Rocky Top Tennessee

Rocky Top Tennessee

“Isn’t this fan base incredible? We’ve had losing seasons six of the last seven years. Nobody believed we had a chance to win tonight. We lost by two touchdowns. And it’s 1 in the morning, and the phone lines are jammed with people wanting to call in.”

Two hours ago Alabama quarterback Blake Sims took a knee to give the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide a 34-20 win over Tennessee. Now, I’m sitting 15 miles north of the stadium in the basement studio of Tony Basilio, a local talk-radio personality. Basilio is in his element – Lynyrd Skynard shirt on, hair pulled back under a grey cap, smiling as caller after caller chimes in to complain about the coaching staff or offer their opinion on the quarterback situation. Behind me a small television is playing highlights of the game. “This is beautiful. You don’t see fans like this everywhere. We’ve still got thousands of people listening.”

For the past twenty years, Basilio has hosted “The Fifth Quarter” – a call-in show about Volunteer football that begins immediately after the game and ends whenever the callers go to sleep. “After the Florida game, we had people calling until well after three in the morning. If Tennessee had won tonight, we were honestly planning on going until morning.”

 

If Tennessee and Alabama were high schoolers competing for the same girl, Tennessee would be the nice, respectful boy – the guy who the girl’s parents would approve of and who you, as an outsider, would be rooting for. In this scene, Tennessee’s had a crush on the girl since grade school, and he’s just now working up the courage to ask her out. Tennessee is Forrest Gump trying to convince Jenny that they are more than just friends, which is ironic because Forrest Gump played football for Alabama.

Alabama would be the muscular jock – the guy who hit puberty three years before everyone else and was hell-bent on convincing himself and everyone else that high school never ends. He walks around like he owns the school – he’s the star athlete, the Homecoming King. He started drinking beer before anyone in his grade. He probably doesn’t write his own papers, but hell, who needs to write papers when you’re destined for the NFL?

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A cool breeze breaks the still of the Mississippi air, and I reach for my jacket. Night is closing in around me, and the heat of the day is giving way to the crispness of autumn. I pull out my phone and glance at the screen. It’s a few minutes before 8 o’clock. I quicken my pace, half-jogging up a hill as my destination comes into sight.

 

“The Grove” is a 10-acre park in the middle of the University of Mississippi campus. On most days it’s a peaceful sanctuary – a place where you can find students reading, sharing a meal, and tossing Frisbees. But on seven weekends in the fall, The Grove is transformed from a quiet park into the best tailgating grounds in America. Even in the midst of losing seasons, sixty thousand-plus Ole Miss faithful rise early on those fall Saturdays. They put on their Sunday best, mix their whisky Hot Toddies, and make their way to The Grove.

At every Southern school I’ve been to so far – Georgia, South Carolina, Texas A&M – people have told me stories about The Grove. Upon learning about my trip, the general consensus is: “If you want to experience football in the South, you have to go to Ole Miss.”

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It seems impossible to write about football and not stop in the Lone Star State. For better or worse, Texas, not the SEC or Notre Dame, is the symbol of football fandom in America. Legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry put it best, saying, “Football is to Texas what religion is to a priest.” Football’s big everywhere, but of course “everything’s bigger in Texas.”

On Saturday I had any fan’s dream set up: Oklahoma vs. Texas at 11, which I watched with UT fans in Austin (the game is played in Dallas at the Texas State Fair every year), TCU at Baylor at 2:30, and Ole Miss at Texas A&M at 8. With a full tank of gas, a pair of standing-room-only tickets, and running shoes to make sure I could sprint to and from my car between games, I went to bed Friday night prepared to take in as much as I possibly could. Add in a high school game Friday, and my brief stint in the state featured four games in just over 24 hours.

 

It’s the second Saturday in October. Down here in the Lone Star State that date has historically meant one thing: Texas vs. Oklahoma – two of the most storied programs in college football in one of the game’s greatest rivalries. When the teams first played, McKinley occupied the White House, Oklahoma was still a territory, and the Wright Brothers were a few years away from their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk. Between the two, Oklahoma and Texas have won 1,719 games, produced 7 Heisman trophy winners, and taken home 11 national championships.

But this year the traditional power structure is in flux. After nearly a decade of ten-plus win seasons, the once-mighty Longhorns are struggling. Following last year’s disappointing 8-5 season, long-time coach Mack Brown retired, turning over the reins to Charlie Strong, a high-energy guy famous for putting Louisville on the college football map. While Strong has brought what many people in Austin described to me as “a much needed culture change” to the program, he has had a hard time winning games. Entering Saturday, the Longhorns’ were in danger of falling to 2-4, their worst start since 1956.

In Texas’ place sit a pair of upstarts – schools that have long been considered after-thoughts in the Texas football hierarchy: Baylor and TCU. Their fans have spent most of their lives have been spent in UT’s shadow. One Longhorn fan described the pecking order in the state as “Texas, then A&M, then a big drop off to Texas Tech unless you’re in Lubbock, then I guess Baylor.” When I asked about TCU, he responded, “oh yeah, I guess they’re there too.”

The second Saturday of October, 2014 offered a new narrative. Texas and Oklahoma fans made their familiar pilgrimage to the Texas state fairgrounds in Dallas, but for the first time since 2007 they both did so coming off of losses. A week ago, undefeated Baylor knocked off Texas, and undefeated TCU edged Oklahoma, meaning that this week’s marquee game would take place in Waco not Dallas.

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If you had to choose a town to represent America’s Heartland, Maryville, Missouri would be a pretty good choice. The town sits in the Northwest corner of the state, in a place that one resident described as “two hours from anywhere.” Drive North and you’ll hit Des Moines, South and you’ll hit Kansas City, and West and you’ll hit Omaha. But stay within two hours of town, and you’ll see nothing but big sky, small towns, and rolling hills filled with corn and soybeans.

The town is home to 11,000 people and another 6,000 when the college is in session. Downtown is made up of a handful of restaurants, bars, shops, and a four-story courthouse, one of the tallest buildings in a forty-mile radius. Drive a few miles towards the outskirts, and you’ll find a few fast-food joints, a car dealership, and a Wal-mart that attracts shoppers from over an hour away. “It’s a humble place,” one man told me. “Everyone knows everyone.”

If not for the state university, Maryville would be just like any other small farming town. But Northwest, or more importantly, Northwest football has put the town on the map. The Bearcats have appeared in eight of the last sixteen Division 2 national championship games, winning four times including last season. They are currently ranked #1 in the country and own a 20-game win streak.

Like most towns in the Heartland, football is central to life in Maryville. There are more radio stations broadcasting football on Friday nights than playing music. “There’s not much to do around here,” one resident explained. “On Saturdays in the fall, everyone goes to the game.” High school games attract a few thousand fans while college games regularly bring in eight or nine thousand. Walking around during the week, talk centers on the team’s past performance and their chances going forward.

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In case you missed it, Saturday’s game between Stanford and Washington was a great one. Stanford outgained the Huskies by over 200 yards, but four Cardinal turnovers, including a fumble near the end of the first half that was returned for a touchdown, kept the game close. Every time it looked like Stanford was poised to take the lead, the Huskies came up with a big play. A 13-13 halftime score held up until midway through the fourth quarter when Washington’s failed fake punt led to the decisive Stanford score.

If you tuned in on television, you may have grumbled about the lack of scoring, but you were probably otherwise entertained. This was a classic college football game between two old school rivals – another great Saturday in the books.

The TV broadcast, however, likely hid a troubling reality: the stadium experience didn’t feel like college football at all, it felt like the minor leagues of the NFL. I’m sure Fox Sports 1 showed shots of screaming fans, chest-painted students, and dressed-up band members. They probably avoided shots of empty seats, corporate giveaways, or constant in-game advertisements.

When I visit games, I often focus on the positives. There are a lot of writers out there discussing the demise of college football – talking about how money and greed are transforming the sport. These writers have their place. You see the change everywhere – conference realignment, the addition of Thursday and Friday night games, the increased cost of tickets that are pricing long-time fans out. In part, I decided to go on my trip this fall because I feared the speed at which the game was changing. I was afraid that if I waited, I might miss the opportunity to see the raw spirit of the game before marketing departments seeking a profit turned tradition into a commodity. But my goal is not to unearth a scandal or lament about the golden ages of yesteryear. I’m trying to document a snapshot in time – what college football is like in 2014. Most of the time, it’s not hard to look past the corporate side of the game.

At some point in the first quarter, however, the business aspect became impossible to ignore. Every stoppage of play the booming voice of the PA announcer was describing some product I should be buying or event I should be attending. Advertisements ran throughout the game on two electronic displays that wrapped around the stadium. On key plays, I had to struggle to keep my attention on the field as ads for Boeing, McDonalds, Lexus, and others flashed on the screens. During one play, there were still camera crews filming some announcement on the ten-yard line when the play started. They ran off the field, hoping beyond hope that there wasn’t a turnover that caused play to shift their direction.

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