HOOVER, Ala. — They left the lights burning on the scoreboards until morning at Shields-Watkins Field the night of Nov. 7, 1959. That was the day Tennessee denied LSU what was almost certain to be a second-straight national championship with a 14-13 upset victory the week after the Tigers’ epic 7-3 Halloween night victory over Ole Miss.
Toppling No. 1 LSU was one of the great moments in the great history of Tennessee football. The program of Peyton Manning and General Robert Neyland. Of Rocky Top and checkerboard end zones and the Volunteer Navy — the boats fans tied up along the Tennessee River down the hill from what is now known as Neyland Stadium.
It isn’t a stretch to make the argument that Tennessee owns the second most-storied football tradition in the Southeastern Conference behind only Alabama. The Volunteers rank 10th all-time with 849 wins, behind only Alabama’s 929 among SEC teams. They won the SEC’s first wire-service era national title in 1951 and added another in 1998. Tennessee’s 13 SEC titles are tied for second-most with Georgia behind Bama’s 26, one ahead of LSU’s 12. And over a 75-year span from 1926-2001, Tennessee was the winningest program in all of college football.
Lately, though, it’s just been rocky in Knoxville. For the home team, not the opposition.
Six power programs — LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee — have won or shared every SEC championship since 1964 (Kentucky and Georgia tied at the top in 1976). But of those six, Tennessee has endured the longest championship drought, not having won the SEC crown since 1998, the year Tee Martin took over from Manning and led the Vols to the first BCS national title with a Fiesta Bowl win over Florida State. Those other six programs have all won SEC titles since 2008. Tennessee also hasn’t beaten its biggest rival, Alabama, since 2006.
New coach Josh Heupel is Tennessee’s fifth full-timer since Lane Kiffin (now at Ole Miss) had his one-year stint in 2009. The Vols went 3-7 last year and stayed home in the postseason, their sixth bowl-less season in the past 10. A decade when Tennessee has gone a combined 73-75.
“If you go by wins and losses, we're not where we need to be, for sure,” Heupel said Tuesday at SEC Football Media Days.
“There's certainly challenges we face as a program, but there's great opportunities, and that's why I came to Tennessee. This is Tennessee. This is one of the iconic programs in all of college sports, in all of college football. We have an opportunity to celebrate the great traditions while putting a new-age approach on it. Our kids and our staff, they're all there because of that. They chose the ‘Power T’ for those reasons. Our staff chose the ‘Power T’ for those reasons.”
In a way, LSU avenged that 1959 loss at Tennessee in 2001 by denying the Volunteers a shot at the national title. The Tigers stunned the No. 2-ranked Vols 31-20 in the SEC Championship Game, keeping Tennessee out of a date with Miami in the Rose Bowl for the BCS title and launching its own run that has seen LSU win five SEC titles and three national championships.
Jimmy Hyams, a news and sports writer at The Advocate from 1978-83, has been a sports talk show host in Knoxville since 1998. He says that loss to LSU in 2001 may have been Tennessee’s most damaging football defeat ever. The Vols have played for two more SEC titles since, including a loss to LSU in the 2007 SEC title game, but haven’t won.
What has been Tennessee’s problem? Hyams said it isn’t a lack of in-state talent anymore. The past 10-15 years, the level of high school talent has risen across the state from Memphis to Nashville to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
“They just haven’t hired the right coach,” he said. “Exhibit A and B: Nick Saban at LSU and Alabama. Hire the right coach and it will be OK.”
Is Heupel, the coach at UCF when LSU beat the Knights in the Fiesta Bowl three seasons ago, the right coach for a challenging job? So far, a Vol Nation that has been worn down by mediocrity is taking a wait-and-see approach. Hyams said season ticket sales, which are also likely being impacted in part by the pandemic, are at their lowest ebb at this point since 2012, the last year for former Louisiana Tech coach and LSU assistant Derek Dooley.
Looming NCAA sanctions aren’t helping. The school has already admitted to Level I and II infractions under former coach Jeremy Pruitt, a Saban disciple who went 16-21 in three seasons.
“It’s a ‘believe it when I see it’ attitude,” Hyams said.
The immediate prospects certainly aren’t promising. Tennessee lost 35 players to the transfer portal since Heupel came aboard.
So when it is football time this fall in Tennessee, Vol fans will sit and try to be patient. Meanwhile, their program serves as a warning to other college football powers about how fleeting success can be. And how hard it can be to get it back.