Bill Battle was fired after going 6-5 in 1976. Johnny Majors was shown the door after going 9-3 in 1992. Phillip Fulmer was forced to step down after going 5-7 in 2008.
This fall, however, 6-6 feels like a winning season. The reason can be summed up in one word: hope. Battle's 1976 team dropped three of its last six games - all on Shields-Watkins Field. Majors' 1992 squad dropped three games in a row after a 5-0 start produced a No. 4 national ranking. Fulmer's 2008 team dropped three of its last five games, including a Homecoming loss to Wyoming.
Whereas those teams staggered to the finish line, Derek Dooley's 2010 Vols closed with a flourish, storming home 4-0 after a 2-6 start. That, coupled with the fact that many of the key players are freshmen who have three years of eligibility remaining, creates both momentum and optimism going forward. The program appears to be on the upswing, which did not appear to be the case in '76, '92 or '08.
Senior defensive end Chris Walker probably summed it up best moments after the Vols beat Kentucky 24-14 in Saturday's regular-season finale.
“When we were in the locker room, I was telling the team that we were a long way from 2-6," he said. "A lot of people counted us out when we were 2-6 but we didn’t think that as a team. We didn’t think that as seniors, and our coaches didn’t."
It's difficult to fault the fans who let doubts creep in at midseason, however. After consecutive October losses by scores of 41-14 to Georgia, 41-10 to Alabama and 38-24 to South Carolina dropped Tennessee's record to 2-6, the Vols appeared on track to become the first team in program history to lose eight games in a season. Fortunately for the Vol Nation, the Big Orange changed tracks and kept chugging.
"We believed in what we were doing and we knew that we hadn’t played our best game yet," Walker said. "We knew if we started playing our best ball, then we were going to win our next four games and we were going to be a bowl-eligible team."
And that's exactly what happened.
"We’ve had a lot of improvement," Dooley said. "Everybody in the organization improved over the course of the season, and that’s all you can ask for."
As the Vols got better, so did the outlook for the future. And that's why thousands of Big Orange fans are feeling surprisingly good about 6-6 today.