Fun and games on the road with the Volunteers

By Tom Mattingly

The stadiums where the Vols play are ancient and creaking, built in sections over the years, designed for football and nothing else.

There are the echoes of Bob Neyland at Tennessee, Wallace Wade and Bear Bryant at Alabama, John Howard Vaught at Ole Miss, Ralph “Shug” Jordan at Auburn, Knute Rockne at Notre Dame (complete with a memorial area at the Indiana Turnpike South Bend Toll Plaza), and many, many others.

They are a major reason SEC and college football are a way of life. Even the act of getting the home team on the field just before kickoff is a major source of excitement. Everybody seems to have something special. Pre-game and post-game activities are almost as exciting as the game itself, heralding the ancient nature of many of the rivalries.

There is, for example, Bryant saying, “I ain’t never been nothing but a winner” over the public address system at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, or the incessant, “This is Alabama football.” That’s done to help Alabama fans remember what sport they’re watching.

South Carolina comes on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia through smoke and the strains of Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” popularly known as the theme from the movie “2001.”

At LSU, there’s a real Tiger (in a cage) near the field area.

At Ole Miss, there’s pre-game activity of all kinds in a place called “The Grove,” a not-to-be-missed venue in everyone’s collegiate football experience.

At Kentucky, there are games at Stoll Field (for us old folks) or since 1973 at Commonwealth Stadium/Kroger Field. (There’s always been something strange about naming a sporting venue after a grocery chain, but life takes a number of fascinating turns.)

When the UK band strikes up Stephen Collins Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” Kentucky fans (and perhaps more than a few Tennessee fans as well) may not know all the words, but when the chorus swells to “Weep no more my lady,” it’s definitely something special.

When you’re at Notre Dame, you never know when the home team might warm up in the traditional blue jerseys, yet come out for the game in their green shirts. That was a big deal.

That happened in a national championship season for the Fighting Irish in 1977 against Southern Cal. Longtime Notre Dame fans who were there that October day remember the electricity in the stadium.

The Fighting Irish are tough in blue shirts, tougher in green. They’re also not bad in white. Whatever the color of the jersey, you’re still playing Notre Dame.

There are SEC venues so loud during the game that seismometers have gone off in academic buildings when particularly big plays have happened. There are times on the field an observer can’t hear the person standing next to him because of the noise. That happened at Legion Field against Alabama in 1993 when the Tide scored and converted a two-point conversion to steal a 17–17 deadlock from the good guys.

Getting to the game on the road can be interesting. Some all-too-exuberant partisans at Auburn rocked the Tennessee team buses from side to side in 1990. For many fans, “one-finger salutes” are the insult of choice.

At Georgia, Florida, and LSU, for example, there are those fans who line the player’s entrance and yell “Dog Food,” “Gator Bait,” or “Tiger Bait” as the Vols (or any other opposing team, for that matter) enter the stadium. To be fair about it, there are also Tennessee fans there, cheering on their heroes. It’s all quite exciting.

Occasionally, there are times fans—the word fan is short for fanatic—on both sides get so agitated that being on the field can be dangerous. There was such a situation in Knoxville at the end of the Florida game in 1998 and likewise in 2000. Who could forget the celebration after this year’s Tennessee-Alabama game that seemed to last well into Sunday morning?

Steve Spurrier did his post-game media conference after the 1998 Florida game in a small boiler room at the south end of Neyland Stadium because medics were treating a broken arm or two and other similar injuries from the post-game celebration in the main media area. It wasn’t pretty.

Finally, there was a Tennessee player at Arkansas in 1999, who shall forever remain nameless, who was so caught up in the post-game Razorback excitement that he was spotted amongst the Arkansas fandom before finally being escorted by a staff member to the Vol dressing room.

Playing on the road, particularly in the SEC, has never been easy, but that’s what makes the games away from home so challenging and exciting. It’s always been a thrill to go into somebody else’s house and come away victorious.