By Tom Mattingly
Over the years, more than 20 books about Tennessee football have been written by such journalists as Tom Siler, Russ Bebb, Marvin West, Haywood Harris and Gus Manning, Tony Barnhart, F. M. Williams and Jeff Hanna, Clay Travis, Barry Parker and Robin Hood, Ward Gossett, Jay Greeson and Stephen Hargis… and many more.
Statewide media such as the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Tennessean, and the Chattanooga Times-Free Press have also written about the Vol program with unquestioned zeal, on a daily basis and in special books about notable games and events.
This year, the coverage of Tennessee football took a major step forward with Pediment Publishing’s book highlighting the 2022 season. In its 160 pages, the season’s story is told from start to finish with incisive writing and true-to-Tennessee orange color pictures. It’s one of those books that will positively influence the coverage of Tennessee football in the years to come.
In his foreword, ESPN’s Ryan McGhee, a Tennessee graduate, offers his perspective of the impact the season had on him and the Tennessee fan base. “UT’s 11-win season restored faith that fall Saturdays in Knoxville could be historically great instead of hysterically grim,” he wrote.
He recalled a conversation with Vol legend Al Wilson, the undisputed spiritual leader of the 1998 National Championship team and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
When the Vols trailed Auburn 20-10 at halftime of the 1997 SEC Championship Game, Wilson “challenged” his teammates to do better after intermission. His high-pitched voice echoed across the team’s dressing area and caught everybody’s attention.
“Wilson, a fierce hitter with an overflow of intensity, did not approve of the first half mess,” wrote Marvin West. “He explained his total distaste of losing. Rumor has it he threw chairs. Some said his torrid words peeled paint off the wall.”
The final score was Tennessee 30, Auburn 29.
On Oct. 15, 2022, Wilson and McGhee ran into each other on the ramp at Thompson-Boling Arena near the set of “Marty and McGhee.” McGhee reported that Wilson was “smiling” when he said, “You feel the atmosphere today, all over this city? It feels like our days, doesn’t it?”
After that night, McGhee wrote that the game produced the “greatest contest the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry has produced in 121 years of trying. “Hyperbole, perhaps, but the game’s impact on the psyche of the Tennessee fan base is not in dispute.
The book’s highlights include a brief history of the program, a game-by-game analysis of the season, and interviews with Vol head coach Josh Heupel, quarterback Hendon Hooker, wideout Jalin Hyatt, and edge rusher Byron Young. There was also a segment on the Orange Bowl and the 31-14 victory over Clemson. The season and that game amplified the swagger Heupel has brought to the Vol program from Day One of his tenure.
Journalists Adam Sparks, Mike Wilson, Nick Gray, Blake Toppmeyer, John Adams, Chris Thomas, and Gentry Estes provided the analysis that will be fodder for future historians writing about the 2022 season. Each writer rose to the occasion in delineating the special moments from not only the 13-game season, but from across the years as well.
The photography is undeniably vintage, capturing the unique Tennessee colors, whether in the light of day or under the lights after sunset, in orange jerseys or in white. The color orange is part of the Tennessee tradition, as Neyland Stadium has become a venue bathed in orange, in good times or bad. Fans of all eras can close their eyes and envision what singer Dave Loggins termed “Orange Memories.”
A long-ago scribe once wrote about what the opposition encounters entering the stadium at the south end. There were precious few escape routes, he wrote, referencing the Hill on the north end and the Tennessee River at the south end. There’s 15th Street/Stadium Drive/Phillip Fulmer Way high above the field on the west side. To the east are campus buildings, both new and ancient, on a narrow strip of pavement with limited ingress and egress.
It is a wonderful edifice that dominates the campus scene, one with terrific sight lines for the 102,455 who find their way to campus game after game, year after year.
The authors pay tribute to 10 of the most beloved players in Vol history—Doug Atkins, Condredge Holloway, Hooker, Hank Lauricella, Johnny Majors, Peyton Manning, Gene McEver, Heath Shuler, Reggie White, and Wilson— and most fans could probably name at least 20 more.
Seven of them are members of the College Football Hall of Fame. That list will be fuel for debates among Tennessee fans over those who were included and those who were left out.
One of the most delightful aspects of the book is coverage of the weekly predictions from the ESPN Game Day talent (and invited guests) about each game’s outcome. When “Game Day” was in Knoxville, their predictions elicited cheers from Vol faithful when Tennessee was the choice and a loud chorus of boos when they weren’t.
The book is an enjoyable read. You probably already know it by now, but this book, from start to finish, can help explain the “hold” Tennessee football has on its devotees. It’s a keeper.