Better days are a'comin

Better days are a’comin in Knoxville

In the third installment of “A Look Back,” I explore weeks 9-12 of the college football season. I visit two proud programs who have recently fallen on hard times – Tennessee and Michigan, return to the Northeast to watch “The Biggest Little Game in America,” and head south to the modern-day capital of college football: The University of Alabama. Along the way, I witness the limits of fan loyalty at a shockingly empty Big House, the effects of winning on the city of Tuscaloosa, and the power of hope on the Tennessee community.

IMG_2432Week 9 – Alabama 34, Tennessee 20: From Mississippi, I drove north to Memphis and east to Knoxville. College football in East Tennessee is about as big as it gets. Drive fifty miles in any direction from campus, and you’ll find small towns cloaked in Tennessee orange. Nearly every non-Christian radio station is dedicated to Tennessee football coverage 365 days a year. The area code in the Knoxville area (865) even spells out VOL.

For Tennessee fans, the past seven years have been a nightmare. There are a few different places you could point to as the beginning of the dark ages, but the hiring of Lane Kiffin in late 2008 serves as a pretty could start. After calling Tennessee a dream job, Kiffin left Knoxville after just one year – a year in which he led the Vols to a 7-6 record. Kiffin’s departure to USC, which was announced in the middle of the night, led to such outrage in town that residents named a waste treatment facility in Kiffin’s “honor.” Tennessee hired Derek Dooley three days after Kiffin’s departure, but Dooley floundered his way to three straight losing seasons.

In 2012, Butch Jones replaced Dooley and hope for the future returned to Knoxville. Jones’ ‘brick by brick’ philosophy of rebuilding the program from the bottom up has been widely embraced, though as Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian told me, the honeymoon period only lasts so long before you have to win football games. Last year, Tennessee finished with a 5-7 record for the third year in a row, and the Vols entered the game against Alabama at 3-4 and struggling to stay in bowl contention.

While the long stretch of losing may have taken a toll on the fanbase’s morale, it did little to dampen their enthusiasm against Alabama. Tens of thousands of fans left their tailgates early to welcome the team into the stadium. Many of them then settled in their seats two hours prior to kickoff in order to boo Kiffin, now the offensive coordinator at Alabama, as soon as he walked on the field. During the afternoon, a plane flew over town dragging a banner that read: “Go Vols Beat Kiffin.”

For their part, Alabama fans had no doubts about the outcome of the game. “It’ll be over by halftime,” one fan told me matter-of-factly on our way into the stadium. Alabama had defeated Texas A&M 59-0 in their last game, and they fully expected a similar result.

IMG_2498For the first 17 minutes, the Alabamans prediction of a blowout seemed accurate. Alabama scored on their first play from scrimmage. They then added two more touchdowns in the first quarter and another to start the quarter to stake a 27-0 lead. After a sluggish start on offense, the Volunteers inserted sophomore Joshua Dobbs at quarterback. Dobbs led Tennessee to three straight scores, cutting the deficit to 27-17 midway through the third quarter. Around the stadium, the win-deprived fans woke up. Maybe they’d found their answer.

Alabama scored on their next drive, however, converting on three critical third downs, and was able to grind their way to a 34-20 win. For Alabama fans, the close score was just a slight bump in an otherwise ordinary day – a win’s a win. For Tennessee fans, the emergence of Josh Dobbs was a source of hope.

That night, I went to the basement studio of a local radio personality. I listened to callers until 2 AM – each one calling in to discuss the future. They expected to lose to Alabama, but the way the Vols had fought gave them a sense that brighter days were ahead.

The next week Tennessee scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of regulation to knock off South Carolina in overtime. When the team returned to campus a little after 3 in the morning, there were hundreds of fans there to greet them. Finally, Tennessee fans had something beyond old Peyton Manning highlights to celebrate.

After blowing out Kentucky and losing a close game to Missouri, Tennessee ended the regular season with a 24-17 win over Vanderbilt to qualify for their first bowl game since 2010. On January 2nd, the Vols built a 42-7 lead over Iowa by the midway point of the third quarter and went on to win 45-28. With a to-10 recruiting class due to enroll next fall, there is finally reason to believe that next year might be better than the last.

 

Dark days in Ann Arbor

Dark days in Ann Arbor

Week 10 – Michigan 34, Indiana 10: On paper, the past seven years for Michigan and Tennessee have been nearly identical. Both are proud programs with winning histories that have fallen upon hard times. Each won a national championship in the late-90s and had a national contending team in the mid-2000s, but each has spent the past seven years in varying degrees of disarray.

In reality, however, the two schools could not be more different. At Tennessee the mood was hopeful. People were convinced that the darkest days were in the past, and they were content to enjoy their football Saturdays this year despite the knowledge that they were still a long ways away from being a true national power. At Michigan, the mood was one of disgust. Since I’d last seen Michigan walking off the field in South Bend, the Wolverines had crumbled to a 3-5 record.

I arrived in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night. Earlier that day, mgoblog – a popular Michigan sports blog – had released a series of emails sent from Athletic Director Dave Brandon to fans. The emails contained lines like “quit drinking and go to bed” and “I suggest you get a new team.” For the Michigan faithful, these emails were the last straw.

At most schools, the Athletic Director is largely a behind-the-scenes administrator, someone who ordinary students and fans are ambivalent towards. At Michigan, however, Brandon, not Head Coach Brady Hoke, became the subject of the fanbase’s ire. “Fire Brandon” chants became a fixture at football games. Following Michigan’s disappointing loss to Minnesota, during which quarterback Shane Morris was kept in the game after receiving a vicious hit to the head, nearly a thousand students marched to the President’s house demanding that Brandon be fired. The day before the rally a petition was launched calling for Brandon’s resignation. Within a few hours, the petition had more than 10,000 signatures – over a quarter of the student body. There were plans in place to pass out 2,000 “Fire Brandon” t-shirts on Friday to be worn at the Indiana game.

IMG_2741Brandon was hired in 2010 after serving as CEO of Valassis Communications and Domino’s Pizza where he became fond of the phrase, “if it ain’t broke, break it.” He brought that mentality to Michigan where he came to epitomize the commoditization of college athletics. The string of offenses against Brandon ranged from small – banning water bottles at the stadium and charging $5 for water, to large – rapidly increasing ticket prices and moving long-time season ticket holders from their seats to make room for big-money donors.

Perhaps his most egregious offense, however, was transforming the Michigan Stadium experience. In an effort to make “every Michigan game feel like a miniature Super Bowl,” he began orchestrating fireworks shows and flyovers for ordinary games. He started replacing the marching band with piped-in music. At several times throughout the game, piped-in music started playing over the band. Undeterred, the band simply played on. It was as though the band was actively fighting for the traditions of Michigan.

There was a time when student-led cheers were a highlight of Michigan games. Cowbells, beach balls, and marshmallows were readily available signs of the collegial atmosphere. During the third quarter, students used to orchestrate a complex stadium wave where the wave would travel around the massive stadium at different intervals. At the Indiana game, huge portions of the student section sat empty, and the constant music made it impossible for the students who were there to get any cheers started.

Brandon’s “resignation” – it was a thinly veiled firing – was announced on Friday afternoon before the game. Around town, the press conference was met with muted celebration. People were happy to see him go but devastated by the damage he left behind. “Getting rid of Brandon was the first step, but getting Michigan football back to what it was will take a long time,” a man sitting near me at the game said.

Me circa 1996

Me circa 1996

On Saturday, Michigan defeated Indiana 34-10 behind a breakout performance from running back Drake Johnson, an Ann Arbor native who grew up spending his Saturday’s in the stands at Michigan Stadium. Despite the victory, there was hardly any celebration in Ann Arbor that night. Michigan was a shell of its former self, and all hope for the future was contingent on the return of former quarterback Jim Harbaugh as Head Coach.

Michigan stopped Northwestern’s last-second two-point conversion attempt the next week to escape with one-point win but finished the season with a pair of disappointing losses to Maryland and Ohio State. Following the loss to the Buckeyes, Brady Hoke was fired, and the Harbaugh speculation grew to a fervor. For weeks, Wolverine fans waited with bated breath – terrified of another letdown. On December 30, their fears were put to rest when Michigan officially announced Harbaugh as their next head coach. The return of a former son – Harbaugh served as Michigan’s quarterback for 3 years under legendary coach Bo Schembechler – was the one thing that could keep the Michigan masses faithful. Now it’s up to Harbaugh and the new leadership team at the athletic department to convince fans that the demise of the Brandon era was a temporary lull rather than the beginning of a new normal.

 

IMG_2809Week 11 – Amherst 17, Williams 9: Following my trip to Ann Arbor, I returned to New England to watch one of the most storied rivalries in college football: The Biggest Little Game in America between Williams and Amherst.

After spending the previous ten weeks in the hotspots for college football, arriving back in the Northeast was a bit of a culture shock. Up to that point, everywhere I went, people were able to relate to the trip: “Oh I’ve always wanted to do that! Where have you been? What’s the best environment for a game?” At home in Western Massachusetts I got some of those responses, but much more frequent were the questions about why I didn’t have a real job. These responses weren’t out of disdain or disapproval. People just didn’t understand why a kid would leave a good-paying job to travel the country and watch football games. People here grew up with the Red Sox and Yankees in the summer, the Bruins and Celtics in the winter, and the Patriots and Jets in the fall. The closest big-time college football program is over six hours away at Penn State. On Saturdays, the Williams women’s soccer team, which made it all the way to the national championship this year, often rivals the football team in attendance.

But the Amherst-Williams game is different. The game offers a chance for students, alums, and townspeople to pretend to be fans for a day – to tailgate and paint their faces and drink beer during the day. Sure, there are a few diehard fans who really know what has happened the rest of the year, but most people are modest football fans at best – a good portion of them emerged from the tailgates that lined the field just long enough to watch a play or two. For them, pretending to obsess over football is fun for a day – like dressing up for Halloween or watching soccer during the World Cup.

IMG_2857Instead of really caring about football, these people are drawn to the game because of their devotion to the school. The Williams-Amherst game is a fun way to connect with a place that they love or are learning to love. Students circle the day on their calendar, and alums who rarely watched games when they were at school use football as an excuse to return to campus or reconnect with old college friends.

This year’s edition of the game featured two teams in entirely different positions. With a win, Amherst would clinch their third undefeated season in six years. Williams, meanwhile, was in danger of ending the year at 2-6 for the second year in a row.

For Williams fans, the game began surprisingly well. Williams forced Amherst to go three and out on their first five possessions, managing to hold a 3-0 lead until the final minutes of the first half. An Amherst touchdown late in the half followed by a score on their opening drive of the second half, however, deflated the underdogs. Williams continued to fight, cutting the deficit to one-score with just under three minutes to play, but the comeback bid fell short.

Despite Amherst’s perfect record, the game was the season finale for both teams. The NESCAC prevents its teams from participating in postseason play. The next day, life at both schools returned to normal. Unlike the other places I’d been, a winning or losing football season does not alter campus life much. By Sunday afternoon, many of the same Williams fans who made the trip to Amherst for the football game gathered to watch the women’s soccer team play in the conference championship.

 

IMG_2996Week 12 – Alabama 25, Mississippi St. 20: It’s difficult to find two schools more dissimilar than Williams and Alabama. Where Williams is small, private, and largely liberal, Alabama is the second largest public university in a decidedly red state.

Football at these schools offers a similar contrast. Where fans at Williams tune in just long enough to catch a few plays of the Amherst game, fans at Alabama live and die with the Crimson Tide. More than 73,000 people showed up to watch the team scrimmage in the Spring Game this year – the largest crowd for such an event in the country. In a state that ranks 46th in median household income and 2nd in obesity, Alabama’s recent prowess on the field has emerged as an important aspect of the state’s identity. Regardless of the struggles during the week, Saturdays offer refuge – a chance for Alabamans to stake out their state pride.

Boarding my flight to Tuscaloosa, the stewardess asked me the identifying question for Alabama residents: “Roll Tide or War Eagle?” Half the plane was wearing apparel from Alabama or Auburn. This was on a Wednesday.

On Saturday, Alabama hosted top-ranked Mississippi State and their Heisman hopeful quarterback Dak Prescott. At that point in the season, the game was billed as “the game of the year.” ESPN’s College Gameday was on hand. At most schools, the presence of a top-ranked team would result in an enhanced intensity on campus. At Alabama, however, the feeling was routine (muted?). “Gameday will be back for the Auburn game. I’ll probably go then,” a student told me on Friday night. No one from Alabama, and only a minority of Mississippi State fans, doubted The Tide’s chances. Alabama was a 9.5-point favorite – in the 64th straight game that Alabama was favored to win. No student had been in school when Alabama was last an underdog.

IMG_2935The game began much the way that everyone expected it would. After a safety and a field goal in the first quarter, Alabama added two touchdowns in the second to take a 19-0 lead. Rather than a feeling of elation, the mood was more one of affirmation: “That’s how it should be.”

Mississippi State battled back, cutting the lead to 19-13 early in the fourth quarter, but a late Alabama touchdown followed by a Prescott’s third thrown interception of the day sealed the win for the Tide.

For Mississippi State the loss marked midnight for the miracle season. The Bulldogs won their 10th game of the year a week later in a rout of Vanderbilt but ended the regular season with a disappointing 31-17 loss at rival Ole Miss. On New Years Eve, Georgia Tech handily defeated the Bulldogs 49-34 in the Orange Bowl. While the losses knocked Mississippi State out of the playoff race and a top-10 final ranking, most fans will look back at the season fondly. For a team that has consistently languished in the cellar of the SEC West Division, 2014 was a proclamation of Mississippi’s football relevance.

For Alabama, the win was further vindication of the Tide’s dominance in college football. Alabama easily won the next week against Western Carolina before coming from behind to defeat rival Auburn 55-44 in the Iron Bowl. College Gameday was one hand for the Auburn game. A week later, Alabama blew out Missouri 42-13 in the SEC Championship game to advance to the playoffs as the number 1 overall seed.

In the national semifinals, however, Alabama came back to earth. After building a 21-6 lead midway through the second quarter, Alabama four straight touchdowns and went on to fall 42-35 to Ohio State. The loss solidified a miserable bowl season for the SEC West. The division, which in week 9 boasted 4 of the top 5 ranked teams, finished with a 2-5 bowl record, including losses for all four of the division’s top teams.

IMG_3037For Alabama fans, the loss hurts more than the highs of any win, and the narrative that the SEC’s reign on top of the college football world may be ending hurts even more. Alabama is a classic boom-time fanbase. The good times have lasted for so long that people have forgotten that losing is a possibility. In the wake of the Ohio State loss, people around the state took refuge in the belief that it was just one game – next year, they pray, will be different.

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