The Rich Fabric of Tennessee Volunteer Football
On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat To The End of an Era. By Clay Travis. ItBooks; 337 pages; $25.99.
It is Monday, September 1, 2008. In the visiting locker room of the Rose Bowl Stadium, Phillip Fulmer, the second most successful coach in Tennessee football history in terms of wins, on his birthday, has just led his warriors in reciting Robert Neyland’s Seven Game Maxims. He then instills in his troops a feeling of timeless tradition before they take the field to open the 2008 season opener against UCLA: “Believe in your brothers all the way back to the twenties that have said these Maxims. Understand what you stand for by putting on that orange shirt and that T on your helmet.”
In less than three months, Coach Fulmer will be fired, and that timeless tradition will be tested by the hiring of a complete outsider, Lane Kiffin, who as we know now, will also be gone a season later.
Clay Travis, a sports columnist, an attorney living in Nashville, the grandson of a Vol who played for General Neyland in the 1930s, and an unabashed Tennessee football junkie who did not attend UT but traces his Vol fandom to watching the 1986 Sugar Bowl victory over Miami as a six-year old, was given access to the locker room and the sideline to write a book about a season that became one of the most memorable in the annals of Volunteer football.
Coming off an appearance in the SEC championship game the previous season, Mr. Travis had visions of writing a book about his Vols not only competing for the SEC crown, but also perhaps for the national title as well. But when Mr. Travis witnesses his Big Orange open the season on the West Coast with a flat tire, and then attends perhaps the worst football game ever played when UT and Auburn bore the living daylights out of a national audience, it becomes apparent to the young author that his dream of chronicling a magic season on paper is just a mirage.
But what develops is far better from a writer’s point of view: the developing story of the end of a bygone way of managing a football program; the “final capstone of the era when the SEC went national… the final man to be born in the state where he coached, the final head coach to be a graduate of his school” writes Mr. Travis. It is an epic story of the fall of a once greatly respected coach who now was seen as a well-liked family man whom the game had simply passed by. Mr. Travis had unexpectedly been handed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a sportswriter.
A Long Cast of Characters
On the road from that season opener at UCLA, to Fulmer’s “funeral” at South Carolina, to the embarrassing homecoming game against Wyoming, and finally to the swan song against Kentucky, Mr. Travis lets us meet many characters along the way.
We meet Charlie Harris who drives the equipment truck to all road games. Charlie, a 65-year old Vietnam veteran, has been the driver since 1999 and is known as “Good Time Charlie.” He once wrote his own book, a self-published fantasy about truck driving, and Charlie takes Mr. Travis to Columbia, South Carolina for the game against the Gamecocks and fills us in on some funny and serious stories.
We meet John “Thunder” Thornton, a multimillionaire booster and best friend of Phil Fulmer who is furious with UT Athletic Director Mike Hamilton in the way that Hamilton has made comments to the press after the loss at Georgia that he is not afraid of making a coaching change before the season is over. Thornton accuses Hamilton of wanting to be known as the greatest AD in the county and full of blind ambition and thinks that hiring Bruce Pearl (UT’s current head basketball coach) was the worst thing that ever happened to Hamilton.
We meet Bill Stokely III, a man in charge of major fundraising for the University of Tennessee and the grandson of William B. Stokely, Sr., one of the early important names in Vol gridiron lore. Bill likes Coach Fulmer as a person and acknowledges that he took UT to the mountaintop but says he hasn’t been able to keep them there. Now, Stokely, in the wake of the Georgia loss, has no confidence in Fulmer’s Vols turning the ship around, and saw in the opener at UCLA the same thing that he saw in the opener at Cal the season before: a team that was fat, sloppy, and uninspired. “When all the fans can tell you what the next play is going to be” said Stokely, “something’s wrong.”
We meet Mike Hamilton, the new breed of athletic director. An accounting major at Clemson University, his biggest accomplishment was helping to coordinate the release of 365,000 balloons at the 1984 Clemson-Maryland football game – still the Guinness World Record for the most balloons ever released at the same time. After working in the athletic department of Wake Forest, he answered a newspaper advertisement and came to the UT’s AD in 1992 and worked his way up the ladder to when in 2003 he was named the replacement of the retiring Doug Dickey.
We meet Vol running back Arian Foster who is chasing UT’s all-time rushing record. Vol fans know Arian more for his fumbles than anything else. We don’t really know the Arian Foster who, seated on the bench during the Georgia loss is approached by a fan in his 30’s who says, “you ain’t worth a shit, you fucking quitter, you fumbling asshole, you quit on this team.” But, we come to know the Arian Foster that is a philosophy major who after finding out about Fulmer’s firing through the national media writes a poem of such beauty and depth, makes one ashamed that you once cussed your television set because a running back fumbled the ball.
We meet Offensive Coordinator Dave Clawson. Hired by Fulmer to guide the Vol scoring machine, the orange offense instead gets bogged down in its own complexity and soon becomes the object of scorn from the Vol defensive players and the whole of the Volunteer fanbase. At halftime of the Georgia game, Clawson gives his frustrated offense their instructions: Mr. Travis humorously and expertly explains to us the core problem, “His instructions sound like a foreign language: “Okay, we’re going to run razor forty-eight Shuler bingo wings tecno thirty-six bukkake at them. Got that? And if they counter with bama bangs micro machines full down forth-two blue, then you know we’ve got to counter their counter with blade gonzo vampire bgid pink dolphin sixteen, right?”
We meet Inky Johnson, a 5’9”, 150 pound former cornerback of the Vols who was injured against Air Force on September 9, 2006, the injury so severe that he nearly had to have his right arm amputated because all five nerves in his shoulder were severely torn. Inky during the 2008 season, with virtually no use of his right arm, is a graduate assistant on the Vols sideline and tells us that the fans only “want you for those three hours and then they don’t want you anymore.” The fans just don’t understand the risks the players take every Saturday.
We meet senior LB Ellix Wilson, who in the pre-game locker room in Columbia, South Carolina lets all of the frustrations of the 2008 season come out in a soliloquy of rage mixed with tears of such raw emotion that I wanted to turn away.
And, of course, we meet Phillip Fulmer, who as a boy in the small town of Winchester, Tennessee dreamed of becoming a dentist because the DDS was the wealthiest guy in town. But Phil saw his dream fall apart when he made a D in chemistry on The Hill, took the class again and made another D. As Coach Fulmer told Mr. Travis in an interview for the book, “same professor, same class, same seat”, he knew football would be his future, not dentistry.
And, we meet others, too many to summarize.
The Inner Sanctum of History
Mr. Travis also lets us see the inner workings of two major events of the 2008 season: the firing of Phillip Fulmer; and the hiring of Lane Kiffin.
After the Florida loss, Hamilton went to several UT boosters and asked them hypothetical questions about firing Fulmer: “How would you recommend I fire Phillip?” By the Alabama game, Hamilton has begun conversations with a group of eight people he trusts – four from inside UT (including president John Petersen) and four major boosters from outside the school.
Then after the loss at South Carolina, Hamilton summons Fulmer to meet him at his office on Sunday November the 2nd. By this time, Hamilton’s eight advisors are all in agreement: Fulmer must be fired. After Hamilton informs Fulmer that he is being relieved of his position, Fulmer requests that he be able to break the news to the team and the coaches prior to anything being announced. All the players and coaches, one by one, learn of the firing through the national media.
Mr. Travis takes us to the emotional team meeting with their fired coach, after which the team walk out when they learn Hamilton wishes to also speak with the team. We are then taken to the public press conference, and the parting question to Hamilton from senior wide receiver Josh Briscoe, “Why has it become more important to make a dollar than to keep the Tennessee family and the Tennessee tradition that we’ve had for years?”
The book takes us, from game to game, through the hopelessness of the on-field situation that seems to never end. Yet, in the end, we are confronted with Phillip Fulmer the man, who is shown to be a person that is impossible to dislike, impossible to disrespect, and almost impossible to discard. Mike Hamilton is seen almost as a ruthless, cold-hearted killer, but yet is shown as a euthanasia practitioner who delivers what the overwhelming majority of the Vol Nation knows what is necessary. The only question is who is the right man to replace the good man from Winchester.
Mr. Travis also takes us to the inner workings of the replacement search. On the Thursday of the open week after the Wyoming embarrassment, Hamilton meets his trio of search colleagues – all UT athletic department employees – at a Shoney’s restaurant. Their first interview will be with Lane Kiffin who Hamilton believes has already interviewed with or is a serious candidate at Syracuse, Washington, and Clemson. Hamilton eventually meets Kiffin in Atlanta for the first time on November 13 when Kiffin presents Hamilton a detailed recruiting plan and news that his father can join him on the Vol sideline. Meanwhile, the public thinks that Butch Davis, UNC’s head coach, is the leading candidate.
During the following two weeks, Hamilton also interviews other candidates who Mr. Travis believes include Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Turner Gill (Buffalo), Brian Kelly (Cincinnati), Gary Patterson (TCU), and a telephone interview with Mike Leach (Texas Tech). A scheduled interview with Will Muschamp (Texas) fell through because he signed a coach-in-waiting deal four days before the scheduled interview. According to sources of Mr. Travis, Troy Calhoun was the Number Two choice. Lane Kiffin was Hamilton’s Number One choice.
Then on November 23, Hamilton phones Kiffin and wants to meet him in Dallas. They meet the next day and watch Green Bay and New Orleans play on MNF and then hold an official interview on November 25. Kiffin has already put together a list of potential staffers, including Ed Orgeron. On November 28, the day after Thanksgiving, Hamilton makes the job offer and Kiffin accepts. The Saturday morning papers show Kiffin’s picture – the same day that Fulmer will coach his final game for Tennessee.
The timing is eerie, almost sickening.
The Insanity of Fandom
Another person we meet is Mr. Travis. He opens himself up to the reader – his immaturities as a fanatic follower of the Tennessee Volunteers. Getting ready for the UT team bus trip to Athens for the Georgia game against the 10th ranked Bulldogs, the Vols are 2-3 and desperate to save their season. While Mr. Travis is sitting outside the indoor football complex, the Vols’ starting center Josh McNeil walks by and recognizes him. Mr. Travis responds, “We need to win some games so I don’t have to jump into the Tennessee River. It’s been tough.”
A seemingly innocent comment, made only to create sound to fill in a moment that seems awkward only from the point of view of the fan, not the player, because the fan is the intruder, finding himself outside his boundaries, in the territory of the worshipped player.
Life’s lessons come in surprising ways from unexpected teachers. Sometimes they come from others who by using your own words and actions, metaphorically show who you are to yourself, and to others, in that moment, by putting a mirror in front of you, a mirror constructed with your words of incredible shallowness.
McNeil responds, as Mr. Travis describes, staring deep into his fan’s soul, by saying: “It’s even worse when you get the shit beat out of you for seventy plays.”
Throughout the book, Mr. Travis admits to himself that the closer he has been allowed to get to the UT football program, the more insane his own fandom seems to himself. He starts to wonder whether the players aren’t smarter than the fans.
The Richness of It All
Parallel to the incredible chaos, disintegration, and eventual sadness of the 2008 season, On Rocky Top is a confessional of a fan coming to terms with the idiocy of fandom, the insanity of his internal Big Orange Country. We learn that it doesn’t have to be insane, but we just know that it is. And why it is. Luckily, Mr. Travis tells us over and over. He weaves the history of Tennessee football and its rich traditions throughout the book, which makes On Rocky Top a good introduction to Tennessee football to any football fan regardless of allegiance.
Particularly emblematic is how he describes the beginning of a Vol Walk at the Lettermen’s Wall, where several players run their fingers gently along the grooves of the names engraved on the granite wall – “a tangible connection among generations of Vols.” Earlier, Arian Foster had told Mr. Travis that the all-time Tennessee rushing record wasn’t as important to him as being remembered as a Tennessee player. “That’s what it’s about, belonging to something bigger than you.”
And that is what Mr. Travis has brought us with his second book – something so much bigger than merely one season of Tennessee Volunteer football.
On Rocky Top was released before the 2009 season. It was only after that (yet another historic) season did I get around to reading Mr. Travis’ work. I’m glad I waited. I’m not sure what I would have made of the book if I did not know how the final chapter, the spring of Lane Kiffin’s first season, really ended.
Whoever is writing the book on the Kiffin Era at Tennessee has a tall mountain to climb in order to achieve what Mr. Travis has done with the last season of the Fulmer Era.