A Tennessee fan in his 20s recently raised a question about his program’s 1998 national championship in football.
He wondered if it might have come with strings attached.
“It’s as though we made a deal with the devil and we’ve been paying for it ever since,” he said. “I’d just like to see us be good in one men’s sport again.
“Even if it’s track.”
I didn’t dash his hopes by mentioning that the UT men’s team had just finished tied for 11th in the SEC track and field championships.
But it does have a number of contributors returning. It should be better next season.
Fortunately for UT fans, you could say the same for sports they actually will pay to see. In fact, the Vols have set themselves up for improvement.
The football team hasn’t been to a bowl the past two years. The basketball team hasn’t made the past two NCAA tournaments. And the baseball team seems entrenched at or near the bottom of the SEC.
Against that backdrop, it’s not unreasonable to assume UT’s next school year could be an improvement over the last two.
You might contend that the next football team will be less equipped than its 5-7 predecessor to face another daunting schedule. But some 5-7 seasons are better than others.
There’s no doubt new coach Butch Jones has energized the program. He’s also off to a great start toward the next recruiting class.
If the next team loses seven or eight games, fans still could be more optimistic about the direction of the program.
Baseball optimism could be harder to come by. But even at that failed endeavor, Tennessee should be improved.
Starting pitcher Zack Godley will be the only significant loss from coach Dave Serrano’s second team. So the program’s long-awaited return to the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala., isn’t out of the question.
Basketball is in the best shape. With starters Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes returning — and Jeronne Maymon coming back from injury — the Vols could be a top-25 team.
It’s crucial they capitalize on their returning talent and experience, because the attrition will be significant after the 2013-14 season.
This is no time for wasting opportunities in any UT men’s sport. Opportunities no longer come around that often in a league as competitive as the SEC.
UT can’t count on being really successful in any men’s sport over a long period of time. However, it could become a program that maximizes its opportunities.
Even in its glory days, Tennessee failed to do that in football. Although the 1998 team won the national title, the abundantly talented 1997 and 1999 teams underachieved. So did the 2001 team, which put itself in position to play for the national title, then fell on its face in the SEC championship game against an inferior LSU team.
As good as the UT basketball program was under Bruce Pearl, it didn’t make the most of its NCAA tournament opportunities. It lost an agonizingly close game to Michigan State in the Elite Eight in 2010 and blew a 20-point lead and a chance for an historic upset in the Sweet 16 against Ohio State in 2007.
UT’s last good baseball team was talented enough to have won a national championship in 2005. But the Vols left the College World Series without winning a game.
They might have to make a deal with the devil to get back.