The Loss of a UT Football Coach, and the End of Human Civilization: Compare

The sudden departure of the University of Tennessee’s football coach brought back a memory of being a kid in the new place called Arby’s on Kingston Pike, hearing angry grown-ups talk about our mutual hero, Doug Dickey.

It was almost exactly 40 years ago. Doug Dickey’s decision to quit UT for Florida bears some similarities to last week’s announcement, a coach in his mid-30s going back to another school he’d been personally associated with a few years before. In both cases, the quitting was unexpected. But on paper, Dickey’s departure seems much worse. The Vols had much more to lose. Dickey had been much more successful than Kiffin, 9 and 2 in the closing season. For the previous six seasons, he had been the Roman-nosed face of Tennessee football, in triumph and in tragedy. He had a genius for promoting Vol pride with new promotions, like the T band formations; even the T’s on the helmets had been his idea.

He was UT football. That wasn’t the case with Lane Kiffin. A lot of UT fans, put off by allegations of NCAA violations or just unaccountable rudeness, wanted him gone anyway. He had never become anything like Doug Dickey was in 1969.

Worse, not only did Dickey leave, but he announced he was leaving to coach at his own alma mater, Florida, another SEC team that would often play against UT; he therefore became not only a loss to the Vols, but a threat. Word began to leak out more than a week before he finally admitted it. Meanwhile, he coached the Vols to a narrow loss in the Gator Bowl, against the team he was leaving UT for.

Kiffin, on the other hand, is returning to the west coast, a couple conferences away. UT may play USC again in our lifetime, though if you’re saving tomatoes to throw, you might be better off canning them.

But our reaction last week seemed more traumatic than the reaction to Dickey. Some were angry, 40 years ago. At Arby’s, the grown-ups mustered a fey smile, shook their heads, and compared Dickey to Benedict Arnold. It was back when people made historical analogies more than sexual ones. But others said he was really being loyal to his alma mater. Dickey’s players spoke up for him, wished him the best. Jackie Walker said he sometimes got nostalgic for old Fulton High, too. Sportswriters expressed polite regret. There were no reports of near-riots.

The News Sentinel’s doomsday headlines were a little bigger for Kiffin’s leaving than for Dickey’s. The story took up more than half the front page, and Kiffin’s exodus was the top of the front page for four consecutive days. When Dickey left, it was top of the news for only one day. Even then, it was just about 20 percent of the front page. You’d almost get the impression that it was considered mainly a sports story.

I’m not sure what all that means. Is Knoxville even more football-manic than we were in the ’60s, when the Vols were national contenders? Or is there just less going on here now?

LEAVE IT UP to Cormac McCarthy to put it all in perspective for us. Reviews of The Road have been mostly positive, but with quite a few footnotes. The movie based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel—the third major motion picture based on a McCarthy novel—has prompted a pretty broad array of responses from critics and the movie public. I am glad I saw it, but I know some people who aren’t. I don’t expect to see it again.

The devastation is too realistic. Even though the book is full of grim detail, you can read it almost as a fable, showing us, accurately, I think, what we might look like with civilization stripped away.

In the movie, the prospect that civilization, and the human race, or everything worthwhile about it, could die, seems all too real. It makes existence seem so tenuous you could leave it wondering why we even try. One critic called watching the movie “suicidal.” I wouldn’t go that far.

But I’m no longer miffed that the producers didn’t consider shooting some of it in Knoxville, even though there’s a scene in the book that almost certainly describes Knoxville. The scenes presumed to be set in Knoxville don’t look much like Knoxville in the movie, though much of the topography does look Appalachian, perhaps during a particularly bleak winter. The particular vacant house the unnamed protagonist visits is an old wooden house that does look something like author McCarthy’s own family home on Martin Mill Pike, the one that burned down a year ago. But the neighborhood doesn’t look like that at all.

There was one scene where I leaned forward to study the screen carefully. It’s where the father opens a tattered old road map to see what’s ahead. It would seem to solve the mystery of where, precisely, the story is set. When the book came out, some reviewers have assumed the duo was trudging toward the Pacific Ocean, or the Gulf of Mexico. But a few clues here and there convinced me and some other McCarthyphiles that it’s mostly in the southeast, with the melancholy duo trudging toward the Atlantic. When I read an advance copy of the book, I happened to be on vacation in Pawley’s Island, S.C., and I thought, damn, they’re coming right this way.

When he opens the map, yes, it does look just like they’re going east, and their destination looks like the outline of the South Carolina coast. And for those few seconds, I put on my glasses and scrutinized the map for details. But I didn’t recognize any of the coastal towns on the screen. There’s no Myrtle Beach, no Georgetown, no Charleston. One appeared to be called Hemingway. There’s a Hemingway, S.C., and I’ve been there, but it’s not on the coast. Maybe it was a fictional map, to keep the story from ever being construed as geographically specific. Or maybe the map represents the southeastern coast after the polar ice-cap melt.

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