We’re sometimes perplexed to encounter newcomers who claim never to have heard of the Tennessee Vols. “But! But!” we sputter. For folks who don’t follow college football closely—and judging by bowl-game TV viewership, that’s a rather large majority of Americans—just how big a presence are the Tennessee Vols? They’re rarely referenced on prime-time TV shows, and don’t show up much in pop songs. Movies, you’d think, might supply a reason to for some familiarity. But even that’s problematic, as we found in this survey.
When a real team is referenced in a fictional movie, it’s generally a known champion, and the only way to make it dramatic enough for a movie is to knock it off its perch. Only Alabamans would go to see a movie about another Crimson Tide winning season. The same is true for the Vols.
College football has never been quite as much a mainstream obsession as it was in the years right before World War II. There were more college-football themed movies made in Hollywood, from about 1936 to 1943, than ever before or since. Professional football was struggling to catch on, and if you were a football fan in America in 1940, you were mainly a college football fan. Naturally there were movies about it.
And it happened to be an especially agreeable era for Coach Neyland and his Vols who were, for the first time, national contenders. Some have claimed that film of Tennessee running back Johnny Butler’s legendary 56-yard touchdown run in 1939—the unscored-upon year—has made it into more than one film about football.
We haven’t confirmed that. But one Golden Age Hollywood director may have been the biggest Vol fan on the West Coast. Clarence Brown, UT class of 1910, never made a football movie, but he did host the actual Vols, personally at his California ranch, when Neyland’s boys took the train to play USC in the Rose Bowl in 1940, and it got into the entertainment news at the time.
One of the most disappointing Vol losses of all time, it’s also the only Vol game to be referenced in a Warner Bros. cartoon. The 1940 Merry Melodies animated spoof called “Ceiling Hero” includes a skit based on the recent movie Test Pilot. The cartoon aviator radios data to ground: “Altitude 16; longitude 19; air speed 35; oil pressure 21; USC 14; Tennessee nothing.”
Too Many Girls was based on a current Broadway musical, and directed by Broadway legend George Abbott, it’s the prototypical romantic sports comedy: An obscure team from the sticks—Pottawattamie College, in this case—wins one game after another and earns an unexpected berth in a bowl game.
It's no timeless classic, and it’s safe to say most folks have never seen it, but it does make the rounds on cable TV for its curiosity value. It introduced the Rodgers and Hart classic “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” It starred young comic actress Lucille Ball; future sci-fi leading man Richard Carlson; comedian Eddie Bracken; and teenaged dancer Ann Miller. It was the first-ever movie for Van Johnson. And It employed several Native American character actors, from Jay Silverheels to Iron Eyes Cody—who, it was later revealed, was no Indian at all. I digress.
But when the movie’s remembered at all, it’s often for introducing a new talent, in his first film, young Cuban musician Desi Arnaz. The director didn’t have the foresight to pair him with Lucille Ball, but the two met on set of that movie, and they hit it off. By the end of the year, they were married.
In the plot of the film, the team to beat—as it was indeed the team to beat, that year—was Tennessee. When Pottawattamie beat the Vols, with the unlikely aid of the diminutive Arnaz, and it ended with a mad conga line, led by Arnaz tending the congas.
In real life, the only team that beat the Vols in 1940 was USC.
To promote the movie, the 23-year-old Arnaz came to Knoxville that October and had a hearty lunch with the Vols, including Bob Suffridge and Johnny Butler. Arnaz performed three successive shows at the Tennessee Theatre as a singer, guitarist, and suave “rhumba dancer.” He came onstage after the first showings of a film of the Vols’ recent victory over Alabama.
Introduced on the Tennessee’s stage by one of the era’s best-known local sports announcers, Tys Terway, Arnaz talked about learning to play football for the movie (he claimed its football scenes were “honest-to-God stuff”). Then he played guitar, sang a Cuban slave song, and rumba danced with perhaps the only local Latino rumba dancer in town, a St. Mary’s pharmacist named Milagros Velez.
It was more than a decade before the debut of I Love Lucy. “Arnaz is a handsome Latin fellow,” reported the News-Sentinel, “who does the rhumba in such a manner as to cause girls to write him notes beginning, ‘You’re wonderful. I love you.’”
From the stage Arnaz declared he hoped Tennessee would make it to the Rose Bowl and beat UCLA, eliciting an approving “howl” from the audience. That didn’t happen.
One reason the word “Vols” registers a blank look on some Yankee faces is that Tennessee hasn’t created as many national heroes as some programs have, players whose name recognition reaches beyond the devoted college-football-fan populace—no Joe Namath or Jim Brown, no Alex Karras or Bubba Smith. The Vols had their heroes, but they weren’t the sort who made aftershave commercials or considered movie careers. Some would even argue that despite its successes, UT never had a national superstar until Peyton Manning, and he’s happy to remain a low-key superstar.
However, some came pretty close, and tailback Johnny Majors was one, notably cracking up Perry Como with an ad lib during the pop singer’s all-star special in 1956.
The story goes that a younger college ballplayer named Harvey Lee Yeary was such an admirer of Johnny Majors, the player, that when Yeary became a professional actor, he renamed himself Lee Majors.
By then, the college-football-movie trend was ebbing, if not dying. Most football movies made since the 1950s have been about pro football. There are some interesting exceptions.
W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, one of Burt Reynolds’ several gum-smacking action comedies, is set mostly in the Nashville area in 1957. The smooth-talking Reynolds and his country band in cowboy costumes pull up to a country filling station as Reynolds blows his “Dixie” horn. A sour-faced old man comes out to tend to him. Reynolds is trying to butter up the attendant, intending to rob him, when he asks, “How ‘bout them Tennessee Vols, eh? They’re gonna go all the way this year, aren’t they?”
The old man, in no mood for foolishness, responds in a convincing monotone, “I don’t give a dog ‘bout no Tennessee Vols.”
“You’re not rootin’ for the Vols?” responds the astonished Reynolds.
“Hogs root,” the man replies. A minute later, he’s firing a 12-guage shotgun at Reynolds and the Dixie Dance Kings. He recounts the discussion of the Vols later to a gas-station-chain executive, played by Art Carney.
Unconquered was a made-for-TV movie, broadcast on CBS in 1989, a dramatization of the true story of Richmond Flowers, a high-school standout in Alabama whose father of the same name was controversially moderate on the race issue, opposing Gov. Wallace’s extremist segregationism. Though drafted by Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide in 1965, young Flowers chose to attend the University of Tennessee, where Doug Dickey’s Vols were soon to recruit black players. In the movie, Flowers is played by Virginia-born Dermot Mulroney, early in his career. (A few years later, he came to Knoxville to shoot a non-football movie, Box of Moonlight.) The climax of the movie is Flowers’ game-winning touchdown in a match against still-all-white Alabama.
It was the only movie victory of the Vols that we could find, and the civil-rights aspect may make it cinema’s all-time most flattering depiction of the Big Orange.
In a brief scene in Forrest Gump (1994), set in the mid-1960s, our hero runs back a kickoff against an orange-ish team. Neither Tennessee nor the Vols are mentioned, but some observers are convinced the unmentioned opposing team is the Big Orange. Which would make sense, given that Tennessee was Alabama’s biggest rival in the ’60s. But it’s not completely clear. Others, saying the orange is too yellowish to be UT orange, have claimed it’s maybe Georgia Tech. People still argue about it, as if it were footage from a real game. Carefully freezing frames like the Warren Commission poring over the Zapruder film, some researchers are convinced they see Smokey on a bench in the background.
If it is indeed the Vols, director Robert Zemeckis used the Vols in the same role they served in Too Many Girls—as a great looming faceless established opponent for a spunky upstart to beat.
It’s been claimed that David Keith, the UT alum who’s never happier than when they allow him onto the sidelines at Neyland Stadium, finds some way to cheer for the Vols in every movie he’s associated with by injecting into it some sort of Vol paraphernalia. Though sometimes you have to look closely. Some even claim his most famous role, Sid Worley, the tragic chum in An Officer and a Gentleman, was wearing orange socks when he (spoiler alert) hanged himself. There’s a brief reference to a UT game in the 2001 Gene Hackman movie Behind Enemy Lines. Orange is more abundant in the few movies he directed. There was abundant orangewear in Keith’s 1987 low-budget horror film, The Curse, which is set in East Tennessee.
Probably the Vols’ most conspicuous presence on the big screen after Too Many Girls was in a very popular 2009 movie called The Blind Side, based on a true story, set in 2004, of Michael Oher, the Memphis-raised recruit. The Vols are once again the away team.
Six real SEC coaches appear in the movie, including UT’s (then former) Coach Phil Fulmer, playing himself. The fact he was recruited to make the movie, based on the nonfiction book, is a testament to a generosity of spirit on his part. The book on which the movie’s based does not paint a flattering picture of UT’s one-time national-championship coach Fulmer, who appears in the book—even in the eyes of white football fans in Mississippi—as an unsophisticated “hick.” Doing the movie might have shown his trademark strategic thinking. Playing himself in the movie, Fulmer is, by comparison to his depiction in the book, almost suave.
To Vol fans, the movie’s funniest scene is when Oher’s tutor, Miss Sue, played by Memphis-born Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, tried subtly, by football standards at least, to dissuade Oher from joining the Big Orange.
“You like Tennessee?” she says. “That’s a good school. Not at the academic level of Ole Miss but they have an outstanding science department. You know what they’re famous for? They work with the FBI, to study the effects of soil on decomposing body parts. When they find a body, the police wanna know how long it’s been dead. So the fine folks at Tennessee help them out. Oh, they have lots of body parts. Arms and legs and hands, from hospitals and medical schools. And do you know where they store ’em? Right underneath the football field. So while it’s fine and dandy to have 100,000 fans cheering for you, the bodies you should be worried about are the ones right under the turf. Set to poke up through the ground and grab you.”
It’s hard to imagine how those lines traveled to the rest of America, who don’t necessarily know that UT’s anthropology department is located in the bowels of Neyland Stadium, and that Neyland Stadium has indeed contained decomposing body parts. It’s the birthplace of the Body Farm.
“Well, it’s your decision where you wanna play ball,” Miss Sue concludes. “Don’t let me influence you.”
Knoxville’s own Johnny Knoxville is a known Vol fan and his 2010 opus, Jackass 3D, includes a skit called “Jackass 3D The Blindside.” In it, our hero is wearing an orange-and-white uniform (not necessarily a Vols uniform; the numbers are black), and his teammates are former real-life Vol quarterback Erik Ainge, a fat guy, and a dwarf. Those four in orange and white are playing against one player, the Chicago Bears defensive end Jared Allen, in dark blue. After stating that his purpose on the field is to “murder Knoxville’s face,” Allen more or less succeeds, clobbering Knoxville as both quarterback and receiver.
The film was a box-office hit, and the crypto-Vols scene has been watched more than a million times on YouTube. One of the handiest versions is dubbed in French. It’s global.
It was, in a way, a cruder version of Too Many Girls. The Vols are always the team to beat.
Even in a bad season, the Vols win more in real life than they do in the movies. And they don’t appear in very many of them to begin with. And maybe, given the fact that movie-worthy drama isn’t always a good thing for a team, that’s just fine.