When the SEC expanded to take in Missouri and Texas A&M, not everyone applauded. That includes your humble correspondent.
But there are several thousand Texans who would loudly disagree with me.
“We love it,’’ Steve Adkins said late Saturday afternoon, standing in Reed Arena in College Station, Texas, wearing an orange Tennessee cap, processing what he had just witnessed.
What he had just witnessed was Tennessee’s four-overtime, 93-85 win over Texas A&M, the first of presumably many ventures into the Lone Star State by the Vols now that the Aggies are SEC members.
I asked where Adkins was from.
“Morristown,’’ he said.
I had meant where in Texas, but Adkins was answering from the heart. He’s a Tennessean.
He and a couple of other Adkins made the drive up from Spring, Texas, just north of Houston. The Houston alumni chapter secured a block of tickets.
Last fall, UT’s soccer and volleyball teams came to College Station (and won). The Aggies’ pool was full of Tennessee divers and swimmers Saturday at the SEC championship meet.
But Saturday was the first SEC visit to A&M by one of UT’s marquee sports. And the debut was more than anyone bargained for — Tennessee’s first four-overtime game in history.
“It was great,’’ Adkins said. “Exhausting but great.’’
The Dallas alumni chapter also bought a block of tickets. It was a longer drive than Houston, but Matthew Harding wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
Fort Worth is where Harding gets his mail, but it was obvious where his real home is.
“Knoxville, born and raised,’’ he said. “Bearden High School.’’
Harding is a 1992 UT grad who came to Texas to continue his education at a seminary in Fort Worth.
When the news broke that Texas A&M was joining the SEC, there was cheering from UT alums from Texarkana to El Paso.
“We have a huge Tennessee fan base in Dallas-Fort Worth,’’ Harding said. “It’s one of the strongest chapters in all of the United States.
“So we’re absolutely ecstatic to be able to come and see our boys play.’’
The alumni chapters organize football-watching parties several weekends in the fall. On TV, of course.
One day before too many years pass — the SEC has yet to announce football schedules past 2013 — the UT fans in Texas won’t need a TV. They’ll come to Kyle Field and watch the Vols in the flesh.
“It’s going to be outstanding when football gets here,’’ Harding said. “Playing against Johhny M. (Manziel, the Aggies’ Heisman Trophy winner). We’re going to see Tennessee bring it.’’
He got to see Tennessee bring it Saturday on the basketball court. The Vols trailed the majority of the game and much of the first three overtimes. Then at the end, they’d make a play, find a way to hang around. Finally, they dominated the fourth overtime chapter.
It’s safe to say no one who made the trip will ever forget UT’s groundbreaking SEC venture to Texas A&M.
“You go into Florida,’’ said senior Skylar McBee, “you know ‘this is Florida.’ You go into Kentucky, you know, ‘this is Kentucky.’
“This is a new place. It was a little bit different feel. But when we got in here and started playing, it felt like an SEC game.’’
At the final horn, it felt like one of the biggest Tennessee wins in recent memory. The locker room celebration hit a level that reminded McBee of that stunning, short-handed upset of No. 1 Kansas in 2010.
That was in Thompson-Boling Arena. This was in the middle of Texas, a state with which Tennessee has a proud historic link.
For the couple of hundred UT fans that made the pilgrimage to Reed Arena it was a day to remember in its own right and also the start of a new era.
Up in the stands, Matthew Harding remained long after the final horn. He looked down and watched his 13-year-old son, John, mingling with players, coaches and other UT fans.
“It’s a rite of passage,’’ Harding said, “for him to get to sit here and experience Knoxville, Tennessee, right here in College Station, Texas.’’
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at strangemike44.