By Mark Nagi
I don’t believe in jinxes. I really don’t.
So, believe me when I say that right now Tennessee’s athletics program is in great shape… and that the good times are going to keep on rolling.
For many years, instability dominated that university and athletic department and the results on the playing fields and courts were a proper representation of that fact.
Pretty much from the moment Lane Kiffin arrived on the UT campus in November 2009, Tennessee sports have mostly been a dumpster fire.
Yes, there have been moments when you thought the turnaround was finally happening.
The Lady Vols basketball team won four out of five SEC tournament titles between 2010 and 2014… but haven’t been to the Final Four since 2008.
Tennessee’s football team won 9 games in 2015 and again in 2016… but couldn’t win the East. Coaching turnover was constant.
The Vols basketball team won the SEC’s regular season title in 2018… but couldn’t advance past the second round in the NCAA tournament.
The baseball program was a mess. The non-revenue sports rarely won anything or note.
It was the worst of times.
But lately, the sun has been shining on Tennessee in the sports their fans care the most about.
Let’s start with the Lady Vols basketball team. It’s taken a little time, but Kellie Jolly-Harper has gotten UT back to respectability. They experienced devastating injuries throughout the season but still advanced to the Sweet 16. With tons of returning talent, as well as the incoming transfer of former Mississippi State standout Rickea Jackson, the Lady Vols will be a conference and national championship favorite next season.
As for the Vols basketball team, head coach Rick Barnes has the program cooking. Yes, they continue to come up short in the NCAA tournament, but they are coming off a season in which they won the SEC title for the first time since 1979. Recruiting continues to go well. They went 16-0 at home, and tickets are a hot commodity at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The football program is what drives the engine of most any athletics department, and Tennessee finally looks like they are heading in the right direction. Josh Heupel’s team features an exciting, up-tempo style of play. It’s the polar opposite of the plodding, boring style that was a staple of the Jeremy Pruitt era. Winning in the SEC is tough, but Heupel has the Vols closer to the top of the SEC East than they’ve been in years.
They also got their quarterback of the future when 5-star Nicholaus Iamaleava verbally committed to Tennessee back in March. Iamaleava is so pumped to be at UT that he recently traveled from California to play in a 7-on-7 tournament at Farragut High School. Don’t be surprised to see the Class of 2023 to be one of the top 10 in the nation.
And then there’s baseball. The Vols made it to the College World Series in 2021 and at press time was ranked number one in the nation. Tony Vitello commands a talented and brash group that has become college baseball’s villains. But no one likes the team that is stomping their feet.
You’d rather be hated and winning than loved and losing. And that’s the 2022 Volunteers.
Athletics Director Danny White has been on the job for a little over a year and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Women’s soccer won the SEC tournament and women’s swimming and diving brought home conference honors as well. Men’s tennis is a national title contender again.
I know that Tennessee fans are conditioned to expect the worst. But I’ll just say this.
Adults are finally in the room.