Even with the fan base dwindling and the program in utter disarray, Dane Bradshaw decided to stick around and try to right the ship. That decision worked out awfully well for him and for Tennessee basketball.
First-year coach Bruce Pearl guided the 2005-06 Vols to a 22-8 record and the program's first NCAA Tournament bid in five years. Now his 2006-07 Vols stand 24-10, having advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 for only the third time in program history.
All of Tennessee's players are enjoying the sweet taste of success but none more so than Bradshaw, who hasn't forgotten the bitter taste of failure.
"I know these other guys appreciate it and are very grateful," he said. "But for me – going through the first two years, where you don't feel like you took anything good out of it – I actually take a lot of pride in being one of the guys who has gone through the struggle AND enjoyed the success. That has made it that much sweeter."
After playing before home crowds of 6,000 as a sophomore, Bradshaw routinely played before home crowds topping 20,000 as a senior. He has seen Tennessee basketball go from comatose to energized, from hospital bed to hotbed. And his career spanned that transformation.
"There's been plenty of great players in the past that weren't fortunate to have the timing I've had in my career. They went through four straight down years," he said. "I was fortunate to have been around when Coach Pearl and his staff came in and turned it all around."
Bradshaw wasn't just around for the rebirth, however; he was an integral part of it. His leadership, team spirit and hustle infected his teammates. Tennessee fans responded to the improved level of effort and enthusiasm by rallying behind the team like never before.
The payoff: A spot in the 2007 Sweet 16. That may not seem like much to elite programs. But for a program as dead as Tennessee's was two short years ago, the Sweet 16 looks like The Promised Land.
"A lot of programs – your Dukes and North Carolinas – expect to get to the Sweet 16," Bradshaw noted. "Here, with the way we've had to rebuild, getting to the Sweet 16 is a very special moment in Tennessee history."
If the Vols can beat Ohio State Thursday night in San Antonio, they'll experience an even more special moment – the first Elite Eight berth in program history.
"We feel very fortunate to be where we are," Bradshaw said, "but we continue to ask for more and we continue to expect more."
Obviously, that's fairytale stuff for a program that couldn't even qualify for an NIT bid two years ago.
"It becomes a little bit of a mental factor when you've lost for so long and you continue to catch bad breaks toward the end of the game," Bradshaw said, recalling his first two seasons on campus. "But that's all been turned around. Now we feel like we're going to win every game, no matter what."
Pearl, who recently endowed a $100,000 scholarship in Bradshaw's name, is thrilled that the Vol senior is finishing his career on a high note.
"I'm happy for him," the coach said. "And I'm glad I still get to coach him this week. That's going to be the most emotional thing."