This was Rod Delmonico's year.
Even though the Vols' baseball coach, now in his 15th season, led UT to the College World Series just three seasons ago, he knew his job was on the line.
Delmonico's contract doesn't run out until 2006, but his team has been left out of postseason play since that magical 2001 season, when the Vols finished third in the nation.
The Vols were just 25-35 the last two years in SEC play, but it's hard to overlook what Delmonico has done the rest of his career:
o 519-278 career record, and the skipper was the third fastest to 500 wins in SEC history, behind only legends Skip Bertman of LSU and Ron Polk of Mississippi State.
o Currently sixth all-time in the SEC in career wins
o Eight 40-win seasons and two 50-win seasons
o Six NCAA Regional appearances and two College World Series trips
o Two SEC Titles and four SEC Eastern Division Championships
o UT's all-time winningest baseball coach
So, naturally, the speculation was Delmonico was playing for his own job this season, and the prognosis looked bleak.
Tennessee was picked to finish just fifth in the SEC East by the coaches, and lost a second-round draft pick in catcher Javi Herrera.
Jordan Czarneiecki, possibly the best center fielder the Vols have ever had, was lost to graduation.
New catcher Nick Crowe would be manning his fourth position in three years.
Pitchers Patrick Hicklen and Brandon Crowe were still recovering from injuries.
But sometimes desperation leads to greatness, and the 2004 Vols are a classic example.
After last weekend's road sweep of Georgia, Tennessee stands alone at the top of the SEC with a 9-3 record. If the season ended today, the 29-5, 12th-ranked Vols would be the top overall seed in the SEC Tournament.
And to think, they've done it without their top pitcher for all but seven innings. Sophomore Luke Hochevar first endured a calf injury, and was then hit in the head by a freak line drive during batting practice.
But senior Derek Tharpe, who never panned out at lowly Samford University (it's okay, neither did I), has filled in remarkably on Friday nights. Tharpe is 6-0 with a 2.04 ERA, striking out 68 batters in the process.
Sean Watson and Ben Riley pitch the rest of the weekend, and they have combined for a 7-2 mark. UF transfer Scot Drucker has five saves and the team's lowest ERA.
In addition, 13 Vols are hitting over .300, including eight starters. The only starter not hitting .300 is Nick Crowe at .293.
So Delmonico's job is safe for now, and this team might just be special like that '01 team. Plus, Hochevar is back and will pitch tonight at Wofford.
Major league players generally play their best in their contract, or walk year. Millions of dollars are won or lost by their performance in that season.
And while Delmonico may not be in the last year of his contract, it's time he's commended for what he's done.
The best team in the best conference. Isn't that enough?
- Scott Simmons is the sports copy editor and a junior in finance. He can be reached at simmonssays@utk.edu.