commentary (2006-36)

The fun of sports is in the edge, not the bludgeon

Pointless Points

by Barry Henderson

I have difficulty abiding the football fan who wants opposing teams stomped—not just beaten but overwhelmed, by 40 or 50 points. There are too many Tennessee Vol fans who seem to insist on the Vols’ gratuitously running up lopsided scores, just because it appears possible. You hear them in the stands at Neyland Stadium; you hear them on the call-in radio shows; you hear them on the streets wondering why the Vols didn’t lay it on whomever and criticizing coaching decisions that limited the slaughter.

It doesn’t happen just in Tennessee. It occurs among football fans in Nebraska, too, and Texas, and other places where football is more religion than sport. People are overheard lambasting clear and sensible decisions that kept a 23-7 victory from becoming a distasteful 52-10 debacle.

It came up again last weekend, when the UT coaching staff began juggling the lineup to include younger or less experienced players on both sides of the ball when the Vols had leapt to a surprising 35-0 lead over ninth-rated California. It had been quite a spectacle to see the Vols, underachievers in the 2005-06 season, return to form as a perfectly lubricated football machine. But it wasn’t enough for the bloodthirsty among the Vol faithful, who harangued the coaches for letting some second- and third-stringers play and show what they could do, because the Golden Bears scored 18 points once the regulars were out. It’s like the thought of having to go to Berkeley to play next year’s UT-Cal game hadn’t occurred to those greedy for more and more pointless points.

It makes one wonder if those overly aggressive souls ever participated in competitive team sports above the backyard level. The fun of the game is in the unpredictable upset, the come-from-behind miracle victory; the hanging onto the winning edge in the final seconds of the contest.

This may be personal, but I’m a pretty enthusiastic follower of college football myself and a fairly loyal backer of the Vols. I like to see them win. Their upset of Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl to win the 1998 national championship was a thing to behold and savor. The 35-28 win over Alabama in 1982, following 11 straight Alabama wins on the third Saturday in October, was a classic, and the incredible comeback to beat Alabama 28-27 in 1984 comes to mind often. The 1986 Sugar Bowl victory over heavily favored Miami was memorably stirring. But the best football game I’ve witnessed in Neyland Stadium in the more than a quarter-century I’ve been following the Vols was a loss. Yep, in 1990, UT fell to underdog Alabama in a 9-6 defensive tussle right here at home that saw wild momentum swings late, including a field goal, a blocked field-goal attempt and a field goal in the closing minute of the game.

Orange blood was draining down the exit ramps by the barrel. Vol fans of both sexes were weeping openly. I tried to explain to a UT graduate friend on the way out of the stadium that it was a wonderfully thrilling game to watch. He was unimpressed, and he went wordless only when I told him that the two schools’ coaching legends, UT’s Gen. Robert Neyland and Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant, both defense devotees, would have loved it until the bitter (for the Vols) end. To that assertion, the Vol faithful had no immediate rejoinder.

It was pretty inspiring last Saturday to see the UT team, many of whom went through last season’s 5-6 slump, with its bone-rattling loss to Vanderbilt, redeem its standing as a potential contender for conference or national honors. The coaching staff, reshuffled to include David Cutcliffe’s return as offensive coordinator and retain defensive guru John Chavis, while shifting major motivator Trooper Taylor to the receiver corps, has a lot to be proud of already. There are 11 more contests in the regular season, and each will offer a different set of obstacles and challenges, but this opening victory over a ranked opponent should instill a needed measure of confidence and not a whit of overconfidence.

I hope the team and coaches go for the win every time out by a touchdown, a field goal or a single, well-timed point. That’s all that’s necessary to achieve the apex of team play, no matter how that certain set of unreasonable fans may moan for more.