Wiedmer: Vols, Cats have endured similar struggles

Wiedmer: Vols, Cats have endured similar struggles

November 29th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Three coaches in five years. Four straight losing seasons. No bowl games the last three autumns.

That recent history may be painfully familiar to University of Tennessee football fans, but they are not alone in their misery.

The University of Kentucky -- which welcomes the Volunteers to Commonwealth Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday -- has endured almost the same frustrations, though this season's current 2-9 worksheet and 0-7 Southeastern Conference mark is a noticeable notch below UT's 4-7, 1-6 record.

"One thing you learn about in football is that there are things you can control and things that are uncontrollable," UK fifth-year senior defensive lineman Tristian Johnson said this week. "Any time you sign with a major university, you know there can be changes."

Yet even by college football standards, the last five years have been extraordinarily liquid for both the Vols and Wildcats.

For UT, it began with the firing of Phillip Fulmer after 16 mostly satisfying years running his alma mater's football program. Fulmer replacement Lane Kiffin quit on the Vols after a single season. Derek Dooley was fired three years later, which led to the hiring of current coach Butch Jones.

For UK, the man who signed Johnson -- Rich Brooks -- retired, opening the door for his handpicked successor, Joker Phillips, a UK alum who was on staff. Much like Dooley, Phillips went 6-6 his first year, then lost a bowl game. His second season was highlighted by a victory over Dooley that broke a 26-game losing streak to the Vols (Hey, nobody beats UK 27 years in a row!). Also much like Dooley, Phillips was fired before the close of last season, though he at least stuck around to the finish, unlike Disappearing Derek.

Now the Cats are coached by Mark Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator who is yet to win much on the field but is delivering a top 10 recruiting class off it.

"Even though we haven't had a great season, I see him being here a long time," said Johnson, who was a high school star in LaGrange, Ga. "Everybody's bought into Coach Stoops' system. Even though we haven't won as much as we'd hoped, we've gotten better every week. The guys coming back next year are really going to make a difference."

If this sounds much like the older Vols' praise of Jones, it may be because Stoops and Jones are Midwesterners born less than a year apart -- Ohio native Stoops is 46; Michigander Jones is 45 -- who strongly embrace recruiting and motivational tools.

Yet unlike the UT seniors who hinted after Saturday night's loss to Vanderbilt that they felt an obligation to stick around and help mentor their younger Vols brothers, Johnson believes "there comes a time you have to stand on your own. We can't be there for them forever. We've shown them all we can, shown them the work ethic they need to get better. They have to take it from here; they have to be there for each other now."

He would have every reason to be bitter this weekend. Johnson played little as a redshirt freshman during UK's last bowl appearance. The last two seasons have produced a total of four wins and zero SEC victories heading into Saturday night.

"I've been playing football since the seventh grade, and now it's almost over," he said. "It is kind of bittersweet."

But when Johnson was asked the day before Thanksgiving what he would give thanks for regarding his UK football career, he was surprisingly positive.

"Everybody will say we didn't win a lot of games, we didn't go to a lot of bowls," said Johnson, who would like to become a college coach. "But I played for three awesome coaches, three awesome people. I got to meet a lot of great people just because I was a Wildcat. Most people are never able to say that."

Most people also struggle to learn to deal with something the Vols and Wildcats have becomes experts in over the last few years.

"You have to learn to adapt to change," Johnson said. "That's true in football and in life."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com