The last time Alabama came to Neyland Stadium, it was the beginning of the end for one era.
Another era, though, was just about to hit overdrive.
Alabama’s 29-9 beatdown of Tennessee in 2008 was for all intents and purposes the final blow for Phillip Fulmer, who nine days later at a tearful news conference announced that he was being forced out at his alma mater.
The loss itself wasn’t necessarily what did in Fulmer. Rather, it was the way the Alabama fans took over Neyland Stadium that night. There might have been 25,000 of them in the house singing “Yea, Alabama!”
For much of the fourth quarter, it was one giant crimson-coated party. The orange-clad Tennessee fans had long since gone home.
Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton waited until after the South Carolina loss that next week to pull the plug on Fulmer. But all of the movers and shakers at Tennessee agree.
Fulmer's fate was sealed with the Alabama takeover.
The Crimson Tide return this Saturday night, and it’s fair to say a few things have changed.
Starting with that win two years ago, Alabama is 25-3 since, including a national championship and two straight appearances in the SEC championship game.
During that span, the Crimson Tide are 10-3 against nationally ranked teams.
It’s gone in the other direction for Tennessee, although the reality is that it was already headed that way.
Starting with that loss two years ago to Alabama, the Vols are 11-13 since and are on their third head coach in as many years.
During that span, they’re 1-7 against nationally ranked teams.
Derek Dooley’s challenge is to make Tennessee relevant again, and not even the most zealous fan was expecting miracles this season.
The same goes for next season, too.
It’s probably going to be the 2012 season before you can fairly evaluate Dooley.
He knows as well as anyone, though, that a big part of making Tennessee relevant again begins and ends with beating Alabama, at least as much as the Crimson Tide beat the Vols.
Entering that 2008 game, Tennessee had won 10 of the last 13 meetings in this series.
But since Nick Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa in 2007, the Vols are 0-for-3.
Dooley is no stranger to Saban, having worked under him for five seasons at LSU and then for one season in the NFL when Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins.
“They’re complex and always have been,” Dooley said of the Saban-led Crimson Tide. “I say that, but the base philosophy and ways they win are very simple. It’s the right things. It’s stop the run. It’s pressure the quarterback on third down. It’s a good return game and special teams to control the vertical field position, and it’s run the ball.
“That formula has been around for a long time in football, and it’s what I believe in.”
The other part of that formula is recruiting great players.
Alabama is one of the pre-eminent recruiting machines in all of college football.
Tennessee was once in that class and scratching and clawing to get back there, although the climb will probably be steeper than anybody on Rocky Top cares to admit.
Nonetheless, this has been a rivalry that has endured and one that has seen its share of twists and turns.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the passion that surrounds this rivalry on both sides.
After all, they don’t hand out cigars for just any game.