Fifth-year seniors get off 'roller coaster'

 Tennessee linebacker Willie Bohannon (86) chases after Kentucky running back Raymond Sanders (4) during the second half at Neyland Stadium Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Michael Patrick

Tennessee linebacker Willie Bohannon (86) chases after Kentucky running back Raymond Sanders (4) during the second half at Neyland Stadium Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

They arrived as the first responders to the new era of Tennessee football.

They're leaving as the last survivors of a journey marked by change, turmoil and losing.

Eight unique individuals entered Neyland Stadium for the final time as Tennessee players on Saturday. They endured the storm.

From Phillip Fulmer to Lane Kiffin. Kiffin to Derek Dooley. Dooley to, for just one game, interim head coach Jim Chaney.

Tennessee's ever-changing head-coaching position has lipped along like a slideshow for Willie Bohannon, Dallas Thomas, Carson Anderson, Ben Bartholomew, Herman Lathers, Rod Wilks, Steven Fowlkes and Prentiss Waggner.

The eight fifth-year seniors saw it through from the fall of 2008 to the dawn of 2012. A ninth fifth-year Vol, Marlon Walls, signed with UT out of high school but didn't arrive in Knoxville until after a pit stop at Hargrave Military.

"It didn't exactly go as I would have drawn it up," Waggner quipped.

It ended, though, with a win. It was nice. There were smiles. Big bear hugs were shared. But the reality painted in the big picture says Saturday's 37-17 victory over Kentucky will offer little condolence for five years pockmarked with coaching turnover.

And lots of losing.

The eight were on campus for every game in the worst five-year window of Tennessee's modern era. The Vols haven't been under .500 collectively over five seasons since going 17-22-5 from 1909 to 1913.

UT is 22-30 since 2008.

"It was a roller coaster ride, but I just took it in stride," Waggner said.

As players, the eight bear some semblance of responsibility for UT's struggles, but few seniors in the country have dealt with more strife out of their control.

They waved goodbye to Dooley just last week. How appropriate. One last coaching change.

"I do believe they'll be stronger because of it," Chaney said of UT's revolving door of head coaches, coordinators, position coaches and strength coaches.

The original eight were joined by Walls and four-year seniors Mychal Rivera, Zach Rogers, Corey Alexander and Darin Gooch on Friday night. Every year, UT's seniors speak to the team before the season finale against Kentucky.

Lathers, a cancer survivor who strived through injuries throughout his career, told his teammates to go out and win for the seniors. He told stories. He mentioned each of his four different coaches.

Waggner spoke last. He began by saying, "Hey Herm, you forgot about coach Kippy Brown. He had a little tenure here."

Indeed, for about 20 minutes in Jan. 2010, Brown served as interim head coach for the fleeing Kiffin.

Make it five different head coaches.

If anything, there were few dull moments in five years.

Lathers said the No. 1 skill he learned at UT was "perseverance."

"I've been through a lot and I've grown as a man, as a person and my character has grown," he said. "I'm anxious to see what the real world has for me."

As does Chaney.

And everyone else.

"It'll be interesting to see in 20 years exactly what these young men are doing," Chaney said. "What did they learn in college, what happened in college, what transpired that made them tougher, made them learn to fight through adversity?"

Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn

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Comments » 3

LIBDESTROYER writes:

Boy, oh, boy, what a ride! As I sit here watching Tajh Boyd run rings around Spurrier's kids, thinking Kiffin dumped him, and hoping ND kills USC at the same time!

pcorange writes:

Looks like ND has it sewed up. Sorry, Gators! hehehehe!

Prostar writes:

Hindsight is 20/20 but I wonder now if we would have been better off to have named an interim coach after LK left, much in the same model as Arkansas after Petrino. To let Kippy Brown serve as interim while we conducted a real search. Oh well, that's all water under the bridge now. Best of luck to the seniors and a big thanks for your effort and perseverance.

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