Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rocky Top report

Back in August, I wrote about a new project to which I was committing, for what some might call a study of the storied tradition of college football in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), composed to large southern universities.  You can read the whole darn explanation back at that old post, but I'll recap with an abbreviated version.
I don't like to commit to projects half-heartedly.  So here it goes: this year, I will follow and study one SEC football team.  I will get to know the program: players, coaches, highs, lows and traditions.  I will watch games on TV, read articles from the campus newspaper, and learn the stories behind the players.  I also should clarify that I don't even know the game of football particularly intricately, so that will be another hurdle. 

All of this research will be done so that by the time I reach the project's next stage, I'll get it.  I'll understand the fervent passion fans feel for this team, for its glorious wins and devastating, nail-biting losses.

I chose the University of Tennessee Volunteers, for a fairly wide range of fairly serious reasons.  UT is home to one of the best stadium experiences in college football.  Check out what Neyland looks like on game day.  That's a lotta orange.
Credit to the Knoxville News Sentinel
One important piece was the coach.  I actually really like UT head coach, Derek Dooley, for legitimate reasons.  But it also sure didn't hurt that he wears orange pants to every game and also has an impeccably coiffed hairstyle.

Credit to
Also, several years ago, Josh and I went to a wedding in Tennessee.  We stumbled across a little life-size giant-size mural of Smokey, the Tennessee mascot.  What do you call that?  FATE!

My choice was made.  But to make a long story short, it didn't exactly turn out to be a good year for my sweet Tennessee Volunteers.  Some very key players suffered injuries that ended or hampered their seasons.  The Vols had an unbelievably tough schedule and proved to be pretty legit at holding super-strong SEC teams like Alabama and LSU for the first half before losing all control in the second half.  They even lost to Kentucky in the last game of the season, which I learned early on was a major no-no. 

Per ESPN's SEC college football blog, the report was downright terrible.  Here's the basic summary:
Offense: F
Defense: C+
Special teams: C-
Coaching: F
I definitely didn't expect the team to be that bad, but what I also didn't expect was how much I actually started to care by the season's end.  I stayed up to date mostly via Twitter by following the UT beat reporters, UT athletics and media relations staff, and even some of the players.  Josh and I watched seven or eight of the games on TV.  We learned the Rocky Top fight song, and it became a fixture in our home.  When times were tough for the Vols, we even listened on the radio when UT played Middle Tennessee for its homecoming game (i.e. a you'd-better-beat-these-guys kind of match-up) for a morale boost. By the last game of the season, UT was trying to salvage its record and qualify for a bowl game.  The Vols lost to Kentucky, as mentioned, and I got the news on Twitter and felt a pang of genuine defeat. 

I learned a lot this season, although I surely don't pretend to be a football know-it-all or a decades-long die-hard Tennessee fan.  But I argue that it's impossible to commit to following a team like I did and not be compelled by the narratives that emerge over the course of the season.  At some point - earlier in the season than I expected - I crossed the line between pretending to be a fan and just being a fan. The storylines are different for every team, and there's no way to predict any of them at the start of the season, no matter how well you know a team. It's the great, beautiful power of sports, you know?  I went into this project knowing barely anything about the SEC and surprisingly little about football. I came out of the 2011 season with a new team to cheer for and UT merch on my holiday wishlist. 

But what's more, I came out of it with a weird, surprising feeling that I only ever thought I'd reserve for Twins baseball in the long winter offseason. I can't wait til next season.  

I think I get it now.

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