On Sunday’s Sports Source, former Vol and NFL defensive lineman Will Overstreet — who’s become a successful entrepreneur post-football — compared Tennessee’s fanbase to the workers at a company. To paraphrase his proverb…
“Twenty percent of the people will ALWAYS be positive. Twenty percent of the people will ALWAYS be negative. The remaining 60 percent in the middle are the important ones that leaders hope the positive people will sway in management’s direction.”
Overstreet said it’s the negative folks in UT’s fanbase who are swaying the 60 percent this week. Who can argue?
Since Saturday’s second come-from-ahead loss of the season, there’s been plenty of anti-Butch Jones sentiment online and on any of the 25 Knoxville radio stations now using an all-sports format.
Personally, I think things have gotten a little too negative, too quickly. My Sports Source panel said this team was closer to seven wins than 10 wins when I put that question to it in August. I predicted seven or eight wins all Summer and then finally dropped it to seven when injuries started to mount in the preseason. I’m not shocked by the results so far (but I have been surprised at how Tennessee arrived at them).
Vol fans are sick of losing. So as soon as the TaxSlayer Bowl ended in January, hearts took over from minds. The estimated time of arrival for UT football was moved up a full year from 2016 to 2015. And as happens every year, the national media — who don’t cover teams as closely as their local media — saw a team with a flashy bowl win and declared that team to be a dark horse in the SEC title race and its quarterback to be a potential Heisman-winner! (That’s how you set yourself apart from other writers and analysts, by the way… by saying something different and provocative.)
The national media only drove the hopes and wants of the Vol fanbase higher. So now that fanbase is even angrier at 2-2.
Those 20-60-20 percentages are probably more like 20-50-30 at this point, but we’ll know more after gauging the attendance at Saturday’s Arkansas game. For all the talk of people diving off the bandwagon after the Oklahoma loss, the attendance for Western Carolina suggested that the anti-Jonesers were still just a very vocal minority. After Florida is that still the case?
Let’s consider the three different groups within the Vol fanbase.
The Sunshine-Pumpers, as I call them, are always upbeat. They are the true believers. This is their anthem:
They’re the ones who could watch a 50-0 Tennessee loss and still say, “Well, I’m proud of our boys!” “They’ll turn it around.” “Our coaches know what they’re doing.” They’re the group that gets mad at anyone who fails to pick the Vols to win a game. If UT was lining to play the Green Bay Packers, the Sunshine-Pumpers would pick the Volunteers to win.
God love ’em, they swim in a sea of positivity.
And then way over on the other end of the spectrum are the Head-Hunters. At UT, they’ve built up such a collection of skulls in recent years that it can truly be said there’s a blood lust among some fans when it comes to coaches. Lose a game? “Fire that guy!” They immediately insult and undercut new hires. If Tennessee hires someone they don’t want, they begin looking for anything and everything to use against the new guy on Twitter and messageboards. “Hey, I know the new guy played college football, but I’m going to post a picture of him in a band uniform to make people think he never played football. Brilliant!”
This group also has a theme that fits its never-changing mood:
Sadly, these folks have become so good at lopping heads in recent years that they don’t realize they’re slitting their own throats in the process. Example: A petition to replace a winning basketball coach resulted in a national black eye for the school, the hiring of a guy who only had a one-year stint due to NCAA issues, and probably, yet another bad year with a new coach who’s having to rebuild from scratch yet again.
Rather than pull for a guy to win once he’s Tennessee’s coach, it’s more fun for them to wade into the snark of the Twitterverse and attack.
Personally, I can’t help but think that some of Tennessee’s Head-Hunters on the Jones front are people who believed Jon Gruden was coming to Knoxville three offseasons ago. Face it, there’s been a group of people taking to social media and call-in shows to rip Jones since the day he arrived. The losses to Oklahoma and Florida — along with way-too-lofty expectations — have allowed them to swell their ranks this week.
So which group are you a part of? The Sunshine-Pumpers who aren’t the least bit concerned about Jones’ game management issues? Who’ll get mad at anyone who picks Arkansas to emerge victorious this weekend?
Or maybe you’re a Head-Hunter instead. You want Jones fired immediately so Tennessee can go hire a “name” coach. You’ll call anyone who picks Tennessee to win this weekend a “homer” or a “mouthpiece.” In fact, anyone who ever says ANYTHING positive about UT athletics is a shill, in your eyes.
Or are you a Rational Adult? There are still plenty of those folks running around. They might not make up 60 percent of the fanbase anymore, but they’re still the largest chunk. You just don’t hear from them because they’re rarely happy or mad enough to dial up talk shows. They went into the season knowing and realizing that UT’s depth chart was still dangerously thin in certain areas. They knew the Vols still had some growing up to do. They realized that injuries matter and they’ve taken those into account when, for example, the Vols lost starters like Rashaan Gaulden, Marcus Jackson and team leader Curt Maggitt.
Did Rational Adults like seeing a middling Florida offense come to life and throw its way down the field in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s painful loss. Heck, no. But they also understood that without Maggitt’s pass rush skills, Derek Barnett becomes less effective, and that gives quarterbacks like Will Grier more time to survey the field and find open targets. Toss in the fact that top corner Cam Sutton was not on the field for Florida’s last drive due to injury and Rational Adults could put two and two together.
Rational Adults also know that Florida’s first touchdown was set up by a long run that probably would have been stopped had Gaulden been on the field. They can’t possibly like the inconsistency they see from the Volunteers’ offensive line, but they also grasp the fact that losing Jackson in August — the team’s most experienced lineman — led to shifting up front.
Are injuries an excuse to be used all season long? No, but they do have to be factored into the overall equation. Rational Adults do that factoring.
Rational Adults don’t believe in curses, either. Remarkably, there are a few in the Head-Hunter camp who actually believe in something called the “Fulmer Curse.” As if Tennessee is paying the price for firing Phillip Fulmer. Apparently that curse arrived early because Fulmer himself had not won an SEC title in a decade, had overseen two losing seasons in his last four years, couldn’t beat Alabama or Florida at the end of his tenure, and had seen a decline in overall talent. Rational Adults remember these things.
If you’re a Rational Adult you realize that Saturday’s Arkansas game looks like a 50/50 affair. You know that a win will be a solid bounce-back from a devastating defeat in Gainesville. But you also know that a loss could signal the beginning of the end for the 2015 Volunteers, leaving Jones on a red hot seat heading into 2016.
If you’re a Rational Adult with feet still planted in the middle ground, a loss might also cause you to take a step or two closer to Head-Hunter territory.
Saturday’s game versus Arkansas — not the Florida or Oklahoma games — is now the most important game in Jones’ tenure in terms of keeping most fans out of Camp Head-Hunter.
The Sunshine-Pumpers will find a way to be positive even if the Vols lose. “Well, those uniforms still looked so pretty!” The Head-Hunters will still be demanding flesh win or lose. Jones has already lost that bunch and there’s no getting them back. And, to be honest, some in that crew are about as stable as Kim Jong-un, anyway. “The coach used a chart? Strap him to a cannon!”
Meanwhile, the rational Vol fans will be pulling for Jones to win. They know that starting all over AGAIN is probably not the best course of action for a program that’s recruiting well and figures to arrive in 2016, as originally expected. They also know just how nasty things will get with a loss.
And hasn’t there been enough negativity around the Volunteer program in recent years? I’m not a fan; I’m a talk show host. But you can put me down as one of those folks hoping for a Vol victory on Saturday. Many of The Sports Source’s highest-rated shows over the last 13 years have come after Tennessee defeats. But at some point, even talk show hosts need a break from the monotony of “Fire the coach” chants.
Here’s hoping we’ll wake up Sunday with a lot of Rational Adults around here… not more Head-Hunters.
— John Pennington