College Football's Self Inflicted Wound
Tradition. It’s a word synonymous with college football. In fact I believe it is the word more people would use to identify college football than any other. So as I watched the bowl season wind down, I found myself wondering……………….. why is college football taking its greatest strength and tossing it onto the trash heap of history? A few weeks ago I was forced, by my own sense of loyalty and obligation, to tune in to a game between my Tennessee Volunteers and the Vanderbilt Commodores. It was an ugly game between one bad team and one average team. When the smoke had cleared, Vandy had extended their winning streak over my lowly Vols to two games – as unheard of and humiliating an occurrence as you can imagine in these parts…..except that it wasn’t the most humiliating aspect of the game. That “honor” goes to the surreal sight of the Tennessee Volunteers running around the field in grey uniforms (or strangely, blue in certain light). That’s right, one of the top 10 college football programs of all time and the number two football program in the SEC had fallen prey to the plague sweeping the nation – the alternate uniform.
The “smokey grey” uniforms were announced prior to the kickoff of the 2013 season. Reaction was mixed to positive. The predictable reaction among the younger fans was………………predictable. They loved them. Flashy videos of current players modeling the uniforms and making gestures that people like me generally interpret as gang symbols only helped to sell the idea to this all-too-eager demographic. The old crowd pretended to like the uniforms in a gesture of solidarity with younger Vols and to appear open-minded, but they couldn’t fool me. The 30-50 crowd mostly looked at each other with a “what the fuck??” look on their faces but went along with it because nothing else has worked to resurrect this flailing, failing football program. Since 2001 we have experienced a series of unexpected but self-inflicted disasters never before seen in college football. The fall from grace began with the retirement of former athletic director Doug Dickey. Dickey was a champion of Tennessee Football at the expense of basketball and other sports – which was just fine with me and most other fans because we were pretty fucking great at football! The search to replace Dickey was (as all things “Tennessee” are) chaotic and and embarrassing, and those in charge eventually settled on a guy they had passed over several times (for obvious reasons), Mike Hamilton. I will describe Mike Hamilton as a bad hire, in the same way that I would describe Hiroshima as a bad place to be when the Enola Gay was flying overhead. The list of terrible and misguided things Hamilton would do while in power is long and infuriating. Because of a New Year’s Resolution, I am trying to avoid becoming angry so I will calmly just scratch the surface of his Reign of Terror. Let’s see…..he replaced the beloved “rifleman” logo with a snarling cartoon dog called “angry smokey”……he fired the only coach since General Neyland to bring us a national championship and replaced him with a traveling troupe of football mercenaries to storm the campus and ruin the entire program in record time……..and in his encore performance he hired a coach with a LOSING RECORD at Louisiana Tech to replace the mercenaries. Neat. The fact that fans actually remain is a testament to the power of the TRADITION that is associated with Tennessee Football.
Enter Butch Jones. I think Butch was shipped directly from Canada where he was a coach in the CFL or something like that. Tennessee fans went from “who the fuck?” to “hell yeah” within minutes of hearing this guy speak. He is a walking, talking catch phrase machine. He would make millions working alongside Don Draper. His natural talent is in advertising, so naturally the University of Tennessee hired him to coach football. I happen to like Butch Jones. I like his optimism and his willingness to work his ass off to get Tennessee back to where we all want it to be. But Butch has………………….changed things (polite descriptor). “Rocky Top”, one of the most widely known and loved / hated fight songs in college football, has been most replaced with (in the words of Bill O’Reilly) vile rappers. Now, I realize that if you are a tween or in the segment I like to call “general sports fans”, then you are likely rolling your eyes at me. You are well aware that recruits and young people are stupid like you are and put importance on such things as “getting hype” and “fresh beats”. I am a Tennessee Volunteer - I am not a general sports fan. I will not watch something simply because it involves a ball. College Football has always been at least as much about culture and tradition as it has been about sports. This is a concept that will sound foreign and even crazy to the general sports fan and I get that. I listen to your yearly rants about making an atmosphere more conducive to your life inexperience and lack of attention span, so I am all-too-familiar with your fleeting ideas. But it’s not the general sports fans that have made college football what it is – nor will they sustain it into the future when times get tough. They are currently watching soccer anyway.
So cater to the ADHD generation and replace the greatest college football uniforms of all time with a very strange shade of grey, it doesn’t matter. Replace the stadium with an internet café for all I care. I was there when Tennessee football was at its peak. I was there through the greatest stretch of football in the history of Tennessee. I know how it feels and it doesn’t feel like this. But in the end – when the general sports fans abandon the cause - I will be there to help pick up the pieces because, as much as I would like to escape it sometimes, I truly am a Tennessee Volunteer.