OUR CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON
It began on Easter Sunday in Cincinnati, and if the miracles keep coming our way, it could conclude stupendously on Jan. 2 in Miami.
After losing 10 games during the regular season for the first time in more than a decade, the Lady Vol basketball team had been written off for dead. But when NCAA tournament time rolled around, the defending champs somehow regained their orange magic. And on Easter Sunday, they ascended to their second national title in a row.
Similarly, after getting clobbered yet again by Florida in September, the football Vols looked as if they'd be lucky to cling to a bottom rung in the Top 10 and make it back to their New Year's home-away-from-home at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. But November brought a succession of almost occult occurrences that vaulted the Vols back into contention for a national championship in their Orange Bowl match up against the hulking Huskers from Nebraska.
The run started on Nov. 1 when Georgia ever-so-improbably beat Florida to put Tennessee back on the inside track toward its first-ever SEC championship game. But all kinds of other odds-defying outcomes had to happen to vault the Vols over Florida State, North Carolina, Ohio State, and Penn State in the polling for Miami trip ticks. And all of them did.
Meanwhile, UT struggled against SEC doormats Arkansas and Vanderbilt, gave up the most yardage ever yielded by a Tennessee team against Kentucky, and seemingly tried to hand the SEC championship game to Auburn on a platter. But in every case the Vols prevailed—all the more rewardingly for the adversity they had to overcome.
Now, all it takes for UT to reign supreme is for Cinderella Washington State to beat Michigan's conquering heroes in the Rose Bowl and for Tennessee to show the odds makers they got it wrong again in making Nebraska an 11-1/2 point favorite.
A little much you say, especially on top of everything that's gone before. But that's what they were saying about the Lady Vols back in March. 'Tis the season for miracles at the figurative intersection of Pat Head Summitt Drive and Peyton Manning Pass.
Fans of Knoxville's professional sports organizations—as opposed to those amateurs at Neyland Stadium—had a rough year. First came word that the Knoxville Cherokees hockey club was decamping to South Carolina, unhappy with their bottom-line performance in the Civic Coliseum. The subsequent wailing and rending of garments may not have been for naught—local officials hint that 1998 may see some new tenants putting their blades to the Coliseum's ice.
But the hockey hullabaloo was soon drowned out by the bigger (and still unresolved) tale of the myriad efforts to relocate the Knoxville Smokies. The whole thing has read like a somewhat tawdry romance. Mayor Ashe effectively left the team at the altar in February, saying a proposal to build a new stadium on State Street was, at $20 million, more of a dowry than the city could afford. As heartsick team owners flirted with a number of amorous suitors—Alcoa, Oak Ridge, Lexington, Ky.—County Executive Tommy Schumpert (who once coached a Central High School baseball team to a state championship) took on the unlikely role of matchmaker, trying to set up the Smokies with a nice local beau.
But repeated attempts at arranged marriages in the West Knox area faltered as one NIMBYish neighborhood group after another protested the prospect of increased traffic disrupting their suburban quietude. (Traffic in West Knoxville? Oh, the horror.) Meanwhile, the Smokies continued to spurn entreaties from their faithful first loves—the Fourth and Gill and Parkridge communities, which abut the team's current home and are the only neighborhoods that appear to really want the stadium. Will the team find the West Knox trophy mate it so clearly desires? At last notice, the county had officially voted to allocate money for a stadium if an acceptable site turns up. Tune in next year for the dramatic denouement.
In a year marked elsewhere by fumbles, stumbles, and detours, the Greater Knoxville Sports Corp.—under the redoubtable leadership of president Gloria Ray—moved forward confidently, racking up one impressive win after another. In April, the Corp. brought to town the Super Nationals Scholastic Chess Championship—the World Series of youth chess—which drew thousands of families and scads of national media coverage (including a big write-up in that little New York City paper called the Times). Shortly thereafter, it turned Gay Street into a main drag for a day via the Great Race, a cross-country contest for antique cars. And it announced contracts for future Knoxville events ranging from international archery tournaments to gymnastics championships to B.A.S.S. fishing finals. But the really big news was the securing of financing for the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, a rare tourist-attracting proposal that actually makes sense for the city. Ray ruffled some feathers with her reluctance to fold the Corp. into the proposed "superchamber," but her critics would do well to ponder whether they really want to mess with success.