By Scott Robertson
The boys of summer have all but wrapped up the pennant races. Over at Bristol, they’re done swapping paint for the year, already getting ready to pull out the Christmas lights. And so sports fans, we come to that most hallowed of all Southern seasons: college football season.
For those who don’t go to church on Sundays, this is pretty much as close to religion as it gets. I listened to a sermon once from a pastor who had become convinced football was a sin. Turns out he had invited a fellow preacher to visit him in Knoxville only to find there were no available hotel rooms because it was a UT football weekend. His sermon, “No room at the inn,” railed about false idols and worshiping craven images and all sorts of things he probably wouldn’t have had any problems with if it hadn’t been for that hotel glitch.
He didn’t find much sympathy from the pews that Sunday. The Vols had won the day before. Praise the Lord and pass the football. That’s the way of it down in Knoxville.
The rebirth of Southern America’s game continues over on the ETSU campus with the opening of the new football stadium adjacent to Seehorn Drive. The Bucs still have the advantage of having relatively low bars to hurdle. Nobody expects them to be a world-beating juggernaut at this stage. Just having their own place to play is cause for celebration.
Back in Knoxville, they don’t have such an understanding fan base. The last time the Volunteers won the National title was the same year Peyton Manning debuted in the NFL. Peyton Manning has retired from the NFL and is hosting the ESPYs now. So it’s been more than a minute since the Vols were national title contenders.
It’s been amazing to watch the way the Vols’ fortunes have unfolded since those glory days when Tee Martin and Peerless Price torched Florida State for the 1998 National title. The program let Phil Fulmer go to pick up the flavor-of-the-month head coach in Lane Kiffin, who was the Donald Trump of coaching – flashy, loud and sometimes hard for even his friends to support – before Kiffin bolted for the USC job. Tennessee then replaced Kiffin with his polar opposite (have you ever noticed how we tend to hire someone who’s the opposite of the guy who just left because we know we won’t have the same problems we’ve been having, only to develop all new problems?), Derek Dooley. Dooley was fired in 2012, but the school made its last contracted payment to him eight months ago. Since Dooley’s ouster, Tennessee has been rebuilding under Butch Jones. Last year was supposed to be the season in which Jones brought the Vols back to title contention, but that didn’t happen. Now the same fan base that lost patience with Fulmer a decade ago is grumbling about Jones, and the University has hired a “special advisor:” Phillip Fulmer.