KNOXVILLE — A bizarre finish didn’t deter University of Tennessee football coaches and players from understanding how far the Volunteers came in year 1 of the Derek Dooley Era.
It certainly soured the lasting image, though.
A controversial, 30-27, double-overtime loss to North Carolina in Thursday’s Music City Bowl prevented what would have been a season-ending, five-game winning streak. It would have meant different things for the team’s seniors and underclassmen, but all good things.
But as it ended, it was simply another painful chapter in a painful stretch for one of the nation’s proudest programs.
It was also UT’s second lost of the season despite leading the first time the fourth quarter clock expired.
It wasn’t a carbon copy of the Vols’ October loss at LSU, but it was equally shocking and soul-crushing.
“This was worse, and not because of the way it happened, but the whole situation, as far as the seniors, and our story, our four-year journey, and us really playing a good game, because a lot of seniors played their tail off today, and you could really tell they wanted to go out with a bang,” senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. “And for that to happen, man, that [stinks].”
Jones, like most of his fellow seniors who met with the media moments after the game, seemed resigned to the fact that his college career was just always destined for frustration. Three head coaches in three years. Four offensive systems in four years. Four position coaches in four years. Four strength coaches in three years.
The conclusion simply fell in line with that frustration.
“I’m just heartbroken, man,” Jones said. “This is a tough thing to deal with, especially when it’s your last game, and you put your heart on the line, and you give it your all for your teammates, for your best friend, for your family, for the fans, for the coaches. And to have a thing like that happen to you twice in a season, you start doubting yourself. You start questioning yourself, if you’re cursed or not.
“I don’t know why things would happen like that to us, especially the seniors, man. All we did was work hard and buy into every system there was, to every new coach there was, and we fought our hardest. It’s like, ‘Did we deserve that? What did we do to deserve that?’
“But that’s just the way it is.”
Senior tight end Luke Stocker didn’t disagree.
“I have no idea, to be honest with you,” Stocker said when asked what he would take from his college football experience. “Yeah, we’ve had some tough breaks, looking back. I guess the only thing you can take from that is learning how to regroup quickly and move on and learn from something, and then try to move on and fix it the next day.
“That’s all you can do.”
Dooley’s frustration after the game largely stemmed from understanding just how close his seniors — whose leadership, in his mind, salvaged a bowl appearance after a 2-6 start — came to ending their chaotic careers on a high note.
“I hurt for that whole football team,” Dooley said. “There’s a bunch of guys in there crying, but I told them I was proud of them. You don’t always define yourself as a competitor or a man by results that happen, and this team I hope won’t, because they’ve been fighting like heck since November, and they put up a heck of a fight against a good football team.”
“It’s a shame to lose two games like that.”
But Dooley and his departed seniors hope that feeling hangs around for months.
“I hope it lingers in the offseason, and I told the team that,” Dooley said. “Every time they want to lay in their bed and not work in the offseason, they better think about how they feel. I hope they bottle this feeling up after the game, and I hope they bottle this feeling up after Baton Rouge, and I hope they bottle that feeling up after a whole bunch of other losses we had.
“I know I will. I know I will.”
Sophomore offensive tackle Dallas Thomas said motivation won’t be a problem for a team featuring several promising young players.
“We’re going to come back,” Thomas said. “We’re going to come back with a fire burning inside of us for whoever we have to play next year. First game, we’re coming out with a burning fire inside, and we’re going to do what we’ve got to do.
“Coming back, we’re returning a lot, so we’re going to have something in store for everybody. So everybody be ready for what we’ve got.”
A foundation, though incomplete, is partially in place. Quarterback Tyler Bray was occasionally spectacular as a true freshman, as were several other first-year players on offense, defense and special teams.
The Vols played 16 true freshmen this season, which ranked third out of 120 major NCAA Division I programs.
And now that defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has removed himself from consideration for the same position at the University of Texas, perhaps the Vols can retain their entire coaching staff.
Jones said he’s already asking a higher power to keep the staff intact for his talented (former) teammates.
“I pray to God they don’t ever have to go what I went through,” Jones said. “Nobody deserves that, man. Nobody.”