Can a city prevail even when its favorite team doesn’t?
The football Vols had a losing season, which is supposed to have Knoxville boosters quaking in their boots. That Knoxville’s success as a city rises and falls with the fortunes of the Tennessee Vols is rarely questioned.
About a month ago, a city bus driver was explaining Knoxville to a smartly dressed young newcomer from Latin America. “There’s nothing going on here,” the local guy said. “Knoxville wouldn’t be nothing except for the Vols.”
We do make a big deal of the football team that represents the state university that, thanks to some Reconstruction Republican politics, happens to be located in Knoxville. A colleague from Nashville attended the grand opening of the Knoxville Convention Center and was puzzled by one thing. They kept playing that celebration of the remote rural lifestyle, “Rocky Top,” on the sound system, in a continuous loop. The newcomer asked, “Is this the Knoxville Convention Center or the UT Vols Convention Center?”
To many Knoxvillians, it would seem a naive question. Knoxville, the Vols, they’re one and the same. If you don’t get the Vols, you don’t get Knoxville.
We have all heard anecdotes about certain Knoxville bars and restaurants that do markedly better on home-game days when the Vols win. A few years ago, one city official was heard fretting that a Vols losing season would be “economically devastating” for the city.
This year the Vols finished 5-6, their first losing season in 17 years. You’d think real-estate prices would be plummeting, and shantytowns would be popping up along Kingston Pike.
Some may well jump to the conclusion that the bad season was what did in the Cumberland Avenue O’Charley’s—which did announce its unexpected closure just after the Vols’ sixth loss of the season.
But here’s a funny thing. The City has hosted a Christmas-tree lighting on Market Square for several years, and Friday’s was the most successful one ever. Hundreds of people were out, packing the restaurants, roasting marshmallows, skating on the new ice rink, shopping in the stores and galleries. No “Rocky Top,” not much orange, but people seemed to be having fun anyway.
Still, Knoxville’s left to daydream about what it would be like to be a college-football-championship city. More than twice a century, that is. What wonders would it do for Knoxville if the Vols won more consistently?
Consider the Oklahoma Sooners, one of the winningest teams in college-football history. They’ve won seven national championships in the last 55 years. The Sooners’ last title was in 2000, a couple of years after the Vols’ national championship that Knoxvillians still boast about on license-plate holders.
Considering that the Vols tend to win a national championship every 50 years or so, Knoxville may be exalted to the status of the Sooners’ home city sometime around the year 2250.
But wait. Do you know where that is? Sure, you do. It’s Norman.
That’s Norman, Okla. It’s a perfectly respectable city of about 97,000, almost as big as, say, Clarksville. Ever been there? Ever thought about it? From their website, it’s hard to tell that there’s very much going on in Norman. Their municipal symbol is a statue of surveyor Abner Norman.
And there’s Tuscaloosa, home of the Crimson Tide, who have won seven national championships. Tuscaloosa is a small city of about 79,000, less than half the size of Knoxville. South Bend, Ind., has witnessed eight national championships earned by the Fighting Irish. Lincoln, Neb., has watched the Cornhuskers win five.
If you’ve been to any of those cities for reasons other than a fraternity prank, you may be in the minority.
Even the most successful college-football towns aren’t always very exciting places. Why would they be? A college-football town hosts only about six home games a year. Even if you assume each game is about four hours long, counting half time, timeouts, TV commercials, etc., the most enthusiastic college-football town in the nation is hosting an actual football game, on average, less than one-third of one percent of the time.
The link between a winning college football team and success as a municipality is, at best, elusive.
Knoxville’s single-minded Volmania is often ascribed to the idea that Knoxville is a small town for such a large university with such a major football program. But the funny thing is, Knoxville’s actually much bigger than most national-championship college towns. Think of Gainesville and Tallahassee, Fla.; University Park, Pa.; Provo, Utah; Clemson, S.C. (that’s a town, right?).
Take Ann Arbor, Mich. Their university is much larger than UTK. Their town is a little more than half the size of Knoxville. Their football stadium is one of the few that’s slightly bigger than Neyland Stadium; more people see the Wolverines play in Ann Arbor than see the Vols play in Knoxville. Michigan has won as many national championships as Tennessee has, one more recently than the Vols’ last.
But look on the Ann Arbor websites, and you’ll get the impression that what they’re proudest of is their art fairs, their “many bookstores,” and their Zagat-rated restaurants. You have to hunt around to find any mention of football. People who have lived there report the town of Ann Arbor doesn’t break its stride for football games, proceeding with dramatic and musical events on those Saturdays. They’re definitely not opposed to football, but somehow they keep it in perspective.
What does college football really do for a city? What percentage of Americans know who won last year’s championship? Or the city in which they’re located?
There’s a minority sector of Knoxville’s economy that profits from Vol fans, for certain. But maybe Knoxville can thrive even when the Vols don’t. This year, at least, it’s convenient for us to think so.