This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI contributor Lexie Little
The University of Tennessee celebrates its 225th year in 2019. While the stories of its myths and legends range across all facets of education and society, some of the most memorable – and least memorable – fall in the sports genre. Take a look back at a few moments that hold a place in Tennessee’s narrative in “This Week in UT Sports History.”
July 31, 2003
In late July 2003, media professionals from across the South congregated in the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Alabama, in anticipation of the first comments from Southeastern Conference players and coaches on the coming season. They took recorders from their bags. They set up cameras. They waited.
The Iceman cometh. Well, eventually.
Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen and linebacker Kevin Burnett were set to join head coach (now athletic director) Phillip Fulmer to open the 2003 SEC Kickoff football media days on July 29; however, Fulmer’s wife Vicky underwent a procedure that morning, resulting in a reschedule for the Volunteer representatives. An “injury” sidelined the Vols temporarily.
Clausen, who ended his Tennessee career second only to Peyton Manning in passing yardage at the time, was no stranger to injury. Despite All-American projections for the QB donning No. 7, his play remained less than stellar in 2002 as he battled a broken left collarbone and torn ligaments in his ankle.
“I was in a lot of pain, and I was not the same player,” Clausen said during the final day of media mayhem. “I probably shouldn’t have played. I couldn’t throw the ball the way I wanted. I couldn’t even take snaps the right way.”
In 2002, Tennessee earned a record of 8-5, losing to SEC rivals Florida, Georgia, and Alabama during the regular season. The Vols’ record earned them a spot in the Peach Bowl, but the bid proved too much. Maryland traveled south to trounce the Vols ten-fold, winning 30-3.
Somewhat embarrassed, the bannermen in orange and white openly expressed their frustrations but looked forward to the season to come. Fulmer noted Clausen emerged in a positive way near the end of what he called a “very marginal, average season.” Both Fulmer and Clausen looked to rebound.
“Now he’s bigger, stronger, and more mature,” Fulmer said of his senior quarterback. “He’s not going to be intimidated by much.”
Fulmer’s words rang true. Tennessee later opened the season on Aug. 30, 2003 with a 24-6 win against Fresno State. With Clausen in the pocket, the Vols continued to dominate opponents that year, only losing two games in the regular season to Auburn and Georgia on their way to a consecutive Peach Bowl against Clemson (L, 27-14). By season’s end, Clausen had completed 775 career passes for 9,707 yards. Though current quarterbacks like Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa post impressive records, few can stone-cold throw like the Iceman, who holds the 10th spot in the SEC record books for career passing yards.
Aug. 4, 2005
In 2016, the sound of bouncing basketballs ceased across the country when news broke that legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt had died. Though a pioneer and perhaps greatest coach in the game, Summitt certainly was not the first famed coach for which many grieved. In fact, Summitt herself lost an idol of her own during her tenure as the Lady Vols’ head coach.
Setting foot in sunny Los Angeles, California, Summitt gathered her thoughts to speak at the Collegiate Business Conference when sadness colored her comments. At 8:30 a.m., former Louisiana State University coach Sue Gunter died at age age 66 following prolonged illness related to emphysema.
“She was one of my mentors. Sue was the assistant coach to Billie Moore when I played on the 1976 USA Olympic Team (silver medalist) in Montreal,” Summitt said. “Four years later, I had the privilege of serving as her assistant when she was named head coach of the 1980 USA Olympic Team to the boycotted Moscow games.
“I learned so much from Sue about the X’s and O’s of the game of basketball. But more importantly, she taught me about the delicate balance of coaching and teaching the game and the value of great player-coach relationships. She made playing basketball fun due to her ability to connect with her players. Personally, I am going to miss her tremendously and I know the game is going to miss her.”
Gunter commenced her career at Middle Tennessee State where her Blue Raiders went undefeated from 1962 to 1964, 44-0. She subsequently coached the Stephen F. Austin Ladyjacks from 1965-1980 before she took the helm at LSU. Though she never personally led the Lady Tigers to a Final Four appearance, LSU credits Gunter for the 2003-2004 season in which she stepped down midway for health reasons. The Tigers reached the Final Four for the first time in 2004 under interim coach Pokey Chatman.
Gunter finished her career as the third-winningest women’s coach in NCAA history behind Summitt and Texas’ Jody Conradt. Her overall coaching record stood at 708-308. Though Summitt well-surpassed Gunter’s mark, she regarded her fellow coach as a friend and inspiration. Gunter’s influence, however indirect, contributed to the Lady Vols’ success by inspiring Summitt and advocating for women’s basketball on the national stage.
“[She] was a wonderful friend, an exceptional person, and an incredibly talented basketball coach,” Summitt said. “Definitely one of the pioneers of women’s collegiate basketball.”
Aug. 2, 2017
In more recent Tennessee sports history, Vol fans discussed what largely seemed a dismal decade in UT Athletics. They hoped their luck might change in 2017 as John Currie assumed the role of athletic director.
No such luck.
The narrative ended with a botched football coaching search costing Currie his job by the end of the year. Some fans remain enraged by the search post-Butch Jones. Some fans thank Currie for his role in Fulmer’s ascension to the top spot in athletics. But all fans can agree Currie entered his post with enthusiasm – as evidenced by his messages to Vol nation.
Currie drafted a letter to Tennessee donors, students, and fans ahead of the new academic and athletic years, looking forward to the future with much excitement, as evidenced by many exclamation points:
- “Good Morning, Big Orange Nation!…”
- “It’s August, which means our student-athletes will officially be back in action this month!…”
- “Rob Patrick, the longest-tenured head coach on campus, is entering his 21st season with the Big Orange!…”
- “I enjoyed the opportunity to check out some of our second football practice of the year Sunday afternoon, on what was a postcard perfect day on Rocky Top!…”
- “We encourage our fans to make a special effort to get inside Neyland Stadium early that day and make our 2017 home and SEC Network debut louder than ever!…”
- “I visited with the (men’s basketball) team in Pratt Pavilion after practice Monday. They are excited and appreciative of the opportunity!…”
- “Over the last two years, Tennessee student-athletes have earned $178,250 in postgraduate scholarship awards, which can be used toward any part-time or full-time study at a university or professional school!…”
- “Thank you!…”
- “I can’t wait to see [the first total solar eclipse in the continental United States in 38 years]!…”
- “As always, thanks for reading, and Go Big Orange!”
With double-digit exclamations, all Vols seemed destined for greatness. In reality, more darkness loomed – for the football program, Jones, and Currie, at least. Tennessee earned its first 4-8 record in school history as Butch Jones’ tenure came to a bitter end on Nov. 12, 2017. Less than one month later, Tennessee terminated Currie’s position on Dec. 1 after a turbulent search for a new head coach in which hundreds of Vol fans vehemently opposed the potential hire of embattled Ohio State (and former Penn State) assistant Greg Schiano. Currie served only eight months as AD.
Though Fulmer greets the position with no less enthusiasm, Vol fans hope success will actually prevail this time around.