By Tom Mattingly
A great many interesting things go on in the visiting team’s locker room area after the game is over.
Tennessee fans see visiting teams trot onto the field to a scattered chorus of boos, but that’s just part of the story. There’s drama underneath the south end zone few people get to witness.
The visiting team area dates to the 1948 expansion at Neyland Stadium’s south end, the river end, with a couple of additions, including an expanded media room, in the more than 70 years since. The area is sparse, but functional, a continuous hub of activity after the game.
The narrow corridor is crowded, as more than 100 players, coaches, and athletic training staff move in and out of the dressing and media interview rooms.
There is the sound of cleats on carpet laid over concrete. There is the uniquely football sight and smell of blood, sweat, and grass stain. Icepacks are provided for sore joints, and there are slings, crutches, and bandages for wounded appendages. Trainers dole out pills of one kind or another, making notes as to who received what.
Players grumble to themselves over missed tackles, dropped passes, and bad calls. If the opponent was Alabama, Florida, Georgia, or Vanderbilt, there were often verbal tirades directed their way by “fans” exiting the stadium through a maze of ramps overlooking the area.
It was always a shock when the door from the dressing room opened, and coaches such as Steve Spurrier or Mark Richt strode into the media room. Spurrier always had a one-liner at the ready, something about “God looking after the Gators,” particularly after the finish of the 2000 game. (One media cynic said afterwards it wasn’t really the Almighty who had aided Florida. It was the SEC official who ruled Jabar Gaffney had actually caught the game winning TD pass at the north end.)
On the other hand, Richt was generally more restrained, considering every word, speaking in measured, “coach speak” type tones. Media reps generally got better “copy” from Spurrier, whether he was at Duke, Florida, or South Carolina.
After the 1990 Notre Dame game, Lou Holtz talked to Dick Vitale and Regis Philbin in the tunnel before doing his post-game interview. A gaggle of priests greeted Fighting Irish players as they entered the dressing room.
After the 2001 South Carolina game, when there was a malfunction with the clock, Holtz told the media how easy it was to keep the time: “One thousand one, one thousand two,” he said.
Two years before, when a paratrooper delivered the game ball to midfield, Holtz reminded everyone listening that he had also jumped out of a plane, one of the 100 or so things on his adult life to-do list. That list included eating dinner at the White House, being head coach at Notre Dame, and winning a national championship.
UNLV head coach John Robinson was holding court after his team lost in the 2004 season opener. In the midst of his remarks, Anthony Munoz, one of his former players at USC, tried to “ease into” the room, as if someone his size (6-6, 280 pounds) could do so. After seeing him, Robinson told the media, “There’s the greatest offensive lineman ever to play this game.”
Occasionally, coaches’ comments were more for local media consumption. In 1999, when Memphis lost a 17-16 decision, Rip Scherer, the only Memphis coach to defeat Tennessee (21-17 in 1996), tore into Tiger beat writers for doubting the courage and character of his team in their game analyses earlier in the week.
Then there was 2002, when Alabama dispatched the Vols 34-14. Tide coach Dennis Franchione did his interview perfunctorily, looking very much like the loneliest man in Neyland Stadium. I later found out he had been making plans to get out of Tuscaloosa, headed to College Station, Texas.
Kentucky coach Guy Morriss’ post-game comments after the 2002 game were impressive. The game with the Vols, a 24-0 Tennessee victory, had come weeks after a real downer for the Wildcat program. That was the so-called “Blue Grass Miracle,” when Morriss was doused with Gatorade befitting a Wildcat victory seconds before LSU completed a 74-yard “Hail Mary” pass to steal the decision. A few days after the game, however, he left Lexington to become head coach at Baylor.
There was never a dull moment under the south end after the game. The Vol Network is not likely to make a video of great moments in the visitors’ area, but that should not diminish in the least what goes on there.