Jack Neely and Joe Sullivan square off on the pros and cons of seeing the world through Vol-colored glasses.
by Joe Sullivan
Only a few hardy men are now alive who truly remember Tennessee's last unbeaten football team. And their lustrous memories of that 1938 season are tarnished just a tad by the sight of being relegated to second place in the pollsters' national rankings behind, uh, TCU.
The mythical national championship claimed in 1951 was tarnished all the more so by the thrashing the Vols took from Maryland in the Sugar Bowl that season. (The polls closed down before the bowl games back then.) So for all our rich tradition on the field and unexcelled fan-atricism in the stands, we're still questing for that ecstatic moment when we can hoist our index fingers skyward and triumphantly proclaim that we are REALLY number one.
Maybe, just maybe--dare we let our pre-season hopes spring too high again--this could be THE YEAR. But even if it isn't, those of us whose every blood cell turns orange in the fall still think Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ought to be reincarnated to chronicle the exploits of our legendary heroes.
Volmania, you say. But was Paul Revere's ride really more historic than Gene McEver's 98-yard return of the opening kickoff against almighty Alabama in 1928? Or Johnny Butler's touchdown run against the Tide in 1939 that a legend-in-his-own-right, the late Lindsey Nelson, called "the most exciting run I ever saw." Then there was Dewey Warren's Longest Yard slow mo for the winning score against UCLA in the 1965 Rosebonnet Bowl; and fast forwarding toward the present, Johnnie Jones' and Jay Graham's game breakers that punctured--or at least punctuated--Alabama's latter-day aura of invincibility.
Then there were the passes. General Bob Neyland didn't much believe in them. But Hank Lauricella hit Bert Rechichar for the only score as what many consider to be Neyland's best-ever 1950 team beat Bear Bryant's previously unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats to capture the SEC championship (on the coldest day yours truly ever spent outdoors). Johnny Majors' connection with Buddy Cruze in the 1956 Georgia Tech game got Tennessee closer to a national championship than it's ever gotten since. And the most fantastic single victory of the era has to be the blitzing of Miami in the post-1985 Sugar Bowl--in which the most crucial plays were the passes that Miami's vaunted Vinnie Testeverde failed to throw because he got sacked and sacked and sacked and...
If you don't revel in as many of these melodramatic moments as your age permits, then you've missed sharing in the pride and glory of the closest thing to national prominence that life in Knoxville has to offer. Humbug, you may say. Most of those 100,000 orangeniks who congregate at Neyland Cathedral on Saturdays in the fall are just a bunch of cultists who've gone overboard in their ritual. Or, if Volmania isn't some sort of freaky religion, then its devotees need psychiatric help to overcome a warped sense of values or a communal inferiority complex that needs to cling to Vol exploits for esteem.
But remember it was Scrooge who went around humbugging Christmas until he saw the light. If he became a true believer, so can you. And the start of this potentially momentous new season is the perfect time to do so.
We've got linemen who can lift more weight than Atlas and an entire defensive unit that's more powerful than a locomotive and faster than a speeding bullet. At least, so goes the pre-season hype. Our quarterback may be on the verge of displacing Frank Merriwell on the all-time all-American team that Walter Camp keeps up in the sky. Finally, there are the miracle men. Peerless Price is back whizzing to catch passes at a time when he was supposed to be still hobbling on the ankle that he broke last spring. And amid all kinds of high school all-Americans, the most pleasant surprise of pre-season practice--until he, too, broke his ankle--has been the crunching blocking of an unheralded freshman fullback, Will Bartholomew, who happens to be the grandson of the lead blocker on Johnny Butler's fabled run of nearly 60 years ago.
For true believers steeped in both tradition and eternal optimism, it's possible to fantasize the penultimate moment in the fourth quarter of the Florida game when Will Bartholomew comes off the bench to flatten a ferocious Gator pass rusher as Peyton Manning lofts a touchdown strike to a streaking Peerless Price for Tennessee's biggest victory of all time.
Okay, so Volmania is a hallucinatory mental disorder. But, I'm ever so glad I've got it and hope to remain afflicted for many years to come.
by Jack Neely
I'm an odd duck to be taking the anti-Volmania point of view here. This weekend, I'll be among a fairly small minority of Knoxvillians who will be on hand in Neyland Stadium Saturday night, cheering the Vols in the season opener against Texas Tech.
I sit in section T (for Tennessee). I support the cause by buying watered-down Cokes and greenish hot dogs. I've attended at least one game every season since 1966; when I can't make it to the stadium, I alienate my wife and children by the single-mindedness of my attention to John Ward's broadcasts. After we beat Notre Dame, I skirted the cops to offer my assistance in tearing down the goal posts. I've even worn Vol paraphernalia, if only when I'm out of state.
Last, and probably least in the minds of die-hard Vol fans, I'm a UT alumnus, one who knows the words to the alma mater and sang along even before they started flashing them up on the scoreboard.
Still, after a bad game, I console myself this way: I think maybe, if we lose enough, we'll find something better to do with our Saturday afternoons. I think maybe if we have the Vols but not Volmania, we'll get on with the long-neglected business of being a real city.
It's not just what we allow football to do to Knoxville six of what would otherwise be six of the best Saturdays of the year. Although hardly 15% of Knox County residents attend any given Vols game, this minority, along with a few thousand others, nearly immobilizes the city, preempts meetings, festivals, movies, classes, parties, weddings. I'm not sure I understand why the cast of professional actors that Clarence Brown Theatre has in town for the current run of Terra Nova won't be performing at all on Saturday, just because there's a football game a few blocks away. But let's just accept that status quo, for the sake of argument.
Those six lost Saturdays might be worth the sacrifice if we found something original and collectively relevant to do with them. Asheville, much smaller than Knoxville, closes its streets for dozens of unique and memorable weekend festivals each year. Just one of them, Bele Chere, brings in 300,000 people, half the number who will attend an entire Vols home season. At Bele Chere, there's something for everybody.
The Vols, by contrast, are an esoteric interest, an acquired taste. Working for six months at the World's Fair in 1982--and later, working for six years with mostly out-of-state colleagues at Whittle Communications--was a humbling experience for this born-and-raised Vol fan.
The inevitable question sounded weird, even weirder than when the big-chested intergalactic warrior-princesses asked Captain Kirk, "Love? What is Love?"
The question these imports from Boston or Los Angeles asked me, sooner or later, was "Vols? What are Vols?"
It astonished me only the first 20 or 30 times I heard it. "What are Vols!" I always shouted. "Didn't you watch the Bluebonnet Bowl on TV two years ago?"
"No," came one unintimidated answer. "I don't follow NASCAR."
After dozens of repetitions, what had seemed an absurd question stopped seeming so absurd. They didn't know anything about the Vols, and there wasn't any particular reason why they should. It will take more than an NCAA championship for "the Vols" to make a stronger impression on a majority of Americans--or for them to care that Knoxville is their home. Even for those who move here, it might take years to get it.
Knoxville is Home of the Vols. But to most Americans, advertising that fact may be the rough equivalent of approaching a stranger and identifying yourself as the King of the Drods.
Now, for the sake of argument, let's concede that we have to celebrate the Vols, as some of us do.
What do we do that's unique and memorable? Do visiting fans go home and say, Man, you won't believe what they do in Knoxville!
What? Wave giant foam-rubber fingers? Wear ball caps? Drink Bud?
The ways we celebrate the Vols are, to put it politely, derivative. Nearly every aspect of our celebration of the Vols is borrowed from other universities--from our Yale-originated fight song to our Georgia hedges to the Wave.
And most of the traditions we do celebrate say nothing about ourselves. First, there's the Big Orange thing. Orange trees won't grow here, which may explain our fascination with a hue of that color that doesn't appear in nature, or even in Florida. When I was a kid in the Doug Dickey '60s, and about one in 17 Vol fans wore an orange tie, and it was interesting to look across the curve in sections P and Q and notice, through the cigar smoke, a certain burnt-sienna tint to the crowd. That subtle phenomenon was so interesting that you'd remark about it to your neighbor.
Then came LSD, psychedelia, day-glo colors. That ochre Vol orange of previous generations became a psychedelic, Peter Max orange. Somehow, our neutron-irradiated, acid-trip orange outlasted the Peter Max era.
About the same time came the marketing of athletic wear to nonathletes, which may be Volmania's single biggest public liability. (Please--if you're not on the squad--especially if you're not an athlete--especially if we can tell from section YY that you're not an athlete--get yourself a nice tweed suit.)
And then there's "Rocky Top," a funny novelty song about life on a mountain peak where corn won't grow at all--but the band plays it at Neyland Stadium, next to a river in the bottom of a broad, fertile valley, at an altitude lower than Atlanta's. When fans from Athens, Georgia, or Lexington, Kentucky, drive to Knoxville for a game, they drive mostly downhill--and when they get here, they hear about how far "up in the Tennessee hills" their hosts wish to be. We don't really want to be at UT or anywhere near Knoxville, the song seems to say. We don't want to have to go to college at all. We just want to be on ol' Rocky Top.
And think for a minute about those two ill-fated strangers who "climbed ol' Rocky Top, lookin' fer a moonshine still". Those strangers were in all likelihood federal agents employed in Knoxville--and, for all we know, season-ticket holders.
One of the few things that does make UT distinctive is that location. Neyland Stadium is reportedly America's only college-football stadium located on the bank of a big river. Once that distinction was celebrated and cherished. Even before the Vols were called the Vols, UT's baseball team, circa 1875, was called The Riverside 9--or just The Riverside. Today, we may not think of the Vol Navy as an important cultural icon--but maybe the beer boats are helping us find a clue about a truer heritage.
In spite of these six afternoons in America's biggest stadium each year, newcomers are often frustrated with Knoxville's dearth of obvious distinctions and related lack of a public life.
Knoxville was once a bolder city, culturally and economically. In Knoxville newspapers before about 1925, you find descriptions of public parties every month, parades, small fairs and carnivals, masquerades, open-air dances held in the street or on the Square, horse races, bicycle races, pick-up baseball games, open ethnic festivals, public debates--adults doing lots of things that would embarrass or tire modern Knoxvillians.
You might blame TV for those losses. Or the automobile, or other distractions of modern life. But then, why don't we have as much going on publicly as, say, Asheville does today? Or Chattanooga? Or Nashville?
Several historians have also observed that Knoxville began to decline economically and socially in the 1920s--even suffering substantial losses in population. By most accounts, Volmania also commenced in the '20s.
It's hard to ignore the fact that Knoxville's shy, retiring, low-profile shoulder-slump has been, roughly, our Volmania era. I don't know how to account for that, exactly, except to call it coincidence--or to voice a vague suspicion that maybe Volmania drains Knoxville's pride and energy for other public projects and events and channels it into Neyland Stadium, where six Saturdays a year it echoes around for a while before it dwindles, witnessed by no one but Vol fans. We put all our eggs in that one big basket, and then leave them there.
Just to get into a seat in Neyland Stadium, you have to be a pretty big fan already. And if you never get into Neyland Stadium, you won't have much of a clue about why it's worth the trouble. Volmania's not dynamic. Every season, Volmania preaches mainly to the converted.
Civic malaise is not caused by college football, which is fun to play and fun to watch, and this season's Vols may be America's finest. Volmania gets boring only when they become a lazy, bleary-headed habit for people who haven't figured out a more memorable way to say, I'm from Tennessee.