Is UT's Rock Really an Icon?

UT's long and reluctant flirtation with Tradition

I understand I'm not the only graying alumnus who was a little perplexed by the summer's to-do about relocating the Rock on Volunteer Boulevard. It being an old University of Tennessee tradition, etc.

I'm Class of '81. For a couple of years back then, I was on the editorial staff of the Daily Beacon. I thought of myself as a very hep undergrad. And honest, I don't remember anyone mentioning the Rock. In all my evenings well spent at the Last Lap and the Roman Room, I don't remember anyone proposing, even once, "Hey, let's go paint the Rock!" I did hear people say, "Hey, let's go to Brother Jack's" or, "Hey, let's drive to Myrtle Beach," or, once, "Hey, let's break into Neyland Stadium and play Frisbee football on Shields-Watkins Field." Which turned out to be surprisingly easy to do.

But the Rock wasn't on my varsity radar. I was aware there was a rock there. It looked like any rock you might see out in front of any landscaped ca. 1960s pseudo-modernist condo development, which is how Frat Row seemed to non-frat people. Reports have referred to the Rock as being "in the heart of campus" or even that the Rock itself was the heart of campus. I don't know. I got my fraternity experience over with expeditiously, and was rarely even in the neighborhood.

People didn't even call it The Rock. If someone had, I would have said, "What Rock?" It was just A Rock.

Sure, it got spray-painted now and then, predictably, as did some parking garages and stop signs, usually with some Greek letters, which have profound meaning to affluent freshmen. Nothing that anybody talked about any more than they talked about any other graffiti, on a billboard or a newspaper box or a burned-out building.

Contemporaries have sent me e-mails grumbling kind of like I am right now, and I thought it should be acknowledged that the Rock, as a Tradition, is one more recognized by later generations.

That said, though, I don't mind a bit that it's now identified, even on UT's website, as an "icon." It's about time UT had one. A campus needs icons. The UT campus I knew was a campus peculiarly devoid of tradition. When I visited my sister at Chapel Hill, a university no older than UT, I envied their ancient stories. The Old Well; the Davie Poplar; the bell tower; Silent Sam, the virgin-detecting Confederate—all landmarks with stories older than anybody who was alive.

UT's allegedly a 1794 college on an 1826 campus, but never seemed it. Most of my history classes were in buildings that weren't as old as my knapsack. McClung Tower, where all my professors kept their cluttered offices, still had that new-building smell. The new parts of UT's campus, which was most of its campus, was unsentimentally modern. Europa had no ribald nickname, and the Volunteer's torch didn't flicker when a virgin walked by.

Much of UT had something of the character of an assisted-living facility.

I had lots of exciting insights at UT, 30 years ago. There I discovered Wallace Stevens and the Federalist Papers and theoretical physics, began my career as a paid (barely) journalist. I fell in love there, several times. But if you were to tell me over lunch that they were tearing down most of the campus as I knew it so long ago, I'd probably ask you if you were going to finish those fries. That's a challenge in human nature that I don't think modernist architects have yet addressed, at least not successfully: how to get non-architects to care about modern buildings.

But people do care about that Rock, and maybe I should, too. If print journalism dies, maybe it'll become an important medium.

UT once had some vivid traditions, like the Aloha-Oe ceremony, Torch Night, Nahheeyayli, Carnicus, etc. A lot of them sprang from the Roaring '20s, the era of the beaver coat. Some of them have died out; others exist but have been kind of toned down some, to a degree that may still be worthwhile but also distinctly sub-legendary. UT has shed tradition like Teflon.

Mention UT and Tradition, of course, and the conversation quickly comes around to football. But even the Vols' tradition doesn't stick. Football likes to seem historical ("That's one for the history books!") but the fact is that most games outside of recent memory are forgotten. When A.E. Housman wrote about "the fields where glory does not stay," he probably wasn't thinking about the particular field named Shields-Watkins, but he might as well have been. You have to be a real fan to identify, say, Hank Lauricella—especially if you're under 50. The quarterback of the Vols' first-ever national-championship team. Who is, in fact, still alive.

Never mind the 60 years of Vol football history before that. The UT Vols' earliest generations are interesting, in old newspapers, but murky to everyone alive today; there are no books about it, and the few books and websites that say anything about pre-Neyland football at all are sketchy and sometimes contradictory. I know from experience that if you put a pre-Neyland Vol coach in a crossword puzzle, people complain.

It's not necessarily UT's administration's fault. The generation right before me at UT, a people who were known as Hippies, had a distinct grudge against traditions in general. Several of the old annual events were cancelled in the late '60s. It was about the same time that UT turned up the volume on its orange, from its old, subtle, ochre hues that almost matched the autumn leaves—to the Peter Max psychedelic day-glo that has prevailed to this day. It was all for the kids, and what they wanted. And for the most part, students who have attended UT over the last 40 years are not a demographic that has craved tradition.

But now a rock has become The Rock, and a tradition. Maybe we need it.