A Perspective of The Third Saturday in October From Both Sides of the Ball
I’m from Knoxville.
And went to college in Tuscaloosa.
I’m surprised they let me back in the Volunteer State when I go home to visit the family. That security doesn’t stop me when I arrive at McGhee Tyson Airport with a list of criteria requiring me to validate my original residency, including making me sing two verses of Rocky Top (which I can do, by the way).
The rivalry is THAT intense between Alabama and Tennessee. It’s called “The Third Saturday in October” because that’s when the game used to be played. Paul “Bear” Bryant relished beating Tennessee so much he once played in the game with a broken leg and later celebrated wins by passing out cigars for his team to smoke in the locker room (a tradition that continues to exist today under another legendary Alabama coach).
A UT fan once sent a moving van to the coach’s house because he couldn’t beat Bama. One of the reasons I dislike Peyton Manning is because he directed the UT band after the Vols beat Bama.
Much more so than Auburn, Tennessee is the school I want to beat the most. And make no mistake, Bama is UT’s biggest rival. Vol fans at first hated Bryant, then just slumped in their seats in Neyland Stadium and started this chant in the fourth quarter after another defeat to the Bear: “Roll clock, roll. Down to zero, so we can go. Roll clock roll.”
Now there’s Nick Saban, undefeated against the Vols since he arrived at the Tide in 2007.
So when the SEC finally – and wisely – voted to continue the football game between the two schools, I felt like grabbing a bottle of Jack Daniels to celebrate.
You can’t go to a UT game without having some Jack Daniels, by the way. If you don’t have any, someone near you will pour some into your Coke. Even if you are wearing an Alabama shirt. (They just won’t pour as much to anyone wearing an Alabama shirt as they do to other visitors.)
Neyland Stadium is one of the greatest venues in all of sports. It’s the Wrigley Field of the South, the original landmark stadium of Southern football. It was one of the first of the 100,000-seat stadiums, one of only two on the water in college football (Washington is the other). Vols fans tailgate at Neyland Stadium they way Cubs fans do at Wrigley Field; the roof of the parking lot next to the stadium is UT’s equivalent of Murphy’s Bleachers.
In high school, I sold Cokes in Neyland Stadium; for the Alabama game, I would quit after halftime instead of the start of the fourth quarter so I could watch the game. A few years later, I was on a houseboat traveling up the Tennessee River to the game and became a part of the Volunteer Navy, the collection of boats that tie up across from the stadium on game weekends.
I still get chills when I watch the Pride of the Southland Band do the “Salute to the Hill,” the pre-game ritual of marching from the music building into the stadium. Thousands gather around “the Hill,” where the band stops and pays respect to the original part of campus. There’s nothing else like it anywhere in sports.
When the band takes the field and “splits the T” as the football team runs onto the field well, if that doesn’t get you in the mood for a game then you might as well go back to the couch.
So yes, in many ways Rocky Top is still home, sweet home to me.
But I did go to Bama.
I like to joke with my high school friends I went there “because I like to win.” Alabama leads the series 55-39-7 and dominated under Bryant and is again now under Saban.
Alabama has won 17 National Championships, Tennessee six (and just one the past 40 years).
I covered a rain-soaked game in Neyland Stadium when UT didn’t get a first down until 6:36 remained in the third quarter. Was in Legion Field when Alabama’s 1979 National Champions spotted Tennessee a 17-0 lead only to come back and win 27-17. (Earlier in the week, someone asked the Bear what he would do if his team got behind. “Well,” the Bear replied in his simplistic but forceful Southern manner, “we’re gonna try to get back ahead.”) Saw David Palmer score on a two-point conversion at the end of a furious late-game rally saving Bama from defeat, making a tie almost seem like a win.
More importantly, I followed by dad’s footsteps to Tuscaloosa. I was in the Million Dollar Band, wrote sports for The Crimson White and was sports editor of the yearbook, the Corolla. I bleed not orange, but crimson.
But UT is never far away from me. Once, when in the Million Dollar Band for a game at Neyland Stadium, we couldn’t get any shakers from our cheerleaders. Said they didn’t have enough for us. So I went to the UT cheerleaders and got shakers from them. Orange and white. When our cheerleaders looked up and saw 300 people in the Alabama band waving UT shakers, they had a fit. I told them to find crimson and white ones and we’ll use them. Which they did, and promptly. We never had a problem with shakers after that, either.
I don’t know what I would do if Alabama and Tennessee were ever to quit playing on a regular basis. Shake my head at the demise of another college football traditional rivalry – two great ones, Texas-Texas A&M and Oklahoma-Nebraska have already disappeared – while decision-makers chase after even more money, I suppose.
Then I would grab a bottle of Jack. Smoke a cigar. And thank the Bear and salute Saban.