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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It’s a little after seven o’clock. The temperature in the stadium has plummeted to just above freezing, and fans around me are huddled in small groups fighting to stay warm. Smoke from a nearby tailgate wafts over the field. Winter in New England is fast arriving, but on the field, one last vestige of fall is in its final stages.
Ask any college football historian about the sport’s best rivalries and Williams and Amherst is sure to make it into the top 5. The rivalry’s roots date back to 1821 when Williams’ President left the school, took a significant portion of the professors, students, and books with him, and founded Amherst just sixty miles down the road. To this day, some Williams faithful refer to Amherst as “The Defectors,” and during a football game a few years ago, Williams students offered the Amherst President a bill for over a billion dollars in library fees for the “stolen” books.
Since Amherst’s founding, the two schools have followed nearly identical paths, emerging as two of the most prestigious liberal arts schools in country. They attract similar students, offer similar coursework, and send graduates to similar companies. Outside of New England, many people view the schools as interchangeable and often define Williams and Amherst by their relationship to each other. “Oh, Williams and Amherst not William & Mary.”
On most days of the year, the rivalry is cordial. In 2011, Williams President Adam Falk even received an honorary degree from Amherst. But on the second Saturday of November, the football rivalry that first began in 1884 – six years before Army first played Navy and sixty-four years before Florida first played Florida State, is renewed.
In many ways the day is less about football and more an excuse for two schools who share so much to stake out their differentness. Most students and alums are modest football fans at best – a good portion of them will emerge from the tailgates that line the field just long enough to watch a play or two – but the pride these people feel in their school is as strong as you’ll find anywhere.
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