KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It was the early morning hours of Nov. 2, 2014, and for the first time in what felt like forever, the University of Tennessee football team boarded a flight home to Knoxville as winners. All it took was overcoming a two-touchdown deficit, overtime and a mountain of grief to beat South Carolina on the road in Columbia.
No one cared that Tennessee was still one game under .500. It didn't matter that South Carolina wasn't all that good, either. This was a program that had endured turbulent years under Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, a program that had fallen short of bowl eligibility in three consecutive seasons. It was desperately searching for a turning point under second-year coach Butch Jones, and it believed it had finally found one.
Exhausted, but too wired to sleep, players and coaches celebrated the whole flight home. Linebacker Curt Maggitt seized control of the plane's intercom system and blasted music throughout the cabin. No one dared tell him to stop. Thirty thousand feet in the air felt like a different orbit. For Kyler Kerbyson, a veteran offensive lineman and lifelong Tennessee fan, the pain of years of frustration melted away. He was so thankful for his new head coach. Jones, he thought, had changed everything.
Aboard the flight, Jones told his team, "This is the feeling that you want. This is what you're looking for, boys."
Tennessee appeared to be on its way back. But when the wheels touched down, gravity took hold, and a once-proud program came back to Earth.
Three years later, and in the middle of Jones' fifth season, it's as if Tennessee hasn't moved an inch. Worse, it's slipped further into national irrelevance. Last Saturday, the Vols settled back into the familiar territory of a .500 record after unranked South Carolina came into Knoxville and won, 15-9. Jones saw how hurt his players were in the locker room afterward. He was disappointed with the way the season had gone, too.
"Love is conditional," he said, "and it's, 'What can you do for me next?'"
And therein lies the problem. Because what's next might mean going from bad to worse. On Saturday, Tennessee visits its bitter rival Alabama in a game that has become an annual reminder of everything the Volunteers are not: SEC champions, No. 1 in the country and a perennial playoff contender.
Phillip Fulmer sat on a bench in Circle Park, located in the heart of the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus. His arms were crossed to shield his chest from the breeze whipping among the buildings on the first cool day of fall. A short road leading out of the park is named after Peyton Manning, his star quarterback when he coached the Vols. Peyton Manning Pass leads into a road just outside Neyland Stadium called Phillip Fulmer Way.
Fulmer, who turned 67 in September, wore an easy smile and a patterned tan coat, his orange dress shirt faded from years of use. He's an administrator now -- "special adviser to the president," he said -- but reminders of his nearly two decades as football coach here are inescapable. Students and professors nodded his way as they walked by. "Hey, Coach," one twentysomething said. Fulmer smiled and tapped his gold national championship ring, which has picked up a warm patina since he first slipped it on after Tennessee's 1998 national championship season.
It's the week of the Alabama game, and Fulmer reminisced on an SEC rivalry that was first played in 1901. Growing up in Winchester, Tennessee, near the Alabama border, he was actually a fan of both schools. Doug Dickey, the Vols coach at the time, and his staff convinced Fulmer that Tide coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was on the verge of retirement, so Fulmer packed his bags and headed to Knoxville, where he's been almost ever since.
When Fulmer took over as Tennessee's head coach in 1992, the Vols had lost to Alabama six years in a row. But over the next decade, he captured seven wins and a tie. The 2003 game, a five-overtime thriller that was highlighted by a 1-yard Casey Clausen sneak into the end zone, is Fulmer's most unforgettable installment of the rivalry.
"There's nothing like it in my book," he said. "Fall, the Third Saturday in October, the colors -- orange and crimson -- which are the colors of fall."
But one of the most tradition-rich rivalries in the SEC has gone bankrupt since Fulmer stepped down in 2008. Nick Saban and Alabama have won every year since by an average of more than three touchdowns per game. It would be one thing if the rivalry was competitive, but Alabama has moved into another stratosphere in the intervening years and is a 36-point favorite on Saturday.
Even more unforgivable is Jones' failure to bring Tennessee to the top of a floundering SEC East. The owners of six national championships and 13 SEC titles haven't won their division since Fulmer's next-to-last season in 2007.
"There's nothing like it in my book. Fall, the Third Saturday in October, the colors -- orange and crimson -- which are the colors of fall."
Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer
Fulmer, for his part, understands the anxiousness among fans. He was on the field last Saturday when Tennessee followed up one embarrassing loss -- a 41-0 beatdown at the hands of Georgia, the most lopsided in Neyland Stadium history -- with another, the 15-9 loss to South Carolina. Both the empty seats and the "Fire Butch Jones" T-shirts were noticeable. "It's a prideful fan base," Fulmer said.
He's both earnest and to the point: "I support Coach Jones," he said. He called the program a work in progress. Injuries and other factors out of the coaches' control have contributed to this season's predicament, he pointed out. People are emotional, he said, but it's "the 20 percent minority that's the loudest."
And to that very vocal, very disturbed section of the fan base, he preached patience. Remember the "bad hires" after him and the change in athletic director. He reminds them of the uptick in recruiting, the improvements in facilities, the revitalization of the academic center.
"Before you can achieve what you want to achieve, you have to have stability," he said. "We've just gotten there."
Fulmer was nudged out the door late in 2008 and watched as Tennessee football crumbled under Kiffin and Dooley. Making a change now -- a fourth head coach in 10 years -- doesn't sound appetizing to the man who now serves both as an adviser to the school president and a constant reminder of what the program is capable of in the right hands.
"I'm in the president's office now," Fulmer said. "I'm not in practice every day to make that decision. But I'd sure hate to see us go through that again."
Anger is turning into apathy for listeners calling into "The Swain Event," a morning radio show in Knoxville hosted by former Tennessee receiver Jayson Swain.
One caller, Nathan, said: "It was interesting ... bringing up Alabama and what they've been able to develop there. As a Tennessee fan, you're envious. It's got to make you sick a little bit after all these years."
Another caller, KC, said: "I just can't feel optimistic about Tennessee football -- not even the next few years. All I think is we are literally the Browns of college football."
It's not difficult to understand their position. Tennessee started the season by surrendering 535 yards rushing in the season opener to Georgia Tech in a game the Vols somehow managed to win. They fell to Florida on a Hail Mary pass and gave up 41 points at home to Georgia. Offensively, there's been no discernible identity. A quarterback change was made from Quinten Dormady to Jarrett Guarantano to no avail, and coaches haven't maximized their best playmakers in running back John Kelly and wideout Marquez Callaway. The use -- or lack thereof -- of star recruit Tyler Byrd is a sore spot for Swain's listeners, including one caller who said he'd continue to look on the back of milk cartons for news of his disappearance.
Against South Carolina, on third-and-goal from the 2-yard line with 1 second remaining, Jones and offensive coordinator Larry Scott signaled for a play from the shotgun formation. Kelly lined up alongside Guarantano with one receiver to the quarterback's left, two to his right and a tight end attached to the offensive line to block. Guarantano rolled right and fired an incomplete pass that ended the game.
The play call rendered Kelly and Callaway useless as decoys, and Byrd wasn't even on the field. It was also, essentially, a rip-off of the play Clemson ran to beat Alabama in the national championship game last season. Same basic formation. Same rub route. Different result. Unlike the pair of Clemson receivers who set up 2 yards off the line of scrimmage to create the space necessary to execute the pick, Tennessee's receivers were right up on the line, drawing immediate contact from the defensive backs, which doomed the play from the beginning.
"I don't disagree with the call," Swain told his listeners. "It's execution, and that's on coaching."
Swain and co-host Charlie Burris don't hide their loyalty to Tennessee, using "we" and "us" often when discussing the program. To a man, they can't stand Alabama. But even they can agree that Saban and the Tide might be able to do the Vols a favor on Saturday.
Maybe, just maybe, Alabama will be Jones' last stand. Maybe their rival can put them out of their misery.
Three years ago, Tennessee's multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art facilities were a beacon of hope. When recruits visited, Jones and every member of his coaching staff stood outside the brand-new athletic offices on the sidewalk to greet them as soon as the car doors opened.
Now, Dobbs and Barnett are in the NFL without ever having competed for a conference championship, and Hurd is looking to make the most of his final opportunity in college after transferring to Baylor last season.
Now Tennessee is in danger of missing out on a bowl game, and Jones is on the ropes. Less than 24 hours after losing to South Carolina, four-star running back Lyn-J Dixon decommitted, sending fans into a panic about whether more recruits would follow suit.
On Monday, Jones didn't have much in the way of answers when he met with reporters for his weekly news conference.
"I understand, as the head football coach, I am responsible for every single loss," he said. "I take every loss personally. And we're going to continue to work. We're going to grind our way out of it. That's the only way I know how to do it."
In a soundbite that went viral, Jones said, "We did all the things it takes to play winning football except one element -- and we spoke about it after the game -- and that's score touchdowns." It was another cringeworthy comment -- to go along with "Champions of Life," "Five-star hearts" and "Leadership reps" -- because how can you play winning football without scoring touchdowns?
The most striking thing about Monday's press conference involved the upcoming opponent. Instead of pointing out ways to attack Alabama, there was something bordering on reverence for the Tide. Jones said it was "probably the most complete football team I've seen in a number of years," and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop called it "The Red Army."
Shoop, who once boasted that "nobody will run the football on the Orange Swarm," sounded almost in awe of Alabama running backs Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs, Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. Everyone on his staff had a favorite, Shoop said, noting that, "I still can't get Scarbrough's run last year out of my head."
Not many people can. In what could go down as one of the lowest moments in Jones' tenure as head coach, Scarbrough delivered a back-breaking 85-yard touchdown run and punctuated it by throwing his hand into the face of one particularly dejected Tennessee fan in the front row of the end zone who was too frozen to respond. After all, what do you do in the face of that kind of embarrassment, down 38 points at home?
At one point, Jones was asked about juggling one of the most difficult games of his career with questions of his own job security.
"I don't worry about any of that," he said. "All my focus is on our players and our football program and getting them ready for the Alabama game. That's all I focus on."
As seven-touchdown underdogs, an upset is unlikely. But maybe a good showing will buy Jones some more time. New athletic director John Currie has a reputation for being pragmatic, so maybe he can be persuaded to ride out the storm.
South Carolina once felt like a turning point for this program. So did Georgia in 2015 and Florida in 2016. But they now have the look of hoaxes.
Facing Alabama, staring down 11 losses in a row and last place in the division, there may not be enough time to turn this thing around.