Column: Welcome back, Rocky Top, from a 15-year exile

Nov 3, 2022, 9:42 PM | Updated: Nov 4, 2022, 3:36 pm
Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel watches play on the Jumbotron during the second half of an NCAA co...

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel watches play on the Jumbotron during the second half of an NCAA college football game against the Tennessee Martin Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won 65-24. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

(AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Welcome back, Rocky Top.

How long have you been away?

Fifteen years!

Has it really been that long?

In some ways, it seems like only yesterday Tennessee was a Southeastern Conference powerhouse — the program of Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer, of Peyton Manning and Reggie White, of major bowls and national titles.

Then again, the glory days must feel like a lifetime ago to the orange-clad faithful.

Embarrassing losses, inept coaches and a decade-and-a-half-long banishment to the island of irrelevance in the the country’s mightiest football conference can do that to a fan base, even one that turns out 100,000-strong on game day.

“When you’re that bad for that long, you wonder if it will ever come back,” said former Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, who now hosts a morning sports-talk radio show in Knoxville. “Will it ever be like it used to be?”

Turns out, all the Volunteers needed was the right guy in charge.

Josh Heupel, Oklahoma’s national championship-winning quarterback from a generation ago, established himself as one of the nation’s top offensive minds during his head coaching debut at Central Florida.

There were certainly doubts that Heupel’s track meet of a scheme could work in the SEC, that it was a bit too gimmicky to succeed against defensive masterminds like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.

But led by dynamic quarterback Hendon Hooker, the Vols hung 52 points on Saban and the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide in a stunning upset. The Vols lead the nation with just under 50 points a game overall.

Heupel’s hyper-speed offense has been the calling card of Tennessee’s return to greatness.

“It’s important to be great at something,” Ainge said. “You don’t want to be average at everything. We’ve had a lot of coaches who were average at a lot of stuff. But they didn’t have their thing.”

Heupel’s first season at Tennessee produced a modest 7-6 record that included blowout losses to Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Yet averaging 40 points a game was a hint that the Vols weren’t going to be hanging with the SEC’s bottom-feeders much longer.

“We were ready,” Ainge said. “We were like a broken relationship that’s on the rebound. We were looking for all the good stuff and hoping Heupel was the man. He showed us last year that he absolutely could be. He showed us this year that he is.”

On Saturday, just three weeks removed from snapping a 16-year losing streak to Alabama, the cigar-chomping Vols (8-0) aim for a potentially more significant triumph.

In essence, this is the start of the College Football Playoff, matching Tennessee — tied for second in The Associated Press poll and No. 1 in the CFP standings — against the reigning national champions.

Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs (8-0) are ranked No. 1 by the AP and third by the CFP. It’s a program that knocked Alabama from its pedestal a year ago and has no intention of giving up the top rung on the ladder so quickly to another climber from the eastern side of the conference.

Even if the Vols lose this game, it’s clear they aren’t going back to where they were. Tennessee has broken free from the doubts and negativity that clung to Rocky Top like a thick fog.

“We knew with our fan base and money and facilities that it could be done,” Ainge said. “But it hadn’t been done for so long, you start to wonder. Sure enough, if we get the right guy in charge, we can be No. 1 in the country.”

Tennessee finished No. 1 in 1998 and has been trying to get back there ever since. It was a modest decline at first, interrupted by a run to the 2007 SEC championship game in Ainge’s senior year. LSU knocked off Tennessee 21-14 for the league title, with Ainge throwing a pick-six in the final 10 minutes that provided the winning points for the Tigers.

LSU went on to capture the national championship. At Tennessee, the wheels fell off.

Fulmer was forced out as coach after one more season, his 16 years at the helm ending with a 5-7 campaign. Then the coaching merry-go-round began spinning.

Good luck keeping up.

Lane Kiffin made it through a single season before bolting for Southern Cal. Derek Dooley proved he wasn’t the spitting image of his father Vince, lasting just three overmatched years before his pink slip. Butch Jones survived five seasons, but an embarrassing 0-8 mark in the SEC — and, yep, even a loss to lowly Vanderbilt — sealed his fate in 2017.

If the Vols didn’t think things could get any worse, oh, how wrong they were.

Enter Jeremy Pruitt, whose trainwreck of a tenure bottomed out with a 3-7 mark in 2020, fired for major NCAA violations. A stampede of players jostled for a spot in the transfer portal.

It’s almost beyond belief how everything changed in roughly 21 months, largely because of one man’s hiring.

“We kept hiring the wrong people … Now we’ve got the man,” Ainge said.

Tennessee already has toppled five Top 25-ranked teams. Now, the Vols are attempting to pull off a feat that hasn’t been done since 2004 — defeat Florida, Alabama and Georgia in the same season.

“It didn’t hurt my feelings when other teams that were our rivals beat us,” Ainge said. “It hurt my feelings when they stopped caring about the game. Alabama was so used to beating us, it was not fun for them anymore. Florida was so used to beating us, it was not fun for them anymore.

“That’s gone now. It’s crazy how huge this game against Georgia is. Alabama was excited to play us this year. Florida was mad at us instead of feeling sorry for us. That’s what you want in the SEC. This is a conference where everyone is supposed to hate each other.”

Well done, Coach Heupel.

Rocky Top is, indeed, back.

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Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/mrxhe6f2

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Column: Welcome back, Rocky Top, from a 15-year exile