Monday, October 27, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Same State, Different World --On 'Bama, the Vols...and the U of M

Posted By on Mon, Oct 27, 2008 at 4:00 AM

I missed one of the best sports weekends of the year in Memphis -- a Carl Edwards win at Memphis Motorsports Park and a Tiger football victory over archrival Southern Miss at the Liberty Bowl -- but I have a decent excuse. I made a 400-mile pilgrimage to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville for my first Tennessee-Alabama gridiron clash. There are football teams and football programs. Then there's football culture. A few observations from my birthplace:

Among interstate rivalries in college football, the only series remotely close to Tennessee-Alabama are Michigan-Ohio State and Texas-Oklahoma. The only program with more bowl appearances than Tennessee's 47 is, you guessed it, Alabama with 55. In the now 76-year history of the greatest conference in the sport, the programs with the most wins in the SEC (each with more than 300) are, yep, Alabama and Tennessee. I was raised by UT grads who didn't adhere all that much to the tailgating life on fall Saturdays, and we moved so much that Knoxville has been more of a memory to me than a hometown. But my parents always emphasized that if I were to watch a single football game each year, it needs to be UT-Bama. Last Saturday, I fulfilled that lifetime obligation

About three hours before kickoff, I ran into Condredge Holloway outside the Tennessee football hall of fame museum. Now an administrator with the UT athletics department, Holloway starred for the Vols between 1972 and 1974, and was the first black quarterback in the SEC. When I asked him what kind of chances the home team had against the number-two ranked Crimson Tide, Holloway said, "They're going to have to take it; we're not going to give it to them. And that's the great thing about youth: these kids believe that." Holloway faced Alabama three times in his career, with the Tide among the nation's top four all three occasions. He never won. Saturday's 29-9 Alabama win had to look all too familiar

Shortly before kickoff, I saw a little girl -- no older than 5 -- on an entry ramp, twenty feet above a lot filled with tailgaters. Wearing an orange number-27 jersey (for all of you Al Wilson fans) the child -- at the top of her lungs -- led chants of "Go, Big Orange! Go, Big Orange!" and "Boo, Alabama! Boo, Alabama!" Somewhat creepy, I saw no adult within 20 feet of her. Should you doubt the permanence or cross-generational strength of the south's greatest football rivalry, I'll remind you of this little girl. And I'll be wondering just what kind of scholarship she'll pursue

Tennessee held a pregame ceremony to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its 1998 national championship team (the first winner, by the way, of a "BCS" title). Among the dozens of celebrants on the field were familiar faces in Big Orange country like Tee Martin, Peerless Price, and the aforementioned Wilson. But on this night, the ceremony did an ironic disfavor to UT coach Phillip Fulmer, as it served to merely contrast how far the program has fallen in but a decade. Even with three appearances in the SEC championship game (though no wins) since '98, the program comes across as several strides behind Florida, LSU, Georgia, and of course, Alabama

With a healthy Arkelon Hall, the University of Memphis has more talent at the offensive skill positions than does Tennessee. (And having scored 36 points with Hall on the sideline last Saturday night, the qualifier may not be necessary.) Considering the enormous recruiting advantages Fulmer has over Tommy West and his staff, this is a serious matter for the Volunteer program. Don't be surprised if UT starts looking at junior-college programs for a quick fix or two at the glamour spots.

On the subject of Fulmer's job status, I was asked by an orange-clad fan (presumably a student) as we were leaving the stadium who might be Tennessee's coach next season. When I suggested that I may just get in line to apply, the gentleman responded, "But why not me? I'm younger!" The entire drive home, I've been trying to figure out where that came from. Smarter? Okay. Better looking? Fine. But younger?? Next time I head to Neyland Stadium, I'm taking my walking stick

The best part of the trip were the hours I got to spend with an old friend I don't see nearly enough. A proud alum from Murfreesboro, he literally got sick 12 years ago when he witnessed the Tigers' epic upset of Peyton Manning's Vols on what he was sure was a casual visit to the Bluff City. Memories like these -- yes, even the gut-wrenching ones -- are what make college football the institution it has been and will always be. Friendships can grow distant as jobs and family steer us through one chapter of life after another. But on fall Saturdays -- especially here in the "American south" as my dad liked to describe it -- we have an easy excuse to catch up, to drive more miles than gas prices say we should, and to endure the barbs (and cheers) of those who choose different colors than ours. College football games -- and seasons -- begin and end, as they must. But the friendships they solidify will last beyond our lifetimes

Rocky Top. (And okay, just this once: Roll Tide.)

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