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.
Week 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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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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