Almost exactly a year ago, Clay Travis had what seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. His 2007 book Dixieland Delight, a fan's-eye tour of the pageantry and extravagance of Southern football, had been an unexpected success, and his publishers had pressed him to spend a full season with his favorite team for his next book. Travis fully expected his team to compete for a conference championship and maybe even a national title, and he'd be there—at preseason practice, on the sidelines, in the locker room—for the whole ride.
It turns out, though, that Travis' favorite team is the University of Tennessee Volunteers. The team Travis expected to make a run at a national championship instead had one of the worst seasons in the history of the program, a tragicomic three-month spiral down to the bottom of the SEC that cost head coach Phillip Fulmer his job. And Travis, to his surprise and horror, was there for all of it.
"If you told me that the two options were going 5-7 and Coach Fulmer getting fired or winning the SEC, I would have thought they'd win the SEC," says Travis, a lifelong UT fan and Nashville attorney-turned-sportswriter.
In his new book, On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era, Travis plays the role of both sportswriter and fan—you get detailed accounts of each game and short, sharp portraits of Fulmer and his players, as well as Travis' own emotional predicament as the season gets worse and worse. After the season-opening overtime loss to UCLA, Travis writes that he felt like throwing up. Later in the season, he actually does vomit after a loss. He's regularly lectured by his wife to act like a grown-up.
Making it all worse as the losses pile up is the prospect of writing a book about it all. Travis had envisioned a tale of triumph; as the season progresses, he comes to realize that the worse things go for UT, the better things get for him.
"I thought, ‘Every victory is worth about $1,000 to me in future book sales," he says. "So I had real trepidation—there was something other than just my sanity riding on this. I was devastated after the UCLA loss. I knew that nine or 10 wins was exponentially more difficult now. If they go 7-5, that's an awful season to write a book about."
More than just a crummy season—Travis marks 2008 as a critical turning point for Southern football. Fulmer, he argues, was "the last of the regionalists—the only coach in the SEC to be born in the state where he coaches or to graduate from the school he coaches." The conference has entered what Travis calls "the mercenary era," when young hotshot coaches with no long-standing allegiance to the schools they coach sign multimillion-dollar contracts to install innovative offensive schemes and chase big-time bowl games. Athletic directors—like UT's Mike Hamilton—come from business schools instead of football sidelines. And fans like Travis, who want wins and want them now, are part of the reason for the shift.
"The ironic thing is I probably exemplify that new approach," he says. "In reality, I want someone smart like Mike Hamilton to run the business. It's a $100 million-revenue business. But it's a little alarming. It strips away some of the distinctive image of Southern football. The SEC is leaving behind its regional past and adapting to a national game."