Four is Enough
UT’s effort to retire more football jersey numbers is ill-advised
by Tony Basilio
You have to hand it to the University Of Tennessee Sports Department. When it does something, whether right or wrong, it’s generally Texas big. Back in the mid-80’s, UT couldn’t just build a basketball arena; it had to have the largest on-campus arena in America. The athletic budget is one of the biggest around. When it comes to its sports, UT simply thinks bigger.
But not necessarily better. This mentality is on display in UT’s most recent public relations blunder, an apparent effort to lift itself above other SEC member institutions on the backs of past greats who succeeded in pro football as well.
In a move that shocked many, UT recently announced that it would break from its long-standing tradition of not retiring numbers for football players. For decades, only four numbers had been retired at UT—32, 49, 61 and 62. They were set aside in 1946 as a memorial to four players (Bill Nowling, Rudy Klarer, Willis Tucker and Clyde “Ig” Fuson), all killed in World War II.
All four guys were part of the greatest generation, specifically those who sacrificed their lives. Previous regimes vowed never to break from this practice. Breaking the tradition seemed unthinkable, almost unpatriotic. Until now.
Ten days before the start of the ’05 season, for some reason, Tennessee announced that it will be retiring the numbers of football immortal Doug Atkins #91, the late, great, Reggie White #92 and the multi-talented Peyton Manning #16. All three of these guys are no doubt legendary, but one question remains—such as “Why?”
As a practice, jersey retirement doesn’t go on much in college football, and a cursory look around the conference affirms this. It’s not a reach to admit that Alabama is the most tradition-rich team in the conference. Yet the Tide currently has no numbers retired. In fact, the school has a policy against it. One ’Bama official told me that retiring jerseys exalts individuals over teams.
Alabama’s not alone in eschewing this practice. Florida, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt also shy away from the practice of retiring numbers. Georgia and South Carolina have retired four numbers each. Arkansas and Auburn have two apiece, while LSU and Ole Miss have each retired one number. Interestingly, Archie Manning, Peyton’s pop, is Ole Miss’s lone retiree.
UT’s “mine’s bigger than yours” mentality probably explains a lot. When you add the other 11 member institutions of the SEC together, 14 numbers have been retired. Once Peyton, White and Atkins have their numbers put aside, Tennessee will have seven. This means that Tennessee will have almost half as many numbers retired as the other 11 SEC schools combined. With the announcement of this new policy of number retirements, Tennessee constituted and published criteria for consideration. The heavy emphasis on the UT afterlife only reaffirms the contention by many that schools like Tennessee have devolved from a once time-honored tradition beloved by those who wear the jerseys, to a glorified Triple-A holding house for the NFL. When it comes to jersey retirement consideration, the UT “brain trust” actually places an equal emphasis on NFL performance as on college football accomplishments. According to UT’s release on the matter, a candidate for number retirement must have achieved three of the following professional distinctions:
1. Induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
When I first looked at this list, two questions came to mind. First, who in the hell cares about the NFL? This is college football. More to the point, this is UT football. So was this heavy emphasis on the NFL designed to exclude much of the past, particularly Johnny-You-Know-Who? I posed the question to Majors, the Tennessee Legend who was robbed of a Heisman back in ’56 when Paul Hornung stole the award in the midst of a losing Notre Dame season.
“I’m not going to comment on my worthiness to be on that list. It doesn’t seem appropriate. I only know this. It seems to me that going against this tradition that has been in place at UT for decades is a real shame,” Majors said.
Humility aside, Majors wasn’t shy about UT’s reversal of policy and the motives behind it. “This looks to me like some modern marketing concept. It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Majors said.
Just as quickly as it was announced, UT let word leak out that the team would actually consider allowing future players to wear the soon-to-be retired numbers if they request it. What player is going to come in and request a retired number? Since they most likely won’t make waves, I will. Hey, UT, how bout shelving this latest brilliant idea? Like Thompson-Boling Arena itself, retiring jerseys at Tennessee is bad business.
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.