Postgame audio by Dave Hooker
They lined both sides of Volunteer Boulevard, fidgeting and looking intently to the west. Finally, someone said, "Here they come."
And here, in fact, they came. Lane Kiffin's first Vol Walk. He won't ever forget it.
The crowd surged off the curbs and into the street, a crush of orange that reduced the path to single file.
Kiffin was in the lead, dapper in a khaki suit and sunglasses, a security officer attempting to part the throng ahead of him. If Tennessee's new football coach is claustrophobic, he disguised it well.
A few steps behind, assistant coach Ed Orgeron whooped and laughed and high-fived everybody. Far to the rear, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, a man old enough to be retired and fishing on a day like this, cavorted like a sophomore on spring break.
On they marched, the crescendo growing as they approached Neyland Stadium.
"I've never seen anything like that,'' Lane Kiffin said later.
"The whole day was unbelievable.''
For four months, Tennessee fans have been sizing up their new football coach, mostly from arm's length. They've read and listened to what he says - and then to the reactions of others about what he says.
Saturday, there was no arm's length. It was a day to get up close.
Kiffin realized as much Saturday morning when he looked out the window during a team meeting in the football complex.
Orange folks were lining up to get in Haslam Field for Fans Day.
"It was two hours before it started,'' Kiffin said. "I was just blown away from it.''
So he scheduled a mini-Vol Walk, the team parading through the fans to get to the pregame meal.
The real Vol Walk was something else. Normally, fans stay on the curb, leaving the street clear for their heroes. Not this time.
"It was really crazy,'' said defensive end Chris Walker.
Crazy was good.
"I really thank our fans,'' Kiffin said. "It was exactly what we needed today.
"We needed to find out who among our players was going to thrive in that environment and who was not.''
The fans did their part to create a game-day atmosphere. They turned out, 51,488 of them, the second-largest spring crowd in UT history.
Their presence and their enthusiasm could only be construed as a warm welcome for Kiffin and the winds of change he has brought since he was named coach Dec. 1.
"I'm on board completely,'' said Michael Mackey of Powell, while waiting for the Vol Walk to arrive. "It seems like he's really juiced to get things turned around.''
There's no disputing the fact that Kiffin has, uh, juiced UT football. He has made headlines both with unexpected recruiting successes and with brash comments that puzzle national pundits, infuriate rivals and are applauded by Tennessee fans.
"I'm enthusiastic about everything he's saying,'' said longtime fan Ron Weaver of Kingsport.
"Anything he can say about Florida or Alabama, that's great.''
Added Paul Nicholson of Nashville, "It's helped put us back in the limelight. I love it.''
The day also included a cameo appearance from the man who was in the limelight for the past 16 seasons.
It was a bit surreal to see former coach Phillip Fulmer materialize at the Wolf-Kaplan media center at the stadium prior to kickoff.
He popped in for a short press conference about receiving the Robert Neyland Award, sitting in the same seat at the same table where on Nov. 3 he emotionally addressed being fired.
Asked to don his TV analyst hat and assess the coming season, Fulmer had a good line.
"I'm an alumnus first,'' he said. "I think we're supposed to win 'em all.''
Happily, there was love to go around. The fans who were welcoming Kiffin with such fervor treated Fulmer to a standing ovation when he was introduced before the game.
But this was Kiffin's day, without question, one long embrace.
Once the game kicked off, his offense even cooperated with some much-appreciated fireworks.
In the big picture, this was a celebration of a new beginning. In the smaller frame, however, it was an ending. Spring practice is over.
That means nearly four months of waiting until the pads go on again.
"I wish we could keep going,'' Kiffin said. "We've got so much to do to become a championship team.''
His fan base wants so very badly for that to come true.
The next Vol Walk is Sept. 5. Get your spot early.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276.