National Title Drought to End?

By Mark Nagi

So, I live in the mean streets of Farragut. Any of my fellow Farragutonians (is that really a word, I don’t know) will agree that out here you must keep your head on a swivel.

Anyway, there’s a street sign on the eastbound side, maybe ¼ mile from the Costco, that says “Welcome to Knox County Home of National Champions.” Below those words are the logos for the Tennessee Volunteers and Tennessee Lady Volunteers.

To the best of my knowledge, this sign went up in the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Today… that sign is worn and fading, as is its message.

Yes, Tennessee has 23 team national championships, including eight in women’s basketball, six in football and a combined seven in track and field for the Vols and Lady Vols. But there hasn’t been a national championship won by a Vols or Lady Vols team since 2009 when the Lady Vols won the national title in indoor track and field.

There also hasn’t been a national title in one of the big 5 sports (football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, softball) since Pat Summitt and Candace Parker went back-to-back in 2007 and 2008. The last major title on the men’s side was in 1998 when Phillip Fulmer and Al Wilson led the Vols in that magical 13-0 season.

Folks… it’s time for Tennessee to make that sign in Knox County more accurate.

And when you look at the trajectory of UT’s athletics department, it’s not a stretch to say that Tennessee is ready to bring some major hardware back to East Tennessee.

Let’s start with baseball and softball, the two teams that have the best chance of ending Tennessee’s championship drought.

At the time of the writing of this article, the Vols baseball team was ranked number one in the nation. There is a lot of pro talent on the Vols roster, including Tennessee second baseman Christian Moore. He leads the SEC with a .430 average, and is second in slugging percentage, homeruns and total bases, while placing third in RBI. He could finish the season as the SEC’s player of the year.

Tony Vitello has been close, making it to the College World Series in 2021 and 2023, while having the nation’s dominant team most of the year in 2022. The 2020 Tennessee team was probably his best, but we’ll never know what they might have accomplished after much of the season was canceled due to COVID.

The way Vitello has things rolling, they will get more cracks at the big prize.

The Tennessee Lady Vols softball team entered last weekend ranked number two in the country. Karen Weekly is one of the best coaches in the nation and has proved it since taking complete control following the retirement of her husband, co-head coach Ralph Weekly.

They’ve captured the SEC regular season and tournament titles in 2023 and won the regular season title this year.

Come June, the Vols baseball team and the Lady Vols softball team will be on a short list of teams that have legitimate shots to win a national championship.

Tennessee’s football team hasn’t won a national title or a conference championship in over a quarter century. But they are in a much better position to do so today than they’ve been in a long time. Head coach Josh Heupel is entering his fourth season on Rocky Top and has a potential star at quarterback in Nico Iamaleava. NIL has evened the playing field a great deal. Nick Saban is gone at Alabama.

The SEC is only getting tougher, but the Vols will at least be in the mix in the years to come for a postseason spot in the newly expanded 12-team playoff. Once you get in that mix, anything can happen.

Tennessee’s men’s basketball team is coming off an SEC regular season championship, and their second Elite 8 appearance in program history. Head coach Rick Barnes will retire eventually, but that day hasn’t arrived just yet. The transfer portal is alive and well, and Barnes has embraced the ability to transform a roster while continuing to attract players that stick around the program for multiple years. UT should have a few more runs left in them under Barnes.

The program out of the big 5 that seems furthest away from championship glory is the program with the most national titles at Tennessee. The Lady Vols basketball team fired Kellie Jolly-Harper and replaced her with Marshall’s Kim Caldwell. It’ll take a couple of years until we find out what Caldwell can do at this level.

Knox County. Home of National Champions.

Here’s hoping that message doesn’t fall on deaf ears much longer.