If you take the New York Times story on Tennessee football at face value, you're probably wondering, "What's the big deal?"
So a couple of UT "recruiting hostesses" allegedly held up a pro-Vols sign at a high school football game in South Carolina. It's not as though they committed armed robbery, looked silly trying to tackle Dexter McCluster or took another job with so much recruiting yet to be done. They didn't even stiff the local quarterback club or get stiffed by the Outback Bowl.
Don't get the wrong idea. I'm not minimizing the Times' report that UT's football program is under investigation by the NCAA. But unless the NCAA can prove the hostesses were on the clock and under orders from UT, there's no major violation. Without that evidence, the young women are merely zealous fans at best or rogue hostesses at worst.
The bigger issue is the stream of bad news circulating through the program since the first half of the Memphis game when UT's offense was purring along so efficiently, I checked the Tigers' coaching booth to make sure Georgia's Willie Martinez wasn't moonlighting.
Since then, only two things have gone right for UT football: Vanderbilt and Kentucky. And beating the Commodores and Wildcats is so routine, the gratification doesn't last as long as a small bag of chips.
Weigh the Commodores and Wildcats against all that has gone wrong:
n Memphis' offense looked so good in the second half against UT reserves, I wondered if their receivers were worthy of Heisman consideration.
n In their last public act as UT football players, freshmen Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards committed an early-morning random robbery of penniless convenience store patrons. As if that's not stupid enough, their alleged getaway car had less acceleration than McCluster.
n McCluster picked up where Memphis left off - but did so against UT's first team - in rushing for a school-record 282 yards in Ole Miss' 42-17 victory at Oxford. The Vols offered so little resistance, he was fresh enough afterwards to dance on the sideline and outrun a Prius.
n The Outback Bowl shined its sun on Auburn, instead of UT, although you could argue that the Vols got a better deal from the Chick-fil-A, which will offer a higher-ranked opponent in Virginia Tech, a better venue in the Georgia Dome and more exposure with a prime-time kickoff on New Year's Eve. But the Vols still got snubbed.
n UT coach Lane Kiffin canceled his speaking engagement with the Knoxville Quarterback Club, though you could argue that fans got a better deal with basketball coach Bruce Pearl pinch-hitting.
n The splendid coaching staff Kiffin assembled has shown signs of unraveling. Granted, assistant coaches are only slightly less migratory than geese, but when they leave UT for similar positions elsewhere - amidst the stretch run in recruiting - that's more disconcerting than a snub from a third-tier bowl.
That brings us to the latest dark cloud drifting over UT: An NCAA investigation.
Such news might induce widespread panic at Alabama or Kentucky. But most UT fans probably would be more antsy about a rematch with Ole Miss than with NCAA investigators.
UT has been investigated for an "illegal" summer camp, phone fraud, academic improprieties, and various recruiting violations through the years. NCAA investigators spent so much time at UT in 1991, they might as well have enlisted in the Big Orange Navy. But all the Vols lost in all those investigations were a couple of scholarships.
While some fans might think "the sky is falling" in the wake of an NCAA investigation, UT fans are more apt to think: "Bring it on."
The only difference in this investigation than the others is that Kiffin attracts enemies the way Tiger Woods attracts bimbos. He has taken shots at several SEC schools, committed half-a-dozen secondary NCAA violations, repeatedly used Florida coach Urban Meyer as a punch line, been reprimanded by the SEC office, and gained a reputation among fellow coaches as an arrogant jerk.
Hey, nobody's perfect.
Kiffin also has recruited obsessively and successfully, turned UT football from losers into winners, and breathed life into a program desperately in need of resuscitation. None of that endears you to the competition.
So you could assume the competition won't have any compunction about stickin' it to Kiffin. He has made himself a target. And based on the improvement at UT in the last year, he also has established himself as a threat to the powers-that-be.
Kiffin can't change that. But he can change the program's momentum.
Two days after UT lost to a mediocre UCLA team, two recruits announced commitments to the Vols. Just a coincidence, right?
In light of an NCAA investigation, maybe another coincidence is in order. If the Vols have any "secret" commitments, it's time to bring them out.
Just make sure they cite UT's passionate fan base, great football tradition and academic excellence as their reasons for choosing the Vols. And leave the hostesses out of it.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.