Photo by Saul Young, copyright © 2012 // Buy this photo
Photo by Adam Brimer, Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo
From out of the dumps of the dispiriting loss at Kentucky to end the 2011 season, Tennessee football somehow resurrected optimism as 2012 unfolded.
Last July, coach Derek Dooley vowed the SEC wouldn't have Tennessee to kick around any more. Fans climbed back on the bandwagon. The debate: Eight wins or nine?
By the time Florida visited Neyland Stadium in mid-September, the buzz was palpable again. The Vols were ranked and relevant.
Then reality struck.
Amid a flurry of long Gator touchdown plays, Tennessee's relevance and optimism began to crumble. Neither ever recovered.
Here are the top 10 local sports stories of 2012.
1. Dooley's Done: Dooley's third season was supposed to turn a corner but instead stumbled into a dead end.
One SEC loss followed another. The last straw was getting poleaxed at Vanderbilt 41-18 to assure a fourth losing season in five years.
Dooley departed with a record of 15-21 and stands to collect $5 million in installments through 2016.
2. Summitt Steps Down: It wasn't a matter of if or who, but rather when. Pat Summitt, who had announced a diagnosis of early-onset dementia the previous August, relinquished her coaching duties of Tennessee's women basketball after 38 seasons on April 19.
Holly Warlick, her assistant for 27 years, a former Lady Vols All-American and a Knoxville native, was the natural choice to take over the reins as Summitt assumed an emeritus role.
3. Enter Butch Jones: The search to replace Dooley hit a couple of dead ends as well, but eventually athletic director Dave Hart found his man.
After a sleepless night of negotiations, Jones, a 44-year-old Michigan native, was introduced on Dec. 7 as UT's 24th head coach — and fourth in less than six years.
A conference champion first at Central Michigan and then Cincinnati, Jones sidestepped several other opportunities, ultimately landed the job he wanted, and has hit the ground running to shore up the recruiting class and build unity among UT's fractured fan base.
4. Worst Defense Ever: Dooley was undone by a defensive unit that, statistically, hit program lows in a misbegotten change in base systems and new assistant coaches. A prolific offense led by Tyler Bray and human highlight Cordarrelle Patterson couldn't score enough points to compensate for a defense that was on its heels week after week.
5. Gold in London: Not one but two local swimmers came home from the Summer Olympic Games in London with gold medals.
Claire Donahue of Lenoir City and Davis Tarwater of Knoxville both contributed freestyle relay legs for U.S, teams that won gold.
6. Grudemonium: Tennessee football fans have fantasized before about Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden one day taking over the Vols. This fall, as Dooley's exit became likely and then a fact, the fantasy turned into near-hysteria.
Alas, for all the smoke there was very little fire. Gruden may be married to a former UT cheerleader and he may own land in Sevier County, but he won't be prowling the sideline at Neyland Stadium.
7. Prep Titletown: CAK, Fulton and Webb brought home state football titles but perennial juggernaut Maryville fell a step short.
CAK's second consecutive Class 3A title was fueled by prolific quarterback Charlie High and receiver Davis Howell, who broke the national record with 358 career receptions. High departs with five state career and six state season passing records.
Fulton's 4A title was its third in nine years. Webb's Division II-A championship was its third in four years. Maryville's 43-game winning streak and quest for a third consecutive Class 6A title ended in a heartbreak, a 36-35 overtime loss to Whitehaven.
8. Stokes, Vols Surprise SEC: Cuonzo Martin's first UT basketball team was picked to finish 11th in the SEC, a projection that didn't look off-base in mid-December.
Then Jarnell Stokes, a five-star recruit from Memphis, fell out of the sky, arriving in January. The Vols finished 10-6 and claimed the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament. There was no March Magic, however, as UT went quietly in the SEC tournament and lost a second-round NIT home game to Middle Tennessee State.
9. Lawsuits from the Ladies: The merged men's and women's UT athletic department led by Hart was hit with two discrimination lawsuits from female employees.
Debby Jennings, Lady Vols media director for 35 years, claimed discrimination and retaliation after being forced to retire by Hart. Trainer Jenny Moshak, strength and conditioning coach Heather Mason and Collin Schlosser also sued, alleging discrimination and retaliation after the university denied their appeal of unequal pay relative to counterparts in men's sports.
UT disputes both claims and neither has been settled heading into the new year.
10. Trembley Scandal: John Trembley, six-time SEC swimming coach of the year and the longest-tenured men's coach at UT was fired in January for "gross misconduct."
The married father and Bible-study leader cited depression and drug addiction as an explanation for lewd emails and online communications uncovered by a university investigation.
No criminal charges were filed. Trembley did not appeal his dismissal. Subsequently, Lady Vols coach Matt Kredich was named director of a combined men's and women's program.