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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.