“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?
As you watch the scene unfold, you know that Tennessee would appreciate the girl – would take her on thoughtful dates, listen to her complain about whatever teenage drama is unfolding in her life. You know that Alabama has probably already slept with all the girl’s friends – Alabama’s only going after the girl in the first place because he knows the way Tennessee feels about her. Once Alabama steals the girl away, ruining her forever in Tennessee’s eyes, it will be “on to the next one.”
You want to warn Tennessee. You want to tell him that no matter how hard he works, how many haircuts he gets or nice clothes he wears, Alabama will get the girl. You don’t want to believe it, you want to hope that the underdog has a chance, but in your heart you know it’s not true. Alabama will always get the girl. As you watch this scene, you, you outside observer who initially didn’t care about anyone involved, will wind up hating Alabama. You will want to cry at the injustice and shake some sense into the girl – to wake her up to Alabama’s indifference. But you will know deep down that your attempts would be useless – this is how the world works.
The first football season I remember was 1997. I was eight at the time. That year, Tennessee won the SEC championship. Their quarterback, Peyton Manning, finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. The next year, 1998, the Volunteers went 13-0 and won the first-ever BCS national championship. Over the next six seasons, Tennessee won 10 or more games three times, finished in the AP Top 25 five times, and never won fewer than 8 games.
The first sign of trouble came in 2005. That year, the Vols went 5-6. On the second-to-last game of the season they lost 28-24 to lowly Vanderbilt at home to get eliminated from bowl contention. After a pair of nine-plus win seasons in 2006-2007, Tennessee football officially entered the dark days. Since 2008, the Vols have finished the season with seven losses six times. They’ve gone from being a perennial national power to a middling player in the SEC’s East division. Over the past five years Tennessee has had four different head coaches, punctuated by Lane Kiffin’s surprise departure after just one season, which prompted Knoxville residents to temporarily name the sewage treatment plant in his “honor.”
“The sad thing is that a lot of the younger students on campus think that Tennessee has always been a sub-par program. I remember the ’98 title. I remember going to SEC championship games and being nationally ranked at the start of every season. The freshmen now don’t remember that,” one senior told me. “If you look at the last twenty years, we’re 10 and 10 against Alabama. But a lot of people think we always lose to them.”
During the second quarter, Tennessee played a highlight film commemorating Peyton Manning for breaking the NFL record for touchdown passes. A man sitting next to me muttered, “how long are we going to have keep watching Peyton Manning highlights to remind ourselves that Tennessee used to be good?”
In the past month I’ve been to two other schools with rich football pasts that are currently struggling. In Texas, fans remain somewhat invested but are content waiting for next year. In the meantime, they have high school football and a resurgent Cowboys team to keep them entertained. At the University of Washington, a decade-plus of mediocrity has depleted the fan base to the point where Husky games feel like a Saturday primer for the Seahawks.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tennessee. I was aware of the rich tradition, but I didn’t know what affect the losing seasons would have. Would people have tuned out like they had in Washington or would they be happy enough waiting for next year like they were at Texas?
In most areas of life, if you do an activity and consistently have negative experiences with it, you stop doing it. For whatever reason, sports fandom seems to defy this simple equation. True fans are addicts. Even when they are let down time and time again, they come back for more. They remember the highs and always believe the good days are a game away. There’s something admirable in this spirit. Outsiders might call it stupidity, but it can just as easily be called loyalty. Without fans’ willingness to ante up and allow themselves to invest emotionally in the game, the traditions would die. It takes those crazy ones, the people who still believe in “next year” to keep a fan base together. Tennessee fans epitomize this.
I started to sense the diehard nature of Tennessee football before I even set foot in Knoxville. Most programs have a talk-radio station dedicated to the football team – Tennessee must have a dozen. Every other station on the AM dial was talking about the Alabama game. “Tennessee football is much more like a religion than a sport down here,” a shopkeeper told me on my way into town. “The football radio shows go all year round.” Most of the callers and radio hosts were convinced Tennessee had no chance of winning, many even questioned the Volunteers’ chances of covering a 17-point spread, but that didn’t spoil the community’s interest. Driving in East Tennessee, I saw Volunteer orange everywhere: flags, highway underpasses, grocery store displays. I read on my way into town that nearly 69,000 people turned out for the Tennessee Spring Game, the fourth largest crowd in the country. Even the Knoxville area code (865) spells out VOL.
Come Saturday, the streets were packed, the parking lots were full, and a cautious hope took root on campus. When I asked people what they thought of their chances, their mid-week realism turned to optimism. “In 1982 we beat Alabama when they were ranked #2 in the country. We’d lost 11 in a row to them at that point,” an alum told me. “You’ve got to have hope. Hope is all we’ve got,” said another.
At some schools, football is more a backdrop for a larger gathering – an excuse to get together and have fun. The team winning or losing is like whether the beer at a party is good. It doesn’t really dictate how enjoyable the experience is, but, given the choice, you’d rather avoid Natty Light.
This is not the case at Tennessee. The tailgating is big – Tennessee is one of the only places in the country where you can show up to the game by boat, making it one of the best pre-game atmospheres in the country – but there is no mistaking the main event. People are there to watch football. Two hours before the game, tens of thousands of people left their tailgates to cheer as the team walked into the stadium. Shortly after that, the entrances to the stadium were packed as people flocked to their seats to watch warm-ups. “I still believe Tennessee can and should win every game they play,” one man said on our way into the stadium.
When the teams took the field, I wanted to believe in Tennessee as well. There was so much energy in the crowd. I got chills as I heard 100,000-plus people shout out their first few renditions of “Rocky Top” – the Tennessee fight song.
The man sitting next to me, a 33-year-old who lacked the money and grades to go to Tennessee himself, told me that watching Tennessee play every Saturday on TV was one of the few happy memories of his childhood. After going to his first game at age 19, he now owns four season tickets. Beginning in August, he calls friends and family members to join him at games. When he can’t find people to come, he offers the tickets to people from his church; other times he brings total strangers or friends of friends. He wants to share the excitement of Tennessee football with others in hopes that it will inspire them the way it inspired him.
Most games I go to, I just root for a good game. But having witnessed the passion of the Tennessee fan base, I couldn’t help but feel drawn to the Vols. They had been deprived for so long and yet somehow had managed to keep their faith. Tennessee was not going to the playoffs and they’re still very much on the bubble of making a bowl game, but a win over Alabama would make their season – would reaffirm their place in college football relevancy. A win would give the fans hope that brighter days lay ahead.
Just keep it close, I pleaded. Keep it close and anything can happen. Maybe the nice guy doesn’t always lose.
Deep down I knew better.
Alabama scored a touchdown on their first play from scrimmage. They scored another one three minutes later. By the end of the first quarter the score was 20-0. Three minutes into the second quarter it was 27-0.
The crowd of 102,655 sat in stunned silence. This was worse than even they could have imagined. “That was the longest quarter of my life,” a man behind me managed to say. Alabama looked like they were in a different league than Tennessee. They were scoring at will. I guessed the final score would end up somewhere around 60-3 and wondered how many people would even bother to stay past halftime. “Ok we get that we’re not going to win, but at least make it respectable,” people seemed to be saying.
From that low, a funny thing happened: Tennessee started to come back. Five minutes after Alabama’s fourth touchdown, Tennessee scored to cut the lead to 20. Seven minutes later, with time running out in the first half, the Volunteers added a field goal. In the world of moral victories, this was a start.
Midway through the third quarter Tennessee scored again. By this point, the crowd had returned to form. People were starting to believe again. Just one defensive stop and this could really become a game.
Just as that belief started to spread, Alabama went on a heartless 76-yard drive that featured four third down conversions. With each third down, the crowd would come to its feet, doing their best to will the miracle comeback to continue. With each successful conversion, they would sigh and sit back down. When the touchdown finally came, effectively ending any hope for the Volunteers, the only noise in the stadium was the “Roll Tide!” cheers coming from the Alabama sections.
To Alabama fans, Saturday was just another win. Since 2008, the Tide have won 79 games. Tennessee has won 36. Alabama has had a difficult time attracting students to games the past few years because they are winning too much. People are numb to victory. Anything short of a national championship is failure. Walking around the game before kickoff, Alabama fans wore pins that said “Beat Errbody” as though they themselves were better than other college football fans because of their association with such a successful program. When I asked Alabama fans who they thought would win, they laughed. “It’s going to be a blowout by halftime,” an Alabama alum told me. “That’s just the way it is.”
On the third Saturday of October next fall I will be rooting for Tennessee to knock off Alabama. I’ll be thinking of my seatmate and his rotating viewing party. I’ll be thinking of all the people leaving their tailgates early to welcome the team. I’ll be thinking of the Alabama fans who have forgotten what it’s like to suffer through a losing season. I’ll be hoping for the upset, but I guess in my heart I already know it’s unlikely. Alabama always gets the girl.
Until then, the callers will continue to chime in on Tony Basilio’s late-night radio show, the marketing department will continue to play Peyton Manning highlights, and, come spring, the fans in East Tennessee will continue to believe that this year’s the year. Such is life as a college football fan.
Be sure to check back in next week as I travel to Ann Arbor to take in homecoming weekend at The Big House.