Saturday I was at work downtown, as I am most Saturdays, catching up on stuff. I'd been half paying attention to the Missouri game on my desk radio, when early in the fourth quarter I went out to get a Coke. It was a beautiful afternoon, you may recall, and a lot of people were out at the sidewalk cafe tables.
Behind me I heard a shout, angrily loud. "Go Vols!" Two young men, both in bright orange, shouted repeatedly, directly at people sitting at sidewalk cafes, including what appeared to be a large family. When I'd passed them, some of the people at the tables were speaking French.
"Look, they don't even care!" the young man shouted. "Go Vols!" he shouted again, and punched the Riviera's impudent metal sidewalk advertisement of a non-Vol movie, knocking it over.
In his mind, Knoxville has one job, and that's to root for a college football team.
Many of us do wish the fellows in orange could have done better, in part to validate the salaries we're paying the staff. I keep catching myself feeling sorry for Mr. Dooley, in particular. So much of football is random chance, and no coach can control every variable. But Derek Dooley will make out all right. He made more coaching football games this one losing season alone than I'll make in my entire career, merely working.
If there's any use for a losing streak, it may be to test an old economic truism that has grated on several of my few remaining synapses, especially the ones having to do with logic. That was that the Vols, in particular the football Vols, are Knoxville's main thing. That the fellows in orange are a major driver of the Knoxville economy, and, further, that it's urgently important to Knoxville that the Vols win. I have heard that theory from drunks on the 11 bus and on the upper floors of the City County Building. If the Vols ever cease to win, the dearly held creed goes, Knoxville itself will suffer, perhaps shrivel into municipal inconsequence.
Hospitals and banks, given the chance to advertise their advantages, lately prefer to declare they're "all Vol." The daily displays an all-Vol front page, as if that's the primary news any Knoxvillian might be interested in reading about. The young men on Gay Street Saturday, appalled that there might be people downtown not paying close attention to a college football game, expressed that idea in their own way.
The last five seasons offer a laboratory to test the Vols-Knoxville equation. It's been the Vols' worst half-decade since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
While the Vols have gone down in flames, how much has Knoxville, the city, suffered? Well, maybe downtown's city promoters shouldn't crow about it, given the state of things on the next hill over, but during the Vols' long losing streak, the city has earned its most positive press since the World's Fair, maybe longer than that. Downtown is spinning like a top. It hasn't seen a better five autumns in my memory.
I'm of an age when I'm supposed to be nostalgic for lost youth, but Knoxville's more fun to live in today.
And it's not just downtown: I'm no authority on the subject of retail, but I'm told the arrivals of Earth Fare, Publix, Trader Joe's, Costco, Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters, and Anthropologie are big deals, indicative at least of some studied optimism in the economic health of the city.
We have more music, more dancing, more interesting food, more interesting festivals, than we ever did when the Vols were vying for national championships.
I'm not saying one causes the other. Theoretically, I believe it's possible for Knoxville and the Vols to succeed at the same time. I just don't think one has much to do with the other.
It's presumed that football is good at least for Knoxville's stature among cities, especially when it draws a spotlight. But I get the impression that sportswriters, as a class, aren't all that interested in cities. They lurk in locker rooms, eat a hot dog or two, jot down some figures, and get the hell out of town. If they mention Knoxville at all, it's without adjectives. A paragraph about that makes a host city sound half-interesting would mean cutting out some vital data about yards rushing or the weight of some impressive linebacker. Sports is about performance and personnel. From inside Neyland Stadium, you can't even see Knoxville anyway. Football exists in its own fiefdom, literally walled off from its environs.
There was one welcome exception last year, when ESPN commentator Todd Blackledge took time out to rave about the hamburgers at Litton's.
This may seem hard to believe, but I've looked into it: AC Entertainment's Big Ears Festivals, two one-weekend music events in 2009 and 2010, generated more positive national press about Knoxville—it strikes some music critics as a wonderful place—than entire Vols football seasons do.
Here's one reason why: When AC mounted its festivals, they were the only festivals of their kind on the continent. By contrast, more than 100 American cities host NCAA Division I football teams, and on any given fall Saturday, most of them are playing football. And every one of those teams has its own legions of fans.
Can even a national championship help a city much? I don't know. Norman, Okla., has hosted more national-championship teams than you and I can expect to see here in Knoxville in our lifetimes. Anybody been to Norman? I've passed through Oklahoma a couple of times, but wasn't tempted. I've been to Tuscaloosa. It's more fun than some other interstate exits.
The one time in my lifetime that the Vols did win the national championship, what impact did it have on Knoxville? Well, there was a preemptive curfew. The silence was eerie. I got a good night's sleep.
Here's what I'd like to tell those vigorous lads on Gay Street: Knoxville, the Vols, they're different things.