Tennessee’s Program Is Cursed: It’s Time For a Sports Exorcism

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Tennessee’s athletics program is cursed. That’s the only conclusion you can draw from what’s happened over the past four seasons. I can even pinpoint the exact moment when the wheels came off the program — leading eventual national champion LSU 14-13 in the SEC title game, Vol senior quarterback Erik Ainge throws an interception midway through the fourth quarter that is returned for a touchdown.

The Vols lose 21-14.

Since that point the Tennessee football team has gone 19-20 in its past 39 games.

But that’s just football. From the moment Tennessee fired Phil Fulmer, everything has collapsed at Tennessee, a three-year record of almost complete and total ineptitude the likes of which have rarely been seen in major college athletics.

But it’s not just ineptitude, it’s something more, a deep and lasting cursing. Call it the Fulmer curse or the Cutcliffe curse. No matter what you call it, it’s here and inescapable.

Clearly there have been worst stretches than this for individual teams. As far as major programs go Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez era was a complete disaster. But it was only in football. When you consider football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and baseball, the four major programs in any college, UT’s downfall has been dramatic, unexpected and unprecedented.

It’s time for a reverse of the curse, a sports exorcism, but first let’s trace the downfall from that moment when it all began, the Erik Ainge interception returned for a touchdown by LSU.

1. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe leaves for the head coaching job at Duke in the spring of 2008.

You can make the argument — and I will — that if Cutcliffe doesn’t leave for Duke Phil Fulmer is still the head coach at Tennessee.

Under Cutcliffe the Tennessee program reversed an awful 5-6 mark in 2005 with 9-4 and 10-4 seasons. Tennessee returned a team in 2008 that Las Vegas expected to win at least 9 games and entered the season ranked in the top 20. 

What’s more, Phil Fulmer had a top ten recruiting class in the works for the 2009 class.  

2. Dave Clawson is hired as offensive coordinator at Tennessee.  

It’s a secret, but Clawson has been hired with the idea that he will be Fulmer’s successor if all goes well with the offense. 

All does not go well with the offense. 

In fact, a collapse ensues.  Despite having the third best defense in the country, the Vol offense is atrocious. The Vols stumble out of the gate and fall to 3-6 after a road loss to South Carolina.

3. Bruce Pearl hosts three basketball recruits, all juniors, at his home for a BBQ on September 20, 2008.

The visit comes after the Vols are dismantled on the football field by Florida. The BBQ hosted by Pearl at his home, a secondary violation, produces the infamous photograph of now Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft taken inside of Pearl’s home.

Pearl, coming off an SEC title and the best season in basketball history, receives verbal commitments from Josh Selby, Aaron Craft, and Jordan McCrae.  

The future of UT basketball has never looked brighter, but unbeknownst to most the seeds of its collapse have also been sewn.  

4. The day after the South Carolina loss drops the Vols to 3-6 on the season Phil Fulmer is fired.


A few days after that firing UT loses a home game to Wyoming, guaranteeing the football team a seven-loss season. If Fulmer isn’t fired the Vols finish 6-6 and go to a bowl game.

But a new era has arrived in Knoxville. Hope springs eternal.

5. Unfortunately Lane Kiffin is hired.

While Kiffin notches a 7-6 record in his lone year at the helm, he runs off many of Phil Fulmer’s players, disintegrating the football team’s depth. All is forgiven as Kiffin, relying on many of Fulmer’s committments, notches a strong recruiting class featuring several star players who represent late switches from other major powers.

Kiffin signs 22 players in 2009. As part of his barnstorming of the state to brag about his recruits, Kiffin accuses Florida of cheating — “I love the fact that Urban had to cheat and still didn’t get him.” — brags about his desire for secondary violations, and by the fall of 2009 the NCAA is looking into UT’s recruiting practices.   

By the start of the 2011 season only 11 of the 22 players remain enrolled at school, four of the top five have been dismissed from the team.  

And two of those players have robbed someone at a gas station while wearing UT gear. And driven away in a Prius. You couldn’t even make up this crime if you tried. 

6. Four UT basketball players are arrested with guns and drugs on New Year’s Day 2010.

Ultimately, after a prolonged suspension, All-SEC caliber power forward Tyler Smith is dismissed and the Vols rally, coming within two points of the program’s first Final Four.

Vol fans savor the future of the basketball program, unaware that in three months it will all come crashing down.

7. The NCAA commences what will ultimately be a 22 month investigation into UT football and basketball.

It will not end until August of 2011.

8. A couple of weeks after being dominated by Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl, Kiffin departs Knoxville two weeks before signing day in January of 2010. 

UT staffers scramble to turn off Kiffin and his staff’s cell phones because they’re telling current UT commits not to arrive on campus and to instead follow them to USC. 

The lasting image of the Kiffin’s departure? This hastily scheduled press conference. 

UT fans are not happy. Avert your case if you’re easily offended by what students painted on the famous campus Rock.

9. Bruce Pearl lies to the NCAA about where the Aaron Craft photo was taken in June of 2010.

Read all about that interview that ended Pearl’s Tennessee career here.  

10. Tennessee announces Bruce Pearl’s transgressions at a Friday press conference before the Labor Day weekend begins the 2010 football season. 

The school says that it hopes it’s self-imposed penalties are sufficient. 

They are not. 

A media destruction of Bruce Pearl commences.  

11. Derek Dooley is hired at Tennessee and this happens at LSU. 

12. Then this happens against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.

Derek Dooley jokes that while his first season record was 6-7, he is 8-5 in post-game handshakes.

13. SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspends Bruce Pearl for the first half of the SEC season.

Despite this suspension, the Vols give false hope, managing to post a respectable 5-3 mark in these games before stumbling to a 9-9 record in conference play.

14. UT fires Pearl after his team loses 75-45 to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tourney.

The blowout is preceded by an awful interview with UT AD Mike Hamilton making it clear that Pearl will be fired. Many Vol fans see this interview as a complete sabotage of the season.

The 30 point loss is the worst in Pearl’s tenure at Tennessee.

15. UT fires its baseball coach.

Once a proud program, UT has become an SEC laughingstock.

I could spend more time on baseball, but suffice it to say that after losing a three-game weekend schedule at Vanderbilt by a combined score of 39-5, the Vol head coach Todd Raleigh says the score was closer than it seemed.

That’s how bad baseball got.

16. Men’s athletics director Mike Hamilton steps down in June of 2011.

Hamilton, who has paid out over $9 million in buyouts during his career, notches his final million dollar buyout…his own.

17. UT zeroes in on a new candidate for AD and is close to announcing the hire of Georgia Tech AD Dan Radakovich.

Only, you guessed it, a few days before the UT announcement, the NCAA drops word of major violations at Georgia Tech.

UT still has no AD.

18. Pat Summitt announces she has Alzheimer’s.

Clearly, this is the worst of all of the misfortune to have befallen the Vols.  

Up until now the UT women’s team has been the one major program safe from the curse.  

19. The NCAA announces its findings on UT sports. 

Bruce Pearl receives a three-year show-cause and his assistants each receive a one-year show cause.

Meanwhile, Lane Kiffin, who’d been hit with two major violations for his role at UT football, manages to swing the blame back onto the university’s compliance office resulting in two secondary violations attributed to the UT football team and no majors personally attributed to him.

This performance in front of the Committee on Infractions, which led to the dismissal of two major NCAA violaions, represents the two biggest victories in Lane Kiffin’s head-coaching tenure.  

On this same day the penalties are publicly UT dismisses the best player on the football team, Janzen Jackson.  

If you can beat this roster of cursedness in a short period of time across four major programs in college athletics, do it. I’d love to see this roster beaten.

But it’s my contention that no one can beat this.

Nope, the Fulmer Curse is real.

Now that we know the curse actually exists the question has become, how do we exorcise the demons?

I need your suggestions. Because it’s time for us to act.

I don’t think I can make it through another season of this.

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.


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