UT soccer rings evoke considerable smiles from fans

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The soccer team unveiled its SEC championship rings on social media on Sunday – and Tennessee fans took notice immediately. Why? The logo.

The Lady Vols logo has nearly faded from use by soccer since then Athletics Director Dave Hart decreed in November 2014 that it would no longer be used, except for women’s basketball, starting in the fall of 2015. Pat Summitt’s legendary program also had been on the logo chopping block, but fans rallied with petitions, emails, phone calls and demonstrations until UT had to back off that sport. Summitt, who died in 2016 from Alzheimer’s disease, couldn’t take up the fight when rumblings about the logo’s removal started in 2012, and fans perceived it as an attack on an icon. (Maria Cornelius wrote about the logo’s origins on a napkin sketch here.)

The logo ban lasted for two full cycles of athletics seasons – and those same fans never stopped fighting for its restoration in all sports, including getting state legislators involved, which ended up allowing a compromise with a commemorative patch – until then Athletics Director John Currie, who had replaced Hart, announced in 2017 that it could be used among all sports as those programs decided, from golf balls to batting helmets to alternate uniforms. The teams also could shed the Vols moniker if they wanted and return to the use of Lady Vols.

Several sports, including softball, tennis, golf, rowing and volleyball, embraced the change immediately and restored the logo in multiple places, including as social media profile photos. Meghan Gregg, who played at Tennessee from 2015-18, bookended her career. On Sept. 14, 2017, the day the ban was lifted, the infielder from Williamson, Georgia, posted on Twitter, adding orange and blue hearts: I started my college career as a Lady Vol, and I get to once more be a Lady Vol for my senior year! #LVFL

UT women’s softball helmet. (UT Athletics)

Soccer used the Lady Vols logo at times initially, but as time went on, it pretty much faded from public view minus an occasional appearance.

And that is why the photo of the rings on social media in 2022 drew such a strong reaction from Lady Vols fans. The orange logo is prominent as is the color blue.

Soccer underwent a coaching change this spring when Brian Pensky left for the top job at Florida State, a powerhouse in women’s soccer. Joe Kirt, whose tenure at Tennessee goes back to 2007 as an assistant coach, took over the soccer program in April. (Maria wrote about Kirt here.)

It should be noted that it takes awhile to get championship rings in hand for a team. The rings honor the 2021 season, and the soccer players received them in July right before training camp started for the 2022 season.

The design of the rings would have been done while Pensky was still at Tennessee, so he was on board with it. The decision by Currie five years ago to restore the logo meant it was an option to use it for the rings. Had Hart still been at Tennessee – and had his decree still stood – the soccer team would not have even been able to use the logo on the rings.

Hart, who hired Pensky, had made it clear that only the Power T was to be used by the women’s teams, minus basketball, of course, because Summitt’s squad of thousands had squashed that. (Hart’s contract ultimately wasn’t extended by Tennessee when the dust finally settled, and he opted for retirement. The logo controversy that engulfed the board of trustees and the legislature was a factor.) The coaches in the other sports could not even say Lady Vols in a media interview. In a place where irony went to die, the university also launched a One Tennessee initiative.

It was Women’s Athletics Director Emeritus Joan Cronan, speaking at a benefit for The Pat Summitt Foundation with Summitt in attendance in 2015, who said: “We have always been One Tennessee.” That one sentence brought loud cheers inside the Tennessee Theater packed with Tennessee fans – Lady Vols and Vols – and from Summitt.

The reality is that the logos had always coexisted well until the failed attempt to bury one. Hart also was the perfect hatchet man to carry out a plan that actually had been batted around on and off for years before he arrived in Knoxville under a perception that the Lady Vols somehow detracted from the Gentlemen Vols. What everyone miscalculated on the inside and outside was the public reaction. Had Summitt not been compromised by a brutal disease, she would have explained it to them quite well.

It remains a baffling and shortsighted decision and probably could be used on the academic side as a case study in what not to do in business or marketing. It enraged a fan base, became a boisterous topic outside of board of trustee meetings, engaged the time of lawmakers, became an issue in a governor’s race and led to loud Lady Vols chants on nationally televised games. Since then, Tennessee has had two more athletics directors in Phillip Fulmer and Danny White. The arrival of White and Chancellor Donde Plowman has restored stability to the state’s flagship campus.

Tennessee soccer players surround coach Joe Kirt at his introductory press conference. (Photo/UT Athletics)

In the meantime, the soccer team wants to repeat its championship feat and has returned to the pitch to get ready for the 2022 season. An exhibition game will be played Aug. 9 against Notre Dame in Louisville, Kentucky, on the field of Louisville City Football Club, a professional soccer team. Tennessee will host an exhibition game at home against the University of Dayton on Aug. 13.

The games count for real starting with a trip to Chapel Hill for a match against perennial power North Carolina on Aug. 18. The regular season home opener in Knoxville is set for Aug. 25 against Southern Methodist University at Regal Soccer Stadium.

“We are excited to get back on the field this fall,” Kirt said. “The majority of last year’s SEC Championship squad is returning, and we are bringing in a very talented group of players in our 2022 class. Our team is excited for our non-conference slate, knowing it is great preparation for the league games that follow.”

Go Lady Vols.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press. 

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