A Rivalry Made in (Southern Appalachian) Heaven is All Talk

The Southern Appalachians region between Blacksburg and Knoxville is some of the most beautiful country found anywhere. This view is from Mt. Rogers in Virginia near the Tennessee border. Photo by NorCalVol.

I grew up in Kingsport, about four miles from the Virginia border. Four miles separating Vol territory from Hokie land. When I was a kid, I would listen to the Vols’ game on the radio on Saturday afternoon. Then on Sunday, I would watch the highlights show.

But I would also watch the Virginia Tech highlights show on WCYB-TV from Bristol, the town that is half in Tennessee and half in Virginia.

When it came to football, that state line, only four miles away, was like a foreign border to a kid. So watching the Sunday Tech highlights show back in those days was like peeking into a secret, made possible only because of living next to a state line.

But culturally, we were of the same region. The Southern Appalachians. The Ridge-and-Valley Province. Some of the most beautiful country in the U.S.

Southwest Virginia and Upper East Tennessee were the same region in the winter when it came to the snow reports and school closings on TV and radio. In summertime we were the same region because of the Appalachian League — one of baseball’s rookie leagues that had teams in towns from the region’s two states: Wytheville, Marion, and Pulaski in Virginia; Johnson City, Kingsport, and Bristol in Tennessee. The league still thrives.

Highway 11W connected Blacksburg and Knoxville by running through Bristol and Kingsport, later replaced by I-81 connecting with I-40 just short of Knoxville. And what emotionally, and for many, spiritually, connected Upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia was the music. Bristol, situated about halfway between both schools, was the real home of country music, where many of the first recordings were made, and just a few miles and a couple of ridges away from Maces Spring, home of the Carter Family.

Culturally, we are cut from the same cloth.

But football? You would think we were located 3,000 miles away.

Different conferences since 1933.

  • Virginia Tech: Southern Conference (1922-64); an independent (1965-90); Big East (1991-2003); ACC (2004-present).
  • Tennessee: Southern Conference (1921-32); SEC (1933-present).

In the long history of both schools, Tennessee and Virginia Tech have only played seven times. Seven.

  • 1896, 1897, 1899, 1911, 1933, 1937, and the 1994 Gator Bowl.

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The Bristol Motor Speedway, which would have served as a most bizarre site for a college football game.

Much was once made of a proposed football game pitting Tech against Tennessee at the Bristol Motor Speedway, ever since Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports, in 2005 offered each team $20 million to play the game inside the race track. One of the problems would have been the timing. The game would have had to be a November date after the annual fall race date (Nextel Cup Race), because the infield would have had to be leveled and a playing surface brought in following the race. Scheduling a non-conference, neutral field game in November would be difficult because non-conference games at that time are generally played at home as a homecoming affair.

The plan idea caused a lot of excitement. Then, in a fog of non-information, the plan idea fizzled.

Additionally, holding a football game at the racetrack would now seem highly impractical following the recent construction of a large scoring pylon and four-sided video screen in the middle of the infield (see photo).

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During a teleconference earlier this month officially announcing the two programs’ participation in this year’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Tennessee and Virginia Tech athletic directors Mike Hamilton and Jim Weaver intimated that they were close to a deal for a game at some point over the last couple seasons before changes to the infield in Bristol killed it, and now the fact that their future schedules are both tied up for about 10 seasons seems to have stalled any energy to get serious about establishing a series. Here is what the principals had to say (sources: Times NewsGVX Article).

Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton:

“We’ve talked about it periodically, we’re not opposed to doing that… We’ve talked about it as recently as a couple months ago as a possibility for down the road, but the first availability we had was for like 2019 or ’20. We’ll go back and revisit that at some point… And a little-known fact, I don’t know that we really shared this, we actually did throw a date out there at one time with Bristol Motor Speedway. That’s been talked about a bunch and it didn’t work out as something they could have done… They made major changes to their infield and that sort of ended up being the end of the discussion.”

Virginia Tech AD Jim Weaver:

“There’s no question our fans have wanted this game for a long, long time… . They’ve been talking about it as long as I’ve been here going back 13 years…I even talked to Doug Dickey about it before Mike took over… That (Bristol Motor Speedway) thing kind of came out of the blue and I think everybody got excited and then there wasn’t any other communication…”

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As was suggested to me by Ryan (furrer4heisman) who is the main writer over at Gobbler County, the fine Virginia Tech blog, A Tech-Vol annual rivalry game would be akin to a Georgia-Clemson series (which has become intermittent). SEC-ACC. Neighboring states. Similar geographic regions.

Makes sense?

Yes. Absolutely. I would be all for it as a fan. Remember, I grew up practically standing on that state line.

But I don’t think Tennessee wants to do it badly enough. Perhaps not at all. Look at the future home-and-home series that Tennessee already has locked up: Oregon, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Nebraska, Ohio State, Southern Cal. With the exception of North Carolina, the goal seems to be “get out of the back yard.”

I think the addition of the North Carolina series is nostalgic in a way. The Vols and the Tar Heels played every year from 1945-61 and many years before that. Also, another ACC school probably would rank above anybody else in terms of setting a home-and-home or even an annual affair. That would be Georgia Tech. The Vols and Yellow Jackets played some of the greatest games in the history of Southern football. They were top rivals for years in the SEC. And Georgia Tech’s greatest coach, Bobby Dodd, was a Vol All-American (and a Kingsport native I might add).

But new times are meant to make new traditions. I would love to see Tennessee and Virginia Tech establish a regional rivalry. It could be a great one. No development time would be necessary.

I just don’t think it will happen.

But I am thankful this year’s bowl matchup did happen to allow us to dream about the possibility of a rivalry made in (Southern Appalachian) heaven.

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COMING UP

MON 28 DEC: TRYING TO SHED A NATIONAL INFERIORITY COMPLEX.

TUE 29 DEC: GOODBYE SENIORS – WE HARDLY KNEW YA.

WED 30 DEC: PEACH BOWL GAME PREVIEW.

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One response to “A Rivalry Made in (Southern Appalachian) Heaven is All Talk”

  1. cgb says :

    But I don’t think Tennessee wants to do it badly enough.

    I agree with this 100%. Tennessee is a national brand that needs to use it’s out of conference games travel outside of its region to promote itself. With that said, an annual home and home between our two schools would be amazing. Tennessee definitely has a longer history of tradition, but as far as modern day football goes I think we are two of the top programs in country and a game between us would be a huge draw.

    Nice post.

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