Mattingly: Traditions fabric of college football

In this business, you can never be sure how readers will react to stories you write.

That was the case several years ago about the importance of the tradition, pomp, and pageantry that surround college football.

The story suggested that the frame of reference fans bring to the game is what separates football played on college campuses Saturday from the brand played in often-sterile arenas in big cities on Sundays (and Mondays, maybe Thursdays).

Fans have a perspective about tradition. They know about the teams and players who have gone before. They know that each football Saturday is special.

The fans bring a unique perspective, a unique frame of reference, to the games, simply because they might have grown up watching their school play, might have attended the games with their future spouse, and wouldn't dream of rooting for any other team, despite the occasional ups and downs every team experiences.

Many Tennessee players may have come from across the country. Vol fans end up adopting them, each as one of their own. Many players have stayed here past the end of their collegiate careers, making their mark on the fabric of UT and Knoxville society.

All that seemed to be an exceptionally rational concept until one reader had his say.

After very careful deliberation, a reader named "Tennessee Tuxedo" wrote and postulated the following idea:

"Mr. Mattingly is a very nice man. He and others can get all caught up in the pomp and pageantry of game-day traditions. While they can believe that is the most important thing to them, for others, having a winning program and a program that gives its best effort each game is more desirable than fan-oriented traditions. Think that fans would show up to see those traditions if the team were losing? We saw the answer to that in 2005 and 2008."

That was an intriguing comment, especially the "nice man" part.

Usually the "nice man" part is followed by a zinger, much the way people say something nice, then add a clause that begins with the word "but."

Let's consider what he said, carefully and cogently.

If it is true, that winning trumps everything, why do we have school colors, alma maters, homecoming, checkerboard end zones, and the ambience of game day?

Why do fans make special efforts to get tickets and the parking pass, prepare the tailgate, and fight the good fight to get to the games 11 or 12 Saturdays a year?

Why do we have stadiums much larger than those of 25 or 50 years ago?

Why does Tennessee expend the effort to build a Wall of Fame with the names of those who have gone before etched into stone?

Why do sportswriters and other journalists write books that recap the exploits of their favorite college football teams in great detail?

Why are sports talk radio and the newspaper or other chat boards so popular?

Why does Alabama, just to give one example, have each year's captains sign their name and put their handprints in cement outside Denny Chimes on campus, even those who might have led losing seasons?

Why are rivalries fought not only on game day, but also throughout the year, often day after day?

Why do we have these endless (and wonderful) debates over the best players and the best teams at nearly every school in the country?

Why do fans worry, excessively, it seems, about the fortunes of every potential recruit who is "mentioned" as a possibility to play for a particular school?

If not for the fans, would there even be athletic teams? If it weren't for the fan experience, what would the News Sentinel sports pages look like? Would there even be a Knoxville News Sentinel worth reading without its exhaustive coverage of the Vols and other area sports teams?

Without the fans and their experiences following their favorite team, would we be having this "debate?"

The idea that the love of tradition, pomp, and pageantry cannot peacefully coexist with a similar desire for winning football is naive, to say the least.

It's also disappointing.

Vol fans are so demanding because of their perception of what has gone before. They have experienced the "Promised Land" of winning football, been to the mountaintop, and seen the other side. If fans don't see that occurring, there are a ton of questions raised (many with raised voices) and more than a few empty seats.

Worse than that, there are often seats occupied by hordes of visiting fans.

If you don't believe that, think about the second half of the 2008 Alabama game, Alabama 29, Tennessee 9, when Neyland Stadium became Bryant-Denny Stadium north, with the crimson and white in the stadium being overwhelming.

Consider this.

If we don't know where we've been, tradition-wise, how can we know where we're headed?

Most fans understand these very simple concepts.

Unfortunately, some don't.

Tom Mattingly is the author of "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), now available in second edition at fine bookstores everywhere, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian." Send comments to

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Comments » 7

volatlakeoconeega writes:

Well said...while winning has a lot to do with it...consistent excellence over time (not necessarily every single year) is what builds the tradition...I think I know of what I speak because I have been a season ticket holder since 1968.

Coach_K writes:

The Pomp, is EVERYTHING to some of us. I go to just about every Titans home game and as much as I love doesn't even come close to be at Neyland. I love my Vols with all my being. I could not be that way with any other team. I have been attending U.T. games since I was a baby (literally). Nothing could every replace the orange in my blood!!!

volunteers4life writes:

Glad to hear it 'zilla.. I hope the hundreds of thousands of us vol fans out there show up en masse this year to support our program. We are in a very fragile time of rebuilding now and we need to be there for our team now more than ever.

orangecountyvols writes:

In reference to the above topic of tradition........
one thing I've noticed over the years is the game day atmosphere itself. The Vol Walk, Volunteer Village, the "man in the green jacket" in front of the U T Center selling tickets, the BBQ vendors, the cheerleaders and band in front of the stadium, etc,etc all this precludes the the game itself.

However, watching and listening to the band making its way to the game playing Rocky Top, and the pregame on the field...........notice the excitement
evident with the fans. To me, that excitement is all well and good, but..........that's the band. The real reason to go to the game is football itself and the team playing well and hopefully winning a game is the genuine tradition.'s great to have all those pieces fitting together with football itself, and there is your tradition !

woodwr#217203 writes:

Some colleges do not have much tradition and some pro teams have some tradition.

Most helpful to College football tradition is the steady generation long rivalries which make certain games almost as important regardless of the standings. For Tennessee, beating certain teams is more important than beating other teams, but among the pros a win is a win, because only playoff games really matter.

The Student-athlete who plays only a few years and might start only one year, has winning a particular year matter WAY more than sooner or later. The Chicago CUBs have "wait until next year" but UT-seniors know their last game is their last game. Poor Scotty Hopson and the seniors he disappointed will remember that free throw attempt forever.

For Students in college, being at the game while a student is different from the rest of their lives, when they might be mere alums at any year's game.

Adults sometime lose or change pro-team-loyaties which are where you live, but my college team represents those key years, the degree, the chosen home, not just where the employer or spouse relocated me.

Ole Miss loves their traditions and they haven't won the SEC since....

AllforTenn writes:

Well put. Tennessee football overflows with tradition. It is what places such importance on beating an opponent with a tradition of its own. That is college football!

Ralph_Crampton writes:

Tom allow me to come up with some tidbits about high school football in the Volunteer state...I'm a tad older than you and I ask you if you ever heard of little Dayton...about 8o miles southwest of knoxville. In the late 30's a lot of high school teams played what we we then called "Ringers". Some fellows in the city of Dayton toyed with the idea of bringing in top players who were several years older and better. It was top secret then...The Dayton players hurled a challenge to some of the best teams in the state to pose as a warmup game. Many teams accepted the offer. Dayton was than coached by former Alabama running back by the name of Robinson. He installed the Notre Dame shift that placed the Dayton tailback direcrly behind center. The teams Dayton played were run over roughshod...and stunned by a team who whipped them with ease....He challenged Chattanooga Central,,,but Central turned them down, next he turned to Knoxville Central...considered by many a top high school in Tennessee.....As it turned out the Dayton boys gave Knox Central one of the toughest games of the season. Playing at Right guard was future Vol playing for Central by the name of Bob Suffridge, (Considered by Neyland to be one of the finest high school he had ever seen). The Knox team had nothing but praise for Dayton, but won a close one. By this time, the Dayton team was attracting wide attention aroun Central Tennessee. The very mention of "Ringers" was mentioned, but Dayton continued to win...they even rented a bus to Florida to play the besr team in the sunshine state...Don't recall who won...but game was thriller...Dayton played football on the was to Florida and mixed basketball games on the way back. Arriving in Dayton with oranges galore that they hurled to fans. But the good times were about to end,Dayton was to meet Rockwood at Rockwood and one of coaches spotted a player who he knew quite well. It was Dayton's plunging fullback, "Chummy Dodd" the Rockwood coach attended Tenn, Tech and was on the football same tech team with the Rockwood coach. That incident spoiled Dayton's season and coach Robinson was ran out of town. Several of their team's opponents had complained that some of Dayton"s players were already shaving? Look for more about Dayton's fighting yellowjackets later.

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