Tom Mattingly: Geography of no concern for schedule makers in neutral-site games

Sometimes you have to wonder if football schedule-makers or promoters ever took a course in geography.

In an effort to make intersectional games "work" (that is, making them palatable for media exposure), geographic considerations often take a beating.

There was, for example, the Tennessee-Iowa game in the 1987 Kickoff Classic V at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., a venue located a considerable distance from campuses in Knoxville and Iowa City.

The Vols won 23-22 that day, before a small Sunday afternoon crowd. ABC had the telecast nationwide. Freshman tailback Reggie Cobb made an impressive debut. Darrin Miller ran 96 yards for a score after grabbing a fumble. Phil Reich kicked the game-winning field goal with mere seconds to spare and earned a scholarship as a result.

There also was Tennessee versus Colorado, Aug. 26, 1990, in the Disneyland Pigskin Classic in Anaheim, Calif. NBC had the broadcast.

Andy Kelly led the Vols back in the fourth quarter, twice overcoming 14-point deficits. Kelly was 17-of-26 in the fourth quarter for 236 yards, with touchdown passes to Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper.

With time running out and the Vols heading goalward, Chuck Webb tried mightily to get out of bounds to set up a game-winning field goal attempts by Greg Burke, but the final horn sounded seconds before he could do so. The final that day was 31-31.

That was then.

This is now.

Take a look at the 2011 SEC schedule, particularly the opening week.

"Neutral site" games seem to be in vogue. (There's considerable talk, for example, that Tennessee will play North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome to open the 2012 season, although the schedule for that season has not been released.)

This year, LSU and Oregon are playing at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, site of the most recent Super Bowl.

Georgia and Boise State open up their seasons at the Georgia Dome.

Both games offer national championship-contending teams and the prospect of considerable bragging rights for the winners and their conferences. It's hard to believe, but national-championship hopes could go out the window for two of the combatants.

It's a long season, but every loss seems critical. In today's landscape of college football, every game is sudden death.

On the other side of the coin, we find Kentucky and Western Kentucky playing on Sept. 1, not in Lexington or Bowling Green, but in Nashville, at the Titans' stadium down by the riverside.

This contest not only takes the idea of a "neutral-site game" to a new level, but adds in the concept of a "neutral-state game" as well.

That makes thoughtful football fans wonder.

Isn't there something strange about two teams from the Commonwealth of Kentucky playing a "rivalry game" in Tennessee? No one has really broached this subject.

When all is said and done, and the game is in the record books, however, everybody will be happy.

Kentucky will have a chance to pick up another win against the Hilltoppers.

Western gets its chance for a history-making win.

Both teams will get a big payday.

Kentucky has played in the Music City Bowl enough times in the past few years for their fans to have more than a passing acquaintance with Nashville. Western fans can motor down I-65 on game day and easily be home after the game.

While it was disconcerting to think of Ole Miss and Mississippi State playing their home games against Tennessee in Memphis, Tennessee played the two Magnolia State schools there on a regular basis until the early 1980s. The times have changed, with the Vols now playing in Oxford and Starkville as the schedule dictates.

When UT athletic director Bob Woodruff was negotiating the series with UCLA in the mid-1960s, he sold UCLA officials on the idea that Memphis Memorial Stadium, site of the first game in 1965, was a "neutral site."

UCLA head coach Tommy Prothro, a Bluff City native who obviously knew better, dissented.

"Playing Tennessee in Memphis is like playing Notre Dame in Rome," Prothro said.

Tennessee won that day by a 37-34 count, and the stage was set for a great intersectional rivalry, played for the most part over the years in early September. Since that first contest in Memphis, the Vols and Bruins have squared off in Knoxville, Los Angeles, and Pasadena.

In his media conference after the game, Prothro was hot under the collar about the officiating to the point of saying, "For the first time in my life, I'm ashamed to be a Southerner." All that did was raise the ante for future games in the series.

Neutral-site games, particularly early in the season, are great for the respective fan bases, especially the winners. If the coaches don't seem to think that's the case, they're not speaking up.

Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.

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Comments » 4

ZacharyUTK writes:

Naaaaahhhhh....

Ichabod writes:

Halls Shopper

Ringleader writes:

"Neutral" Site games are fine, so long as you have a fan base that travels.
UT no longer travels well, we have over 5,000
Florida tickets unsold, and you mentioned we
did not travel well to New York. At least, we
should show up in Atlanta.

delta_flash writes:

Playing a game a year in Memphis would be very smart for recruiting.

The short-term negative economics - whatever the broader impact of building better teams by claiming more players from the talent-rich Memphis area - ensure that it will never happen.

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