Not a Very Good Year for UT Athletics

DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

It hasn’t been the greatest of years for Tennessee sports. From football to basketball to baseball, and several sports in between, the Vols – for the most part – fell short in 2016-17.

Non-retired Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart reacts during the No. 17 Tennessee Volunteers’ 45-34 loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores on Nov. 26. He had announced his retirement months earlier. (Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Tennessee finished 10th overall in the SEC All-Sports standings, which are tabulated by GateHouse Media. Vanderbilt was 11th.

UT’s men placed 13th out of 14 SEC teams, ahead of only Missouri and two spots behind Vanderbilt at 11. UT’s women were sixth; Vanderbilt’s were 13th.

Tennessee’s best finish was the softball team’s third place in the SEC, but its season ended with a stunning loss to Texas A&M in an NCAA Super Regional. After winning Game 1 of the three-game series, UT lost the next two games and a chance to go to the Women’s College World Series.

It was the first time Tennessee had lost a Super Regional at home, having gone to the WCWS seven of its eight times in the Super Regionals.

You could hardly say UT’s softball finish was a big disappointment. Not with such a young team. Not with a freshman and a sophomore as pitchers. And not after a finish in the NCAA’s final 16.

Still, it was a tough finish. Like so many other sports. 

Here’s a look at some low moments of Tennessee’s 2016-17 sports season:

Vols lose to South Carolina

It was Nov. 29 in Columbia, South Carolina, when Tennessee’s football team lost control of its SEC East Division destiny.

The Vols were coming off losses to Alabama and Texas A&M of the SEC West, but still ranked No. 18 going into the South Carolina game with a clear path to the SEC title game.

Then disaster. Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs had his worst game of the season – 12-of-16 for 161 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions – as the Vols (5-3, 2-3) lost to the Gamecocks, 24-21. 

Nothing got better the next couple of days.

During his Monday press conference two days later, Tennessee coach Butch Jones announced running back Jalen Hurd, the prized recruit of the 2014 recruiting class, told him earlier in the morning he was transferring to play wide receiver or tight end at another school. However, Jimmy Hyams of Sports Radio WNML, reported sources told him Hurd announced to teammates Sunday after the South Carolina loss he was leaving.

Jones called out a female reporter in Monday’s presser when she asked if he was able to get a pulse of the team after its third consecutive loss, and continued saying, “It’s probably a great day for you all (media). You’ve got a lot to write about, but no, when they come here, it’s business as usual.”

Jones also defended Dobbs and said there would be no quarterback switch. “Josh Dobbs is our quarterback. Make no mistake about that,” Jones said.

Vols beat Missouri,
lose to Vandy

All eyes were on the scoreboard during Tennessee’s home game against Missouri. The Vols, preseason favorite to win the East Division, still had a shot at the title and berth in the SEC championship game, but needed to win out and have LSU beat Florida in a game that started two hours earlier than the UT-Missouri game.

When Florida made two stops at its 1-yard line and beat LSU, fans began a mass exodus. Tennessee (8-3, 4-3 SEC) beat Missouri 63-37, but few fans were there for the final seconds. Florida had already clinched the East Division.

If UT fans thought that was a bad day, they should have made the trip to Nashville for the Vanderbilt game the next Saturday. The Vols blew their chance to go to the Sugar Bowl with a 45-34 loss to Vanderbilt.

Tennessee gained some offseason momentum with a 38-24 victory over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl. But 2016 will be remembered as the year the Vols were preseason favorites to win the East and didn’t get it done.

Serrano’s last stand

Tennessee’s baseball team lost its last seven SEC games of the season, but before it was over, coach Dave Serrano announced his resignation.

It came after the Vols were swept in a three-game series at Kentucky and before they played host to Missouri in their final SEC series of the season. After getting swept by Missouri, Tennessee (27-25, 7-21) was left out of the SEC tournament for the third time in Serrano’s six seasons. UT missed the tournament in Serrano’s first two seasons and was eliminated in one game each of the next three seasons.

Serrano, who was given a one-year contract extension in 2016 by then-athletic director Dave Hart, wasn’t likely to be retained by new athletic director John Currie. Not after Currie fired UT tennis coach Sam Winterbotham in early May after two bad seasons. 

In six years as UT’s coach, Serrano posted a 157-163 record, a .490 winning percentage. In SEC games, Serrano was 55-120 (.314). Assistant coach Larry Simcox is serving as interim coach during a national search for Serrano’s replacement.

Lady Vols hit bottom

Tennessee’s once-proud women’s basketball program hit another low point in 2016-17. After racking up the most losses in program history (14) the previous year, the Lady Vols failed to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament and into the Sweet 16 for only the second time ever. The other year was 2009, when they lost to Ball State in the first round.

This time, No. 5 seed Tennessee (20-12) lost to No. 4 Louisville, 75-64, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Tennessee hasn’t been to the NCAA’s Final Four since 2008, when it won the eighth national championship under late legendary coach Pat Summitt. She announced in August of 2011 she had onset dementia, “Alzheimer’s Type,” and retired after the 2011-12 season. Longtime assistant Holly Warlick replaced Summitt.

Warlick enters a pivotal sixth season under the watch of Currie. Questions loom about her coaching after this past season’s inconsistencies. They beat four teams in the NCAA Elite Eight – Notre Dame, Stanford, Mississippi State and South Carolina – but lost six games to teams that didn’t make the NCAA tournament, including two losses to Alabama, 11th in the 14-team SEC. The Lady Vols were fifth in the SEC at 10-6.

Vols miss March
Madness – again

Tennessee wasn’t exactly expected to be an SEC hoops power – picked 13th in the 14-team league in preseason – but there were hopes for joining March Madness after winning five of six SEC games in late January and early February.

Not so. The Vols (16-16, 8-10 SEC) lost four of their last six SEC games and entered the league tournament as the No. 9 seed. They lost to No. 8 Georgia 59-57 in the second round of the league tournament.

The Vols haven’t been to the NCAAs since 2013-14, Cuonzo Martin’s last season as coach, before he left for Cal. Martin recently took the head coaching job at Missouri, where he’ll compete against the Vols in the SEC.

Rick Barnes, who coached Texas to the NCAA tournament 16 times, showed modest improvement in his second season as the Vols’ coach. He returns the majority of his 2016-17 roster and appears to have made some solid additions to the roster. 

Can Barnes get the Vols back to March Madness in 2017-18? We’ll see.

Winterbotham fired

Currie was quick to pull the plug on Winterbotham after the Vols posted just three SEC victories the past two regular seasons.

Currie fired Winterbotham despite his 217-104 record (72-54 SEC), three total SEC titles and an appearance in the NCAA championship match in 2010. Winterbotham, the 2013 ITA national coach of the year, had a year left on his UT contract.

UT’s tennis team went 13-14 this year, but beat Kentucky in the SEC tournament for its fourth consecutive win before losing to Texas A&M. After going 0-12 in the SEC in 2016, UT’s tennis team was 3-9 in the league’s regular season this year.

Soccer misses NCAA

UT soccer coach Brian Pensky had big success at Maryland, where he took three consecutive teams to the NCAA tournament and was national coach of the year in 2010. Such success hasn’t followed him to Knoxville. His first team at UT went 14-5-3 and advanced to the NCAAs, but the Vols haven’t been back since.

In 2015, Tennessee was 7-5-6 and tied for ninth in the SEC with a 3-5-3 record. In 2016, UT was 11-9-1 and finished in a three-way tie for sixth in the SEC at 5-5-1. After beating unranked Ole Miss 2-0 in the SEC tournament opener, the Vols’ season ended with a 3-1 loss to No. 11/18 Auburn. 

In May 2016, Hart gave Pensky a one-year contract extension through the 2017 season.

Volleyball misses NCAA

Since making five straight NCAA appearances, the last in 2012, UT volleyball has failed to get back the past four seasons. It’s been a tough run since for coach Rob Patrick, who’s preparing for his 22nd year at UT.

Tennessee posted back-to-back SEC records of 1-17 in 2013 and ’14, winning a combined 17 matches in those two seasons. Two years ago, the Vols were 21-12 and finished tied for eighth in the SEC at 7-11. They were 17-14 last year and tied for seventh in the SEC at 7-11. 

Patrick, whose 2011 team went 28-4 and 19-1 in the SEC, is on the last year of a two-year contract extension he got in November of 2015 by Hart.

Men’s golf 13th in SEC

Tennessee’s golf team finished 13th in the SEC tournament in stroke play – failing to advance to the final day of match play – and missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.

Jim Kelson, UT’s coach since 1998, was among the coaches given a year’s contract extension by Hart last summer through the 2017 season, along with Serrano and women’s tennis coach Mike Patrick, who resigned last fall. 

Kelson has guided the Vols to 11 NCAA tournament berths and put five teams in the championship rounds, including four straight from 2009-13. But there’s been a drop since.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.