During my daily commute, I’ve been listening to a lot of the local sports talk about the Vols. I rarely call in myself because I’m not interested in making any more of an ass of myself than I already do on a daily basis, but the other day, there was a topic that I really wanted to chime in on. Since the Florida game, there’s been a lot of talk about the “moral victory” of staying within ten points when the spread was in the 30’s, I think, and most experts were expecting a complete blowout. On the show, the hosts–whose opinions are fairly solid and usually not too far out in space–were upset with all the hype around the “moral victory.” Their argument was that a loss is a loss and that to feel good about only losing by ten is not the proper message for a program to project.
I really wanted to chime in on this one because my view of the game has little to do with the final score. Yes, a loss is a loss, and no one should ever feel good about losing. A competitor should hate losing with a fervor. That’ what made Michael Jordan, Dale Earnhardt, Greg Maddux, and Bill Russell so great. To them, losing was akin to death, and they never accepted it as anything else. That’s what makes a champion stand out, the attitude and resolve to compete for victory every single moment.
But what makes me proud of the Vols after that game is not that we “hung in there” against a superior foe. It’s all the things the team did that are an improvement over the previous few years. Since he won the National Championship in 98, Phillip Fulmer had progressively let his teams get less athletic, less aggressive, less physical, and less competitive. Most games, it seemed as if they were playing not to lose instead of to win. Against mediocre opponents, they played down to that level, and against superior opponents, they sometimes quit competing entirely. One year, at the Peach Bowl, while getting blown out in the game, several of the players were on the sidelines talking on their cell phones and joking around. The loss didn’t seem to matter.
Last Saturday, the team kept fighting even when it looked like Florida was about to blow the game open. Defensive guys were still hustling to the ball; the offensive line was still coming off the ball with a purpose; and running backs were finishing runs with authority. Yes, they lost, but they didn’t quit. Yes, they made mistakes, but they made them full-speed. That’s all I want to see from a team, a competitive spirit until the final whistle. The program still has a long way to go to get back to respectability among the elite college football teams, but for the first time in a decade, it’s heading in the right direction.
And one last thought: Get off of Jonathan Crompton’s back. The kid is playing hard and doing his best. Yes, he’s made some mistakes, but he’s a good kid and conducts himself the right way. He’s on his fourth offensive coordinator and has almost no help from his receivers. He’ll get better as the season progresses and everyone develops more. For now, how about supporting the kid just a little instead of throwing him under the bus.