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Commentary: UT's Unforgiven

Senior Day at Tennessee is usually a victory lap.

Tennessee senior tailback Tauren Poole

The Vols, historically, are generally a good-or-better football team. And their Senior Day, historically, is the coronation of a competitive class that gets to leave Neyland Stadium one final time with a comfortable win over Vanderbilt or Kentucky.

Players and coaches are usually a bit emotional for the first quarter, so the game doesn’t always start well, but historically that doesn’t matter.

Again, it’s Vanderbilt or Kentucky.

This season couldn’t be much more different.

UT’s small senior class needs to win its final game in Neyland tomorrow night just to stay bowl eligible and stay in contention to finish with a winning record over the past four seasons.

Tauren Poole understands every bit of that, so you’ll forgive the senior tailback if he sounds a bit woe-is-us when asked about the legacy of his class’ Tennessee tenure.

“I don’t even know if there is much of a legacy, man,” Poole said earlier this week. “I’m not trying to say that just to be disrespectful or anything. I just don’t know if people are going to remember this class, you know, for what we did.

“We didn’t do much, just to be honest with you.”

UT senior linebacker Austin Johnson

Forgive me for begging to differ.

I’ve covered this senior class’ entire college career. Seen every game. Missed no more than a handful of interview opportunities. Bumped into them countless times all over campus.

These kids lost more football games in four or five years than Tennessee is accustomed to losing in a decade.

But they are not losers.

The score has gotten away from this bunch in several second halves the past four years.

But they are not quitters.

The great Woody Allen famously noted that “eighty percent of success is showing up.”

What about showing up when it feels like 80 percent of your peers don’t?

UT senior cornerback Art Evans

Of the 18 players signed to UT’s much maligned Class of 2008, just 10 remain with the program, and just two — Poole and fullback-turned-linebacker Austin Johnson — are seniors.

Of the 32 players who signed to UT’s also-maligned Class of 2007, just five are still here as fifth-year seniors, and just nine more exhausted their eligibility or declared early for the NFL Draft.

The few. The proud. The seniors.

Head coaches have come and gone. Coordinators have come and gone. Position coaches have come and gone. Players have come and gone.

These kids stayed.

And they’re to be commended for that.

Most if not all of those guys could have left the Big Orange Dumpster Fire at some point in the past few years, and most if not all logical minds would have understood.

But these guys stayed.

UT senior linebacker Daryl Vereen

In all honesty, I’m not sure why they stayed. I’m not sure all of them know why they stayed. But they stayed. And I respect them for that.

Their faith in UT wavered time and time again, and some of them nearly had both feet out the door on more than one occasion, but they couldn’t close the door on the dreams that danced in their heads when the put pen to paper on National Signing Day.

Nearly every senior on this team signed up to win championships for Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee. Fulmer wore big orange sweater vests in their living rooms, stared at them and their families with his big blue eyes and promised them that their boys would become big, strong men at Tennessee.

Fulmer probably believed nearly every word he told them. A Tennessee native, former UT player and assistant coach, Fulmer sat on the only throne he ever wanted — his dream job; a job he loved with every fiber of his being — and he added those kids to his family with every intention of making them better players and molding them into men.

Some of that happened.

It just didn’t happen the way anyone ever imagined, or in the way any of them wanted.

And most of it wasn’t any fun for anyone involved.

Those who signed in the Class of 2007 enjoyed an SEC East championship. So there’s that. But those who signed in the Class of 2008 have lost one more game that they’ve won to this point.

UT senior defensive end Ben Martin

Four seasons at Tennessee, and a losing record.

It seems unfathomable, but it’s fact for now.

But let’s not put this on these players.

They came to play for Fulmer, and they did that ... for one or two seasons. Some of them cried like the big kids they were when their coach — a decent guy for some, a second father for others and the closest thing to a father for the most unfortunate — swell up with emotion in a stuffy Neyland Stadium media center in November 2008 to announce that he’d been forced out of his dream job. They humiliatingly lost to Wyoming a few days later, and many of them refused to meet with the media afterward as they sat in the locker room losing a battle with their boyhood instincts to weep. They rallied down the stretch despite having no postseason to play for, and they carried their coach off the field after his final game, a home win over Kentucky.

I remember thinking that night how things couldn’t get much more awkward.

Well ... I was wrong.

The bold, brash, boyishly handsome Lane Kiffin came to town that winter, armed with a who’s who of assistants who planned to rock-and-roll Rocky Top back to the pinnacle of college football.

Well ... they didn’t.

UT senior cornerback Anthony Anderson

After one year of sold-out concerts, rowdy practice field mosh pits, a laundry list of law-enforcement and NCAA rules violations and a couple of big wins, Kiffin and his carnival of carnage left a literally rioting Knoxville below his feet as he flew to Los Angeles for his dream job — head coach of the USC Trojans, whose culture wouldn’t need to be changed to fit his personality like a swimmer’s Speedo.

I remember seeing some of the Vols’ current seniors joining their fellow students that night, cussing Kiffin and burning mattresses and vowing to win a championship before their former coach. Some of them rolled their eyes when Kiffin said good-bye in a team meeting, and some verbally assaulted the coach before his infamous farewell press conference in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center.

Some players had completely bought in to Kiffin’s grand plan. Some hadn’t. Some loved the rap music at practice, brash sideline swag and press conference punches, but some rolled their eyes and muttered under their breath to reporters when Kiffin replaced some of Neyland-Thompson’s UT art with pictures of former USC stars. UT didn’t need pictures of Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer, Mike Williams and Steve Smith when pictures of former Vols Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin, Carl Pickens, Donte Stallworth and others would have sufficed.

“We don’t need that (stuff) in here,” a frustrated player told me one day, noting that UT had more players “in the league” than SC. “We got our own (stuff).”

Some who didn’t mind the USC pictures had other issues with Kiffin, though.

The coach, as most new hires tend to do, ran off a few of their buddies — including quarterback B.J. Coleman, the Class of 2007’s unquestioned leader, the goofy kid from Chattanooga with the Top Gun hat, the President George W. Bush voice and The South’s firmest handshake.

Players tried to rally around Coleman after his fiery exit meeting with Kiffin, but the quarterback calmed them down, pleading with them to keep their cool and stay in the coach’s good graces. Besides, he told them, he’d never play another second for a man who’d insulted him like that.

But Kiffin had a winning record at Tennessee, Kiffin had a team considered on the rise by some and Kiffin was bringing in highly rated recruits, so many of those complaints never came to public light until he left. Players would talk before Kiffin bolted, of course, but never on the record. It’s bad business to pick a fight you can’t win, and the coach picks who plays. And some saw through the coach’s poor qualities and saw the bigger picture, one full of big-time egos winning big-time games and having big-time fun in the process.

UT senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson

Regardless of anyone’s personal preference, though, Kiffin left, and some players left in the coming days and weeks and months. Some, especially Poole, were out the door but stayed because Kiffin left.

East Tennessee native Kippy Brown, who’d just been hired by Kiffin that offseason, kept everyone together during the interim, but, for some reason, was never a serious candidate for the full-time position. Some were insulted by the token interview UT gave Fulmer’s good friend — and man who worked wonders in an impossible situation — while an unknown coach in Ruston, La., waited in the bullpen for the inevitable phone call and flight to Knoxville.

That man, of course, was Louisiana Tech and longtime former Nick Saban assistant Derek Dooley — a man who is very meticulous and demanding of his players and openly critical when they fail to meet his lofty expectations.

Some coaches will tell the media a player is struggling.

Dooley will tell the media a player sucks.

In other words, Dooley was a third completely different personality to play for in three years.

Fulmer was father-like, Kiffin was buddy-like and Dooley was boss-like.

Dooley, like Kiffin, had a new style that required serious adjustments for players on and off the field. Dooley, like Kiffin, lost some players as a result.

UT senior linebacker Shane Reveiz

Some veterans hung around — some willingly, some because they had no choice — and got back to work in efforts to salvage something out of their college careers.

That didn’t happen at first. UT lost six of its first eight games under Dooley, but the hope appeared in the form of a tall, true freshman quarterback from Central California named Tyler Bray — whose laid-back, ultra-confident demeanor combined with an unquestioned, God-given ability to throw the football into any space from any angle at any distance put points and wins on the board.

UT rallied, rather improbably, to play in a bowl game. The Vols lost to North Carolina in Nashville, but they brought back a bevy of talented sophomores who seemed poised to put the Dooley Era ahead of schedule.

But fortune never smiled on these Vols’ seniors for very long, did it?

Junior linebacker Herman Lathers, one of the team’s best, hardest-working and most-respected players, cracked an ankle so badly on the first day of summer drills that it needed 11 surgical screws to put back together.

Junior defensive tackle Montori Hughes, a mammoth specimen with a mercurial personality that tipped his trouble past his talent, was dismissed for a violation of team rules.

All-SEC junior safety Janzen Jackson, one of the nation’s most talented defensive backs, was dismissed from the program for violating team rules.

Sophomore receiver Justin Hunter, a play-making machine understandably considered by some longtime UT employees as one of the best athletes to play in the program, caught seven touchdowns as a true freshman and averaged more than 150 yards in the team’s first two games this season before tearing an ACL on the third play of the Vols’ Sept. 17 game at Florida. It was equal parts unfortunate and fluky, his foot sticking in the ground during a simple cut he’d made thousands of times on the field during his young life.

UT senior quarterback Matt Simms

Then Bray, widely considered one of the nation’s best young passers, broke the thumb on his right (throwing) hand in the fourth quarter of UT’s Oct. 8 game against Georgia. It was equal parts unfortunate and fluky, his hand jamming into a defender’s facemask after a simple throw he’d made thousands of times during his young life.

UT, playing without four of its best seven or eight players, and a fifth player who was enigmatic but a major talent at a crucial position, nose-dived into a second consecutive winless October.

The Vols’ once-promisingly-prolific offense stalled and sputtered, failing to score more than seven points in four consecutive SEC games.

“What else can happen, man? I mean ... seriously ... what?” one of UT’s players muttered to me after one of the October losses. “This is a joke, man.”

Those frustrations culminated last week at Arkansas, when a few simple, embarrassing mistakes turned a close game into a 49-7 loss — the second-worst setback in the modern era of Tennessee football.

For all those who questioned how UT’s players could look so helpless during the Fourth Quarter from Hell in Fayetteville, I ask this: Would you do any better? I know I wouldn’t, given the same cruel circumstances. I can’t say I would have quit, but I can say with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t blame anyone for quitting.

There’s only so much a young person can take.

And these kids didn’t sign with Vanderbilt or Kentucky, where performances like this are expected. They didn’t sign with Ole Miss or Mississippi State, where performances like this are tolerated. They signed with Tennessee, where losing is never acceptable to some under any circumstances.

UT senior tailback Tauren Poole

They’ve stood in slop, running in mud for four or five years, and eventually your body and mind have to reach a breaking point. Eventually, everyone would at least consider quitting and letting nature take its course.

UT’s seniors know their fans don’t believe in them. Some of them know their own coaches don’t believe in them. Many of them, at some level, probably don’t believe in themselves at this point.

But they’re still here.

No one loves looking at them, but they’re still here.

They get up and go to work every morning for coaches who want to see new and better players take their place, and they do all that so they can play games in front of fans who want to see new and better players take their place. And they know that. Some will admit it, and some won’t, but they’re all smart enough to understand that. It’s too obvious to miss.

UT’s seniors aren’t stupid. They know this program has a standard, and they know they haven’t come close to meeting it. They know one of college football's cathedrals hasn’t filled to actual capacity once this season — their own student section had empty seats throughout a game against top-ranked LSU, a game that would have commanded $500 tickets in the past — and they know General Neyland’s House has been more than half-empty at the final whistle more than a few times on their watch. They’ve done nearly everything they could to fix East Tennessee’s frustrations. They’ve changed positions, more than once in some cases. They’ve watched film and tutored younger players, players recruited by the current coaches, players brought in to put them on the bench. They’ve ignored the snooze button, put on the happiest face possible and come into work every day with sprains and more-serious pains, because they’ve all accepted by this point that some things in life simply can’t be controlled. They’ve stopped reading newspapers and web sites that insult them, they’ve stopped listening to radio shows that insult them, they’ve stopped showing their faces in public to avoid people who insult them and they’ve terminated social media accounts to avoid being consistently reminded how far they’ve fallen from grace.

But they haven’t stopped working.

These seniors will put on pads one more time and jog through the ‘T’ one more time and play an opponent one more time in their formerly friendly confines tomorrow night.

UT senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson

Do I expect them to come out tomorrow night and put forth every effort to beat Vanderbilt? Yes, I do. And so do you.

Do I expect them to feel a bit sorry for themselves if they fall behind by multiple scores in the second half? Yes, I do. And so do you.

But will I respect those kids regardless of what happens tomorrow night? Hell, yes, I will. And so should you.

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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