The last 24 months have been rough for the fans of the University of Tennessee athletic teams. Some have even called it historically dramatic and depressingly declining.
And when supporting your college team seems like work -- something you have to do or feel obligated to do, rather than something you want to do -- that makes it seem exponentially worse. We need our distractions, be it 18 holes on Saturday or checking recruiting message boards or reading and commenting on Internet columns or making PowerPoint presentations about how Washington is awesome.
This is one of the hidden gems of college fandom -- the underlying truth that following your team is as much a release as it is a religion. It's a pastime that helps pass the time. It's a sideline even from the sidelines.
It's an emotional connection that frequently carries too much weight emotionally no matter how loose the connection. Such is the state of the fan, which is not coincidentally is the root of the words "fantastic" and "fanatical."
But when that release brings more angst than energy and more embarrassment than enjoyment, it's doubly detrimental. When the fan base gets to the point that you feel hopeless or are afraid to pick up the paper and see today's headlines -- and know that my second junior year at Auburn was 1993, when the Tigers went 11-0 on probation, which was the ultimate "Hey, this is great; hey, this stinks because we can't win the whole thing" scenario -- it's tough.
It's like UT fans right now are being forced to focus on real-life stuff because the stuff going on with UT athletics is depressing.
That's one of the reasons that this offseason is crucial for Derek Dooley and the football program. From the hiring of a defensive coordinator and continuing through signing day, Dooley needs some victories in the court of public opinion. His words and message were fine earlier this week, and Dooley always has been a news-conference superstar.
Right now, though, the Volunteers fan base needs some feel-good news more than a feel-good news conference. Start by landing a big-time hire at defensive coordinator. Start with Randy Shannon, and if that doesn't work, throw big money at Tracy Rocker or Everett Withers. Then land a five-star recruit or two.
Give the UT nation something to build on, because the longer the fan base goes without something to feel good about, the more questions and angst and doubt continue to loom. And when those feelings linger, that's when the answers will come from the top.
Enter Dave Hart, who has been UT's athletic director for about four months and seems to have handled his early stages appropriately. He's remained fairly low-key, gathering intelligence and being seen rather than heard for the most part. That's a wise first impression.
That said, 2012 will be instrumental in shaping Hart's time in Knoxville.
Some of his surroundings he inherited -- his hand was dealt him in regard to Dooley and Cuonzo Martin being hired by the previous regime -- and some of it will require some world-class deft and touch. It's hard to recall a situation that could become as difficult as the Pat Summitt deal could be.
And Hart will become more of the focus this year, especially if Dooley and the football Vols struggle. The best thing for UT athletics this year would be clarity, especially in football. Let Dooley win 10 games or four, and let the fan base unite in a direction. Right now it feels pretty split -- and more than a little jaded -- and that's understandable on every level.
If that split remains -- or worse, continues to widen -- through 2012, it will be up to Hart to fix it.
And then he will have to be heard more than he'll need to be seen.