On A Hallowed Hill in Tennessee

Laura Bower Local Living, Popular, Sports 11 Comments

For people who don’t bleed orange, the fierce, irrational loyalty of Tennessee football fans is perplexing. You might think we’re unbalanced and over-the-top in our allegiance to the Vols. You might think we’re blithely unaware of bigger issues and that we ought to get our priorities in order. What we need is a reality check, right?

Well, let me explain that this is reality in Big Orange Country. And it’s bigger than football. It has to do with our core values, our self-awareness and our very identity. There’s something almost mystical about our connection to Team. Eric Berry, Montario Hardesty and Jonathan Crompton are family. When Lane Kiffin disrespects UT, he disrespects us all.

A historian once explained to me that because of our shared Scots-Irish heritage, people of Appalachian descent are clannish, suspicious of outsiders and deeply devoted to kith and kin. Although the Vol Nation is more culturally diverse now, perhaps some of this clannishness remains. We aren’t just fans – we’re blood brothers and sisters. Pat Summitt embodies this theory. Her loyalty to the Vols is part of her DNA. When she went into labor with Tyler in a plane on a recruiting trip, she refused to land. “This baby is not going to be born in Pennsylvania,” she famously insisted. “My baby will be born in Tennessee.” And so he was.

The fact that Knoxville’s loyalties were divided in the Civil War is a painful chapter in our history, because families were literally split down the middle, with sons fighting in different uniforms on opposing sides. They say time heals all wounds, but those scars are especially deep. That’s why our shared allegiance to UT Football is so important in East Tennessee. It goes across political lines and is not defined by race, creed or socio-economic disparities. If you can sing “Rocky Top,” you’re part of this great heritage that goes back to 1891.

According to Wikipedia, our beloved Vols have amassed a successful tradition for well over a century, with a combined record of 783-332-53 ranking us ninth on the list of all-time winningest major college programs as well as second on the list of winningest SEC programs, just behind Alabama’s Crimson Tide and ahead of Southern California’s (USC) Trojans, I might add. Our all-time ranking in bowl appearances is third (tied with USC), and we’re fourth in all-time bowl victories. We boast six national titles with the last national championship in 1998. How ‘bout them Vols!

Photo © 2009 Garrett Crawford, All Rights Reserved.

Johnny Majors is part of it. So is Phillip Fulmer. It’s easy to understand why these Tennessee born and bred players and coaches are loyal to UT. But so is Bruce Pearl. He absolutely gets the importance of our tradition. The way he asked Coach Mears’ permission to don the sacred orange jacket touched our hearts. And when he apologized for tarnishing the reputation of our University after the recent New Year’s Day arrests of four basketball players, we loved him for it.

I’m a third-generation alumna of the University of Tennessee, where I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I’m proud to have graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UT. I’d put my finance professors, Harold Black, John Wachowicz and Jim Wansley, up against anybody in academia. I’ve done post-graduate work under Ron Taylor, Eric Haley and Margie Morrison, internationally respected scholars in their field of qualitative research in advertising. I’ve even taught as an adjunct instructor in UT’s College of Communication and Information.

But my allegiance to UT begins with football. My mother’s childhood home on Temple Avenue was where McClung Tower now stands. She remembers walking across the grass to attend games as a child. Even further back than that, my great-uncle, W.K. McClure, played right end for the Vols from 1912-1915. He had a seat on the 50-yard-line the rest of his life and never missed a home game until his death in 1986, the oldest living letterman at the time. Growing up, my brother, sister and I would watch our parents leave on football Saturdays, dressed to the nines, while we stayed home, glued to the radio broadcasts of John Ward.

I was at Neyland Stadium in 1984 when we ended an 11-game series losing streak with a 28-27 win over Alabama. I was there in 1992 when we beat 4th ranked Florida 31-14 in a downpour, lightening streaking the sky as we did the mock chomp to celebrate. I attended every one of Peyton Manning’s home games. And my then-7-year-old son stayed up well past midnight for our six-OT win against Arkansas (41-38) in 2002.

So when Lane Kiffin behaved like a boorish ingrate, trampling the sacred orange banner with which we entrusted him, it hurt. I’ll admit he always looked like he was chewing nails on the sideline, never smiling until his recent USC press conference. I was fond of Monte Kiffin, with his endearing stoop and comb over, not to mention his incisive grasp of defensive strategy. But I have to say, I hope my own son grows up with more integrity and character than Monte’s son did.

My heart goes out to our players who, like us fans, bought in to what Lane Kiffin said. They believed in and trusted him. Now they’re confused and angry, wondering what the future holds for them and for the team. To those young men I say this: UT football is bigger than the coach, bigger than bricks and mortar, pads and helmets. UT football embodies courage and perseverance and dreams. Being a Volunteer means being part of something larger than self. It’s a shared consciousness, a greater good that you will take with you for the rest of your life.

My brother, Randy Mansfield, has lived away from Knoxville for the past 25 years, in LA for part of that time. He has a moveable shrine of UT sports memorabilia he takes with him wherever he goes. People who aren’t from here don’t get it. I do. “Like a beacon shining bright” UT is his connection to his childhood. His alma mater represents home, hearth and happiness. Just as Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey pines for home no matter where life’s journey takes him, my brother craves that sense of belonging he can only find here in Tennessee.

So here’s to you old Tennessee, our Alma Mater true, we pledge in love and harmony our loyalty to you.

Photo © 2009 Garrett Crawford, All Rights Reserved.

Comments 11

  1. In response to this: “People who aren’t from here don’t get it.”

    I understand everyone is upset because of Kiffin’s actions. I do feel bad for the team and fans to put up with him as a coach and then he bails after one season. But the student riots? The several days coverage over the whole debacle? I’m from Maryville, the tiny little town 30 minutes down the road from UT and I don’t get it and never have.

    Then again, I’m not a football fan at all. And part of my reason for staying in Murfreesboro after graduating MTSU was because as a non-UT-fan, I never felt comfortable in Big Orange Country.

    I’m not knocking anyone, I’m just staying that even some of us from the area don’t understand the “fierce, irrational loy alty of Ten­nessee football fans.” I do hope you guys get a better, nicer coach though. If only Pat Summit (who I think is awesome, BTW) could coach the football team…..UT needs a Pat Summit of college football. 🙂

  2. A damn fine article. I currently live in Birmingham — God help us — but maintain our own glowing UT shrine to remind us from home. (From Johnson City.)

    This is a damn good article. Very well written.

    To the non-football fans (Kristen, et al) that don’t understand: it isn’t that he left. It is the combination of how he left (22 days before signing a new recruiting class = screwing the university), how we defended him for his big mouth only to be stabbed in the back, and how we picked him up after being fired from his previous job, gave him the keys to the proverbial city, and let him hire the staff he wanted.

  3. My friend, Sara, told me about this story and it was such a pleasure to read. It was very well written and really shines Laura’s enthusiasm and heartfelt love for the Vols. Although I am a Gator fan, I am a very big fan of the SEC. My favorite coach of all time is Pat Summitt, who was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, the same year as Bob McAdoo from the Buffalo Braves. Thanks for sharing.

  4. No coach should have to talk to his players in a jail cell. He was here to coach not investigate multiple players actions on multiple occasions. The team did nothing to earn his loyalty. I don’t blame him for getting the heck outta’ Dodge. Yes, it blows having the rug pulled out underneath us but come on, it is still just a game. When was the last time we cheered UT at a technical competition? Those (technical) students could actually change the world one day, yet we hear nothing of them. Football is a game and the fact that the people of Knoxville are so worked up over it shows me that we have a skewed sense of what is important. Sad….

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  6. This is a good article and explains a lot.
    On the other hand, I still can’t condone UT students burning mattresses in the street and writing obscenities on “The Rock.” I grew up in a “we bleed orange” house, graduated from Tennessee, and work in downtown Knoxville.

    And, thanks to the wild behavior of Tennessee fans, I am all but burnt out on the whole thing.

    Kiffen did his team wrong but…ask yourself…would you want to coach here? Ugh. No way. And Mr. Dooley is fifth on the list because everyone else turned him down.

    Priorities. Manners. Even the clannish Scots-Irish (as I am) knew how to behave in public.

    God help us.

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