The loyalty of the Vol fan base

By Tom Mattingly

Sometime in the days before the 2001 Cotton Bowl, Tennessee versus Kansas State, local media personality Tony Basilio stood in the lobby of a Dallas hotel, watching the endless stream of Vol fans dressed in orange and white get ready for the game.

He’s a big-time admirer of the Tennessee fan base and says so at every opportunity. He’s their biggest supporter, their most ardent advocate.

“I love the fans,” he said. “They’re something special.”

He was right. It wasn’t too long after that he named his Knoxville radio show “The Voice of the Common Fan.”

Fans do what it takes to get to the games, jump through whatever hoops have to be jumped through, and endure the implications of whatever happens on and off the field, win or lose. It’s not easy, but they do it anyway. Supporting the Vols is an article of faith.

Road trips may start on Friday and end on Sunday, or maybe it’s one monster trip to Tuscaloosa, Auburn, or Athens that begins early on Saturday and ends very early on Sunday.

Sometimes fans may not know exactly when they’re leaving or where they’re staying, given the ever-changing vagaries of game times, but they always seem to get there and enjoy themselves immensely.

Then there was one memorable moment on a Saturday morning in Duluth, Ga., that cogently illustrates the responsibilities of being a fan. Following your favorite team wherever they’re playing is no easy task. It just looks easier when somebody else does it.

In this case, the issue was getting to the 1996 Tennessee-Georgia game at Sanford Stadium in Athens, just down the road from Duluth. The discussion happened that morning, with kickoff still several hours away.

Here came the question from a wife to her sports-hardened husband: “Are we going to the game tonight?”

It seemed to be a legitimate question and also sounded quite innocent, maybe even pleasant. The answer came quickly, directly and to the point.

“This isn’t Cobb County versus Gwinnett County,” he said. “This is big-time college football. You have to get the tickets, find the parking pass, and set up the tailgate. You have to plan these things. You just can’t decide about it on the spur of the moment.”

Loyalty to a school or athletic program really knows no bounds. I’ve seen it all first-hand. There was once an obituary in the Knoxville News Sentinel that contained all the standard stuff about the deceased, with one significant addition.

After a discussion of the dearly departed being a great Alabama fan, among other positive attributes, here came these memorable words: “ROLL TIDE ROLL!!!” Then it was back to the narrative.

How much more loyalty could you have?

There have also been obituaries that have similarly mentioned long-term loyalty to the Vols or Lady Vols or both.

I spoke at a funeral in July 1998 that ended with a couple of surprises. A man and his wife, Bronson and Blanche Potter of Knoxville, had died on the same day. He had been a Tennessee football fan since 1912 or 1913, having seen both Gene McEver and Peyton Manning play over that time frame.

When Shields-Watkins Field celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1996, he was invited to share his recollections of how the stadium had developed, since he had been present for the opening game of the 1921 season, when the field was christened. He hadn’t missed very many games, home or away, over the ensuing years.

His wife had been a professional dancer, having danced with Irene Ryan. Ryan was better known as “Granny” on that 1960s CBS television classic, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Blanche once told Bronson of a long-ago beau named “Red somebody.” She couldn’t remember the full name. He was a football player, she said.

Bronson was curious. “Red Grange?” was his query, not expecting the answer he received.

“That’s the one,” she said. “Was he somebody?”

So, how did they close the service?

For her, it was the plaintive “Swan Lake,” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. That was impressive. For him, it was something quite different. It was Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s classic composition, the much-beloved “Rocky Top.”

Somehow, both were appropriate.

“When you’re a Vol fan,” former Knoxville Journal sportswriter Russ Bebb has written, “you’re already halfway to heaven. You are expected to dress louder, yell louder, spend more, suffer more, exult more, and care more. You usually go everywhere the team goes. You mix and mingle with friend and foe alike. You revel in victory and die in defeat. But either way, you always come back for more.

There’s nothing like loyalty, Basilio says. You can’t manufacture it. You can’t describe it. You just know it when you feel it. It’s a great feeling.