UT football: Many things for many people

Marvin Westwestwords

(These westwords were written long ago, September 15, 1978, to be precise. Every year since, this column has been read aloud by Jim Martin and his Volunteer friends in a conference call before the kickoff of each season.)

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Now comes the beginning … a Tennessee football Saturday (or Thursday in this case) is a precious time. There are so few to appreciate.

Green leaves and sunny optimism are with us now but it won’t be long until we get the yellows and oranges of autumn and the red of Alabama.

In such a short time, there’ll be browns and Vanderbilt and maybe a touch of snow.

“If we beat UCLA, we can go 9-2” one player said.

“If we beat UCLA,” said a fan, “we could have a bowl team.”

To everybody who knows the story, Tennessee football means winning. It has been that way since the early days of Neyland. Success is expected of Tennessee, by Tennesseans and the outside world. The Volunteers, through the years, have occasionally been caught on the yo-yo, like all teams, but there have been far more ups than downs.

That’s what it is all about, being up. The emphasis is on finishing first with a proper tip of the cap to that Grantland Rice rhyme about how you play the game. No one has hinted that losing, over an extended period, would be tolerated.

Tennessee game days are mountaintops. People are everywhere in a swirl of excitement, hustling from home to parking lots to the gate to their seats, to be an hour early. Tomorrow, if I’m on schedule, I’ll pause a minute or two, out of the flow. The gathering is a sight to see. Many march down the streets and sidewalks, confident Tennessee will win. Others, more realistic, have on their game faces, primed for a struggle.

What is this strange magnet which draws so many to the arena, even when there is no UCLA as a foe? What is Tennessee football?

To me, it is Neyland and the great stadium which bears his name. It is the tradition, the time when the Vols had the finest 50-year record in America. It is the bid for perfection that was the Harvey Robinson single-wing, great goal line stands, an emphasis on the kicking game.

Tennessee football is traffic jams, boats on the river, white mums with orange ribbons, crisp newspaper columns and books. It is the 83,000 (then) who keep coming back and those who wish they could, beautiful people.

Tennessee football is the thousands who have put on helmets and pads to make the record 511 victories, 219 defeats and 44 ties over 81 years.

It is Tim Townes and Vernon Hueser and Moose Barbish. It is the Swamp Rat and Blue Max. It is Doug Atkins and Doug Archibald, George Cafego and George Canale. It is the Hal Wantlands who won on courage if the game went beyond their ability. It is the Karl Kremsers who missed a field goal and survived and the Gene Etters who ran out of their shoes.

Tennessee football is a pre-game cookout, a tailgate picnic, a post-game party. It is a row-by-row reunion, a society parade, a status star if you have a ticket near the 50.

It is Doc Julian’s band and Smokey and a walking horse and spontaneous cheers and assorted illegal bottles of strong drink smuggled past eagle-eyed guards assigned by the board of trustees.

Tennessee football is an occasional Chattanooga or North Texas State, a humbling upset which jars The Establishment. It is orange shakers, Gus Manning counting seats, Boyd Smith singing the Alma Mater at halftime.

It is an all-week replay at the office or factory or barber shop or bar, about why and how things happened as they did. Nothing dominates talk around town, not taxes nor politics, as does Tennessee football.

The Vols are a great melting pot, an equalizer where 19-year-olds with new cars and rich parents have no edge over those who bagged groceries and mowed lawns.

For Lee North and James Berry and other freshmen dressing out for the first time, Tennessee football has to be a wide-eyed “Wow!”

For Robert Shaw and Frank Foxx and other seniors, it is the start of their last roundup, hopefully the beginning of the best memories in Knoxville. For Bob Harrison and Robbie Franklin, assistant coaches, it is the same question, how will the ends play?

This Saturday will be an emotional meeting of those who work and watch, a chance to do something big together, to hitch a ride on a rocket or, if the Orangemen must lose, to do it with class.

The weekend is the beginning … again. Tennessee football never ends.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]

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