KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Jacque Gierth was like so many Tennessee fans Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium.
“The streak ends today,” she said just a couple of hours before the 14th-ranked Volunteers hosted 19th-ranked Florida. “It ends today.”
But what if Tennessee falls behind early? And what about those 11 consecutive losses to the Gators? Her confidence shriveled at the thought.
“I’m concerned,” said Gierth, who has loved the Vols for more than three decades, “because Tennessee is a very heady team and a very heady fan base. If it’s more than one touchdown, the fans will start their usual stuff.”
By heady, she did not mean smart. She meant psychologically scarred. That’s what happens to a team and its fans when they go a dozen years between victories against a rival. When they’ve led the last two meetings by 9 and 13 points in the fourth quarter but found a way to blow both.
“Losing every year,” said Jonathan Newport, a Vols fan for four decades, “it just keeps you worried all the time.”
That was the vibe everywhere on campus in the hours before kickoff Saturday: fragile confidence. Prolonged losing streaks inflict real damage on the psyche of a program and its faithful. SEC Country spent the day embedded with Tennessee fans to witness firsthand the torment – and to be there just in case an exorcism broke out.
The team won nine games last season and was 3-0 already this fall, but a couple of wobbly wins over Appalachian State and Ohio hardly supported the preseason consensus that the Volunteers will win the SEC East for the first time since 2007.
“Even the Vol walk was a different feel today,” one fan said. “Usually, it’s hyped and everybody is fired up. Today, it was just nervous energy.”
About that time, Earl Cleghorne came thundering past, launching into a manic explanation of his alleged total confidence that Tennessee would deliver a breakthrough.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said, first to the reporter in front of him and then suddenly in a loud, wild, gesticulating pep talk to fellow fans trying to beat the day’s oppressive heat under a shade tree. “I’m sick and tired of losing! It’s time! We’re going to do it! Today is the day!”
He dramatically sniffed the air around him, as if delivering a pro-wrestling promo.
“Can you smell that?” he asked. “I smell victory. I smell victory! And we’re going to whup them Gators!”
Cleghorne led a rousing V-O-L-S chant, polished it off with another wrasslin’-style “Woooooo!” and the crowd roared with him. He sure seemed certain of the impending victory. But what about all those losses in a row?
“It takes a toll,” he admitted abruptly. “Not just on the team, on anybody. You have your doubts.”
* * *
And oh, how they came rushing back in the first half Saturday. When Tennessee committed a boneheaded personal foul on the opening kickoff. When the Volunteers left Florida’s star receiver wide open down the sideline. When UT was gifted a muffed punt and failed to score on four tries from the Gators 2-yard line.
“Lotta head-case things happening here,” said a gleeful Florida fan. “Tennessee is a head case. If we win again this year, they’re broken.”
Sure looked that way when a wide-open Vols receiver dropped a pass deep in the Gators’ end. When Tennessee lost Antonio Callaway again for a long gain that led to a 14-0 Florida lead just minutes into the second quarter. When Joshua Dobbs was subsequently intercepted in the end zone.
“They’re the Kardashians,” that Gators fan chirped, as Tennessee fans around him posted perhaps the earliest Surrender Cobra in the history of sports, tossing hands on heads and booing the home team well before halftime. “They haven’t earned any of this hype. All style, no substance.”
Another Florida deep ball – somehow its backup quarterback was torching the Vols – and it was 21-0. Jacque Gierth’s worst fear had come true. The going got rough and UT fans got nasty.
“Brick by brick!” screamed one, sarcastically, mocking coach Butch Jones’ catch phrase. “I’m not even as upset as in other years. I watched the last three weeks. Did we think they were going to show up today?”
Other than those barbs and the delirious celebration of visiting Florida fans, Neyland Stadium – most of its 102,455 fans coordinating their wardrobes to complete a checkerboard pattern in the stands – was eerily silent. Many of the students left at halftime.
“It definitely plays on your mind,” said Brian Lindley, a fan since moving from Miami 15 years ago, which means he’d only ever enjoyed three victories over Florida. “The players are all in there thinking the same thing right now: Here we go again.”
Josh Lindsey, 26, had given up the second day of his firstborn child’s life to come see Tennessee end the curse. It was his wife’s idea. You can’t miss this, she told him. This is the year. And he just knew she was right.
“I went to the bowl game last year, and after watching that, the whole drive back all I could think about is, ‘We’re going to be so good next year,’” Lindsey said. “And now it feels like, ‘I waited a whole year for this?’”
He was going to give the Vols exactly one possession in the second half to show him something before he bolted the stadium to go spend time with his son.
* * *
Hopefully Lindsey waited two series.
Jalen Tabor, Florida’s trash-talking cornerback, took shots at Tennessee for months leading up to this meeting. Tabor intercepted Dobbs less than two minutes into the third quarter. It seemed the nightmare would not end. And then it did.
Tabor got hurt and the Volunteers scored on consecutive possessions. Appleby came back to earth and tossed Tennessee an interception. Tabor returned but promptly lost his man, and Jauan Jennings sprinted 67 yards for the lead with 12:45 to go.
The crowd roared to life.
“This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been through,” lifelong, 38-year-old fan Dave Jones said. “At halftime, I was wishing I was at the house.”
Unlike the last two gut-wrenching games against Florida, this time the Volunteers did not let up. They reeled off 38 unanswered points and a party broke out in the stands. No, an exorcism. As the demon of disappointments past was at last wrenched from their souls, Tennessee fans made a joyful noise.
“Twelve years without drinking water and dying of thirst, then you finally get a sip of water, it feels pretty good,” said 36-year-old Jeff Lauer. “I’ll be honest, man, I thought it was same old, same old.”
Turns out, spotting them 21 points and then steamrolling your rival is a fairly cathartic way to end a losing streak. While Jones – whom fans would’ve fired if they could at intermission – conducted the band, they sang Rocky Top like perhaps it has never been sung before.
“Good Lord,” said 26-year-old alum Chris Hoeflein, pointing to a young couple kissing as players danced into the locker room just beyond them. “Look at them right there. That’s what we all feel. We’ve been through a helluva lot, and the one thing I was worried about was if we go down, is our crowd going to get out of it?
“But they started coming back and we came alive. God, what a great time.”
Wade Williams squeezed his wife and swayed to the band and stared for a long time at the scoreboard: Tennessee 38, Florida 28. It occurred to him that the Volunteers could start a streak of their own this time next fall.
“If we don’t win another game this season, it was still a good year,” the 47-year-old Murfreesboro resident said. “A streak to a fan, it’s the worst thing. Our psyche was very much damaged. At halftime, it was very, very damaged.”
He paused to clear his hoarse throat. Were those tears in his eyes?
“But,” he said, “I have been healed.”