We Are Tennessee. Deal With It.
So many stories I could be writing right now. I could be writing about how obvious it was versus LSU that the albatross was off the team’s neck, and how much fun that was to watch. I could be writing about how only 55 players of an 85 player roster were available last night due to egregious mismanagement of this football program. I could be writing about how my alma mater, Austin Peay State University got the playoff shaft, or about how Alvin Kamara would have broken all kinds of records at UT if he’d been used properly.
Sure, I could talk about all that.
But…no. No, instead I get to talk about something that shouldn’t even be an issue, but is.
As more schools join the growing list embarking upon coaching hires, the tighter the deadline becomes for Tennessee. There are few candidates the fan base would consider worthy of installing on Rocky Top, and rightfully so. The UT job is a top 10 destination coaching job in the country, the most profitable football program in the most profitable conference, with a history of excellence that stretches back over a century. The facilities are top notch, the stadium is a grand old cathedral of the Deep South’s love for the sport, and the provenance is there to lure in great recruits and turn them into greater college football players.
And yet… I’ve seen media members and others claiming that the reason coaches are rejecting UT’s offers (unconfirmed, I might add) is because of the fans and how they’ve been so frenzied (and borderline obsessive) during this coaching search.
You know, I understand the driving need for local sports media to get the scoop on the UT coaching hire. Heck, we’re all out here chasing down Grumors, using photo ID apps to try and figure out if Gruden really was out eating with Peyton Manning, and in some cases plane stalking the airport, hoping to pick up any crumb of insight based on who gets on or off the UT-affiliated planes. So yeah, I get how important that scoop of all scoops would be for a reporter.
What I don’t get is why anyone in the media, which is social media-powered in this new American society, would actually be disconnected enough to say that the fans are the reason UT can’t hire a top-tier coach.
With the money UT is prepared to push across the table, that’s just a patently silly and irresponsible thing to say, especially when Neyland Stadium was rocking through a Saturday night game during a thunderstorm for a team that came into the game with an 0–6 record in the SEC. The fans couldn’t see the field, had to duck flying debris, and had to bundle up when the temperature dropped as soon as the rain ended, but they sure as hell knew when to sing Rocky Top.
That scene was so amazing, so beyond what most schools are accustomed to, that media pundits nationwide have been commenting about it ever since.
But not one of our own. No, now a narrative has been introduced where the real problem with hiring a big name coach is the fan base that coach will represent and ultimately answer to.
Tennessee fans are the most passionate, the most loyal, the most in-tuned fan base in the country. I live in Ohio, half an hour from the OSU stadium, and people up here applaud at football games like they’re at the opera. If you want to have your hairdo evaluated and your manicure preserved, come to a Buckeye game.
If you want to see folks going nuts and hugging total strangers and yelling “WOO!” simultaneously without giving one darn about what anyone thinks of grown people wearing checkerboard overalls, come to Neyland Stadium. That’s where real football fans come to watch the sport they love.
Any coach who’d be put off by the spectacle of the orange and white, who’d be terrified of Vol Twitter or concerned that the Tennessee fan base is better at flight tracking than the FAA…well, that man isn’t the right coach for the kind of football played in Knoxville. Those kinds of coaches get mad and act like childish idiots on the sidelines, close practices to the media, and rely upon overused cliches and analytics to make bad game time decisions.
Tennessee doesn’t need another coach like that.
UT has a tradition of coaches who stride like giants across the landscape of collegiate sports. General Neyland is rightfully beloved, bringing multiple national championships to Knoxville and only leaving to serve his country with distinction in two World Wars. Pat Summitt built her sport from the ground up as a Tennessee native, Olympian, and revered goddess of women’s basketball. Without Pat, women’s basketball would never have evolved to the point it’s at now, and she is the winningest NCAA basketball coach of all time still.
Phillip Fulmer played at UT, was a long-time assistant at UT, and when he became the head football coach brought the Vols to the harsh glare of annual national prominence. Fulmer put together the most talented teams of the modern era, coaching iconic players like Al Wilson and Peyton Manning. And with a quarterback named Tee Martin, who’d patiently waited for his shot behind Manning, and a pair of running backs named Travis, Fulmer brought the first BCS National Championship trophy home to Rocky Top.
This is Tennessee. These coaches came to Knoxville and changed everything, not just for UT but for their sports. Through all their tenures, there was only one constant.
You know, as I read a comment earlier about a media source blaming the fans for not being able to land a new coach (although it’s way too early for any school to name a new head coach — come on, guys, be reasonable), I couldn’t help but remember the LSU game on Saturday where Vols fans were singing Rocky Top during a monsoon. They were singing so loudly that every words was echoing in my house from the TV. I felt like I was there.
I remembered the last time I paid a visit to the General’s grave, only to find that about twenty other people had the same idea…on a Tuesday morning in the middle of the summer.
I remembered Coach Summitt’s celebration of life, and how the arena with a floor named after her was packed with players and coaches and above all, Tennessee fans who were crying like children when Peyton Manning choked up during his speech. (I did too.)
And then I thought about the past crazy week of airplane tracking, rumor-mongering, coach debating insanity online.
Tennessee fans aren’t keeping the university from hiring a great coach. Every coach in the country would give anything for an impassioned, loyal, absolutely nutcase crazy fan base like Tennessee’s. Only the coaches that are failing have a problem with a fan base like this.
I wrote a story earlier this year about media members who try to make themselves part of the narrative instead of covering the story. Everything I said then applies here as well, but in particular — this:
…journalists should and must be kept to a higher standard. Our purpose is not to create the news, but to report events fairly, accurately, and honestly. We cannot, should not, turn our opinions into news.
Blaming the fan base isn’t the story here. The real story is being obscured by people who are more desperate for attention than doing their job. Now, at least in part, the narrative online with the vocal and admittedly sometimes scary Vol Twitter isn’t “Who should we hire?”
Instead, it’s “Can you believe they’re blaming us?”
Clickety-click. Watch that click count rise.
As we head into Thanksgiving week and are properly reminded to be grateful for our blessings, maybe it’s time to change that narrative a bit. I can guarantee you that everybody in the UT athletic department is grateful for every single fanatic member of Vol Nation. I know for a fact all the athletes are. And I can also confirm that members of the local media are as well. I talk to a lot of these guys, who work ridiculous hours chasing down stories on the UT beat and then indulge in hours of online interaction with their readers, listeners, and viewers with gracious friendliness and interest in what Vols fans think.
Most UT reporters are like that, and they aren’t blaming the fans because they’re incapable of handling the heat that is the Tennessee online world. They do something I do not. I am a glorified blogger with an insight into the generations of the current Tennessee fan base. I’m not running myself ragged in Knoxville right now, canvassing every connection I have so I can figure out who UT is going to hire and then spending hours interacting with fans online. That’s what most of the guys who cover UT do, and they should be respected for that.
A few, however, don’t — or can’t — and they end up becoming the story instead of reporting the real story. The real story right now is easy: Tennessee has not yet hired a new head coach (that we know of).
At the end of the day, it’s not the University of Tennessee coaches who can’t handle the fans, but aspects of the UT-affiliated business surrounding the athletic department who so easily find themselves flustered by the hype and the expectations and the accountability these fans possess.
Anybody who tells you that Vol Nation is a negative selling point for prospective head football coaches doesn’t understand the real magic that is Tennessee and I don’t care how long they’ve been covering the Vols either. When in a few weeks’ time the new head football coach addresses the worldwide network of Tennessee fans, I can guarantee you that somewhere in his speech will be some version of the following line:
“The University of Tennessee has the best fan base in the country.”
Because it does.
Maybe it’s time for the media who try to shame Tennessee fans for their passion to take a good hard look at themselves and their priorities, because the fans will still be this way when all of us are long gone. If you do not understand that basic fact about Vol Nation, then perhaps now’s the time to consider finding something else to cover.
Like Vanderbilt. Much safer option.
We are Tennessee. We wear those checkerboard overalls without shame. We sing Rocky Top with a “woo!” We fill all 102,455 seats at Neyland Stadium for a 4–7 team that deserved so much better than what it got. We track planes, we yell at local restaurants for mistaking someone for Jon Gruden, we decimate other SEC fan bases with the still-undefeated Vol Twitter. We demand attention, and we deserve respect from every single person who covers our teams.
Anyone who can’t accept that? The orange and white-painted doors will give you a hard pop on the rear as you leave.
We are Tennessee. Deal with it.