I generally try to keep my posts fairly general–stuff most people can relate to. But forgive me for going strictly local today.
Knoxville, Tenn. is pretty average as far as small cities go. It’s full of strip malls and chain restaurants. It’s a jumping off point for visitors to the Smoky Mountains and Dollywood. But what makes this average town remarkable is that on seven Saturdays every fall more than 105,000 rabid fans file (or in some cases, roll) into Neyland Stadium to cheer for the Tennessee Volunteers.
They wear orange. They sing Rocky Top. And they chant along to the cheers you’d swear they were born knowing.
At the beginning of every home game the band preforms a pre-game show that is second to none. Don’t talk to me about dotting the “i” at Ohio State. Or throwing the spear into the ground at Florida State. They just don’t compare.
At UT, the band marches down the field playing the fight song in the shape of a giant T. Then, there is one beat of silence before the band splits and opens the T. First come the cheerleaders. Then Smoky, the blue tick coon hound mascot. And for the last 17 years, the man leading the team out onto the field has been Phillip Fulmer.
Today, Fulmer was fired. The team has not played well for a few years and it was probably time for him to go. And he’s earned millions, so there’s no need worry for the state of his finances.
But watching his press conference was hard. This is a coach who has spent 35 years at the school–as a student-athlete, an assistant coach and head coach. He loves the school like only an alumnus can. And while he never had the personality of a Steve Spurrier or the gravitas of a Joe Paterno, he always represented the university well.
The emotion in his voice today was obvious. Clearly this was not a decision he agreed with. But, as he has always done, he represented himself, and the school, with dignity and graciousness and respect.
There’s no doubt that the program will regain the prominence it once had. I just hope that the next coach loves UT half as much as Coach Fulmer does.
We still have an old VHS tape around here somewhere of the night Fulmer and the Vols won the National Championship. I think I’ll go dig it up.