty of time for such lesser information as religion and politics. If she had said "Texas" or "Alabama" or "Notre Dame" then we would have had ourselves a deal breaker. I always wonder if those on-line matchmakers ask about football loyalties. eHarmony may think they have it all figured out but as soon as they match up a Sooner with a Longhorn, they're in for a lawsuit, buddy. Anyway, my future wife's answer was "Florida". She had grown up in the Sunshine State and her dad was a Florida alum. Before you react viscerally to the idea of me marrying a Gator, you must recall that in the late 80's, Florida was, well, not too good. They'd had a ZERO win season in 1979 and, although they followed that with some solid 9 win years in the early 80's; they were on double-secret probation and didn't go to a bowl. A few 7-5 and 6-5 type years followed. So when she answered ‘Florida", I just smiled. It was cute. It was non-threatening. UT played Florida about once a decade, it seemed, so she could just cheer for Florida to her heart's content. It was like being an Ole Miss fan. She could be passionate about her team but there was no threat in it. Even though Florida handed us our only loss in 1985, it was, I was convinced, a fluke due to Vol injuries, not by any means a sign of Gator prowess. When we beat them Gators 45-3 in 1990, all was well.
My arrogance caught up with me. Florida had hired some coach from Duke and they proceeded to run off one of the most dominant decades in SEC history. Even worse, they were in our division and we seemed to always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when we played them. If I actually believed in karma, I would admit that I received my cosmic comeuppance. The wins over Florida in 98, 01, 03 and 04 were sweet, but you can bet I was quiet about it around the homestead. There were just too many instances of Volunteer futility. Just as soon as I mention Travis Stephens or "The Prowler", she'd tell me that: "Uh oh, Casey just fumbled another snap". If I were to bring up James Wilhoit's late field goal, she might mention Jay Graham's fumbles, Peyton's interceptions, or Alex Brown's night-long slow dance with Tee Martin. Better to quietly savor the wins than to boast or brag. I knew my place.
Lack of success versus Florida didn't hamper my ability to rub it in with other foes, though. I had a million Quincy Carter and Freddie Kitchens jokes. Remember how funny Tommy Tuberville looked when Deon Grant turned Auburn's first play from scrimmage into a pick 6? Remember Travis Henry stiff arming some clown from Arkansas? It was riotous fun. I played it to the hilt. While I wouldn't say I was arrogant, I wasn't shy about laughing at our opponents.
Things changed. Boy, did they. Jamal Lewis running for miles against Georgia in ‘97 became David Greene picking us apart in '01 and ‘02. Visions of Kelley Washington streaking past LSU defenders in September became Matt Mauck converting third down after third down in December. Julian Battle racing with a fumble return at South Bend became Tom Zbikowski taking a punt and an interception to the house. The joy at Peyton Manning or Casey Clausen bootlegging in for six at Bama became "The Fumble" and a 6-3 loss. Even Dennis Franchione (who looked like a poster-boy for the Mansierre (or Bro)), beat us in Neyland. Arggh!
Then it got really bad. I have this friend. We go way back. You may have never met him, but you have heard of him. He is the Vanderbilt fan that never attended Vanderbilt. Once considered an urban legend, the SEC and the NCAA in conjunction with NSA phone records confirmed in 2005 that there actually is a Vanderbilt football fan who never attended the university. I know the guy. I have been merciless with this guy. It is one thing to be a fan of the Commodores because you had to be, but he chose to be a fan! Seriously, if someone tells me they're a Commodores fan, I usually tell them I think Shining Star was great and everybody loves Brick House. Year after year come August I would ask him how Vanderbilt was looking. He would mention returning starters and new coaches and I would smile and nod and pat him on the head. Poor kid. A few times Vandy came close to beating Tennessee. A few minutes of terror would be followed by laughing and smiles all around. Kind of like the thrill you got as a kid riding the Zippin' Pippin in Memphis or the Wabash Cannonball at Opryland. For a minute there you were afraid something bad might happen, but afterward you laughed, knowing you had been perfectly safe the whole time. I would call my buddy, offering false condolences. "Y'all played us tough there. Boy, really gave us a scare." Then I would remember to order my SECC tickets.
Last year, the unthinkable happened. I actually watched it happen. Despite pinching myself repeatedly, I never woke up from the nightmare. Vanderbilt beat Tennessee. Although I had seen it happen before, that was ancient history. That was before. When I got home, the answering machine looked like a Vegas jackpot. The e-mail box was overstuffed. It had all rolled back on me. Every taunt. Every tease. Every shout of "Scoreboard!"
Now, I don't know if I was the cause of the Vol woes. I really don't buy all of that jinx bad luck stuff, but at this point I have decided you just can't be too careful. This Fall there'll be no "in your face", no bragging. I will not claim that any team is "pwn3d". Take nothing for granted. I will be peaceful. Humble. If it helps the Vols get back in the business of winning football, I can bite my tongue and swallow my pride.