After all, I’m a native of Knoxville, and in high school, sold Cokes at UT games in Neyland Stadium.
But make no mistake, when the Vols take the field against their most hated rival, I don’t do the Tennessee Waltz. I roll with the Tide. When Alabama wins, I do as the players and coaches do in the locker room, I smoke a cigar.
There are fewer greater rewards in college football than going into someone else’s stadium and whipping the home team. It’s extra special at Tennessee, that sweet smell of cigars coming from the visitor’s locker room adding to the moment.
I feel this way because I did something rare for these parts: I left Knoxville and went to the University of Alabama. And that’s why – above even Auburn – Alabama-Tennessee is my biggest rivalry game.
I’m hardly alone. Because Alabama has dominated lately – it’s won seven in a row, all but one in a rout – there’s little doubt Auburn is a bigger game to Bama fans. But to UT fans, it’s far and away Alabama.
So when I hear some in the media – most notably Paul Finebaum – say Alabama-Tennessee is no longer a college football rivalry, I get the feeling they’ve been on Rocky Top getting their corn from a jar.
To judge a rivalry, you have go to beyond the present. You have to examine the past. That’s what makes it a rivalry.
You think Ohio State-Michigan is a nothing rivalry now because the Wolverines can’t put up a fight against the Buckeyes? Look at the fight undermanned Texas had in its Red River Rivalry with OU this year.
And when it comes to history, few rivalries in any sport can beat that of Alabama-Tennessee. And it’s not just the moments on the field but the individual fan experiences that make it special.
I remember covering a game in Neyland Stadium when Bama won 27-0. Tennessee did not even get a first down until 6:36 remained in the third quarter (funny how guys remember such things about sports but forget birthdays and anniversaries, and I have trouble remembering people’s names 10 seconds after I meet them).
The game took place in a downpour, Charlie Daniels played at halftime and while I was nice and dry in the press box, my sister was soaked to the bone in the stands. She was rooting for UT. I can still recall her misery.
Two years later, I was back in that same press box when Tennessee upset the Tide, ending a seven-game Alabama winning streak. Neyland Stadium’s upper decks shake like an earthquake and whenever UT made a big play, our laptops would literally bounce down the table, as if they were on that old electronic football game.
I remember listening to Bryant talk about how much it meant for Alabama to beat Tennessee. And seeing his actions during game week.
When I was in school someone showed up at practice wearing a bright orange jacket (practices were often open to the public in those days). It was obvious someone from UT was sent to spy on the Tide. Well Bryant not only kicked him out but he banned anyone from wearing anything orange on campus for the rest of the week!
As a player and coach, Bryant never beat UT’s General Bob Neyland and it gnawed on him like a bear trying to get out of a trap. Beating Tennessee became an obsession and after Neyland retired, it happened on a regular basis. Trainer Jim Goosetree would pass out cigars to the coaches and players in the locker room after beating the Vols, a tradition that continues to this day.
I still don’t like Peyton Manning for directing the band after the Vols beat Bama in the late 90s (the Tide was on a slide at that point).
One of my most joyous moments in the rivalry’s history came in 2009 when Terrance “Mount” Cody blocked two UT field goals, one on the last play of the game.
Alabama went on to go undefeated and win the National Championship that year. Without that play, it may not have happened. Yes, the UT rivalry is huge.
The UT coach at the time was Lane Kiffin. Kiffin, who created all kinds of controversy at Tennessee before abandoning it for USC, is now Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
Think UT fans are fired up about this year’s game!? The girls on Rocky Top are wild as a mink over Kiffin’s return to Knoxville.
It’s interesting to note that when I return to Knoxville each December to visit my family, my dad takes me to a luncheon of Alabama alumni. It’s held at a building on the UT campus.
So yeah, this game means something special to me. And to fans on both sides.
It also means a lot to college football.