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.

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The second installment in my look back at the 2014 season. In this section I fly west to Seattle, visit one of the winningest Division 2 programs at a small town in Northern Missouri, watch 4 games in 24 hours in Texas, and tailgate with the Tuohy family (of Blind Side fame) at The Grove. Along the way, I further explore the ways in which money is impacting the college football experience and have my first real encounter with the terrifying reality of concussions.

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Now that students have returned home for the holidays and stadiums have shut down for the winter, I find myself looking back at my season in college football. In 16 weeks, I went to 19 games across 15 different states and 10 different conferences. Along the way, I met bricklayers and farmers, school teachers and CEOs, soldiers and local politicians. I sat in on radio shows, attended campus rallies, ate countless dining hall meals, and spent many a night in the back of my car. My goal was to explore college football’s place in America, to understand the game’s impact on our culture, and to, in turn, understand our culture’s impact on the game. In many ways you could look at my journey as a search to answer a simple question: why do people care about college football?

Each week, I wrote articles about the communities I visited, relating stories about the people I’d met and the culture I’d witnessed. Focused as I was on the present, I rarely had an opportunity to write about the places I’d left behind. But, as I traveled, I started to feel connections for these places. On Saturday afternoons, I’d find myself searching d3football.com for St. John’s score updates or scrolling through ESPN for previews on South Carolina, Texas, or Iowa.

In this article, I’m offering a week-by-week look back at trip – a summary of my destinations followed by a discussion of what happened to the team after I left. I hope you enjoy!

 

Week 1 – #21 Texas A&M 52, #9 South Carolina 28: The college football season began for me on a balmy Thursday night in Columbia, South Carolina. Coming off of three-straight 11-win seasons, the Gamecock faithful entered Williams-Brice stadium that night expecting big things. Folks I met talked about a berth in the SEC championship game as a minimum for success. Most were focused on a trip to the inaugural playoffs.

The 2014 season officially begins

The 2014 season officially begins

That night, I sat with a pair of freshmen – Sean and Deonte. They had each decided to come to South Carolina in part because of the opportunity to be a part of SEC football. They had grown up watching big games and had planned their visits to campus around football weekends. Before kickoff, they were as excited as I imagine they’ve ever been in their lives. They had to pinch themselves to believe their eyes – 82,000 screaming people, a top-10 ranked team, a nationally televised game – and they were a part of it. Unfortunately for my seatmates, their feelings of triumph were short-lived. Upstart Aggie Quarterback Kenny Hill ripped the South Carolina defense apart, throwing for 511 yards and three touchdowns en route to a resounding 52-28 victory.

As Sean and Deonte left that night, I wondered whether their visions of grandeur would ever come to fruition. South Carolina has never been a consistent national power. Maybe the Texas A&M game was a sign of things to come – a new normal of mediocrity.

As it turned out, the loss to Texas A&M was the first in a series of disappointments for the Gamecocks. After three straight wins, including a thrilling 38-35 victory over then-number 6 Georgia, South Carolina lost four of their next five games. An overtime win over a subpar Florida team and a victory over South Alabama made the Gamecocks bowl eligible, but a season-ending defeat at rival Clemson solidified a sense that this was a down year in Columbia.

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I was fourteen when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. As a born and raised New Englander, that October is one I will never forget. Eighty-six years of frustration released in the most improbable of fashions. Facing a 3-0 deficit to the mighty Yankees, the Sox climbed out of a hole that only two other professional sports team had ever managed to overcome. With each successive win, Red Sox fans faced a growing sense of hope matched with an equal sense of impending doom. People across the state were afraid to sleep or eat for fear of messing with some cosmic power that was altering the series. They expected defeat. They were used to defeat. More than defeat, they were used to soul-crushing, championship-teasing defeat. Bill Buckner defeat. Or Aaron Boone defeat.

I remember going home each day from school wondering whether I’d have to face the gloating of my Yankee friends the next day. Trash talk filled the hallways and grocery stores of my New York-Massachusetts border town. For a week, everyone was a baseball fan. Even teachers wore jerseys to school.

On the night the Red Sox won the championship, finishing a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, I remember thinking that I would never experience something like this again. I was watching history. A generation of Red Sox fans had lived and died without seeing what I was seeing. In sixty years, I would tell my grandkids where I was when the Sox reversed the curse.

In the midst of the celebration, nostalgia began to creep in. The curse was gone. “Next year” was now a childhood memory. The Sox could win again, but it would be just another banner. The chance of being a part of something truly historic was gone forever – or at least for as long as it takes for the Red Sox to sell away another game-altering player and plunge into a century-long championship drought.

For me, baseball has never been the same.

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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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