Ah. The third Saturday in October! A time that used to mean something. Notice that I said "used" to mean something. Over that past 20 years, the heated rivalry that was once Tennessee versus Alabama has lost its luster somewhat.
Why? There are several reasons. Let's take a look at a few.
The Tennessee-Alabama rivalry has always excited us with breakout players, exciting plays, and fantastic finishes. These games usually decided the SEC and would end up either making or breaking bowl bids. These days it's about the rise and fall of a team. Either Tennessee has a bad year or Alabama has a bad year.
I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Alabama a couple of weeks ago. I was at Lake Guntersville (the fishing is great). Now, it took my traveling companion and me about five hours to get there. Man, was I excited. That meant that we would stop at least twice at a store somewhere in 'Bama. I put on my best Tennessee shirt for the trip, and every time we stopped I rubbed my hands together thinking, "This is it! Time to show all the fans in Alabama where my loyalties lie!"
Ha! Every store we visited, including a Walmart, everyone was nice to me! What? Nice? What gives here?
So I thought to myself, "Maybe they think it's a joke. I must be wearing this shirt as a dare or a goof."
Nope. Not the first harsh look. In fact, every time I mentioned football to the average Alabama fan the responses were usually the same. "Man, I can't wait until Tennessee and Alabama can spark that old rivalry again!"
The weird thing is, I felt the same way.
While my work associate and I were at Guntersville, we had the chance to do some fishing there. We were taken out on the lake (beautiful lake) by a professional tournament angler and also an Alabama fan. His name was Sam. "Here it is," I thought, "my chance to drive a big orange stake right through his tiny crimson heart!"
At first you could feel the tension on the boat. I felt like a rattlesnake eyeballing a field mouse. My first instinct was to wait until we got out far from the dock, maybe a nice cove somewhere, and I was gonna wrap that anchor around that puny throat of his and throw him overboard! Wait a minute! How would we find our way back? Well, that idea was out. So I settled on Alabama jokes.
"Sam," I said, "you know I am loaded with Alabama jokes."
"Kevin," Sam said, "I'm loaded with Tennessee jokes." Touche Mr. Sam, touche!
As we spouted off our favorite one-liners and "how many light bulb" jokes, the tension actually eased down to just plain ole football talk.
I asked Sam, "What happened to the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry?" And, "Why are you so nice to me?"
Sam said, "I wish I knew. I would love nothing better than to hate you right now, but I can't for some reason."
After discussing the matter with him for several minutes, we came down to three basic conclusions:
1. Fulmer's declining years. Phillip's final three or four years and his predictable play calling served as a fire extinguisher to an already slow-burning fire.
2. Tennessee's ever-rising hatred of Florida and Alabama's ever-rising hatred of Auburn. It's true. Sam and I came to the conclusion that we want to best out of each other. Anything less means nothing. Now, a Florida fan could care less if Tennessee was zero and forever, as long as Florida could rip Tennessee a new one year after year. The average Alabama fan that I talked to, and I talked to a lot of them, wants Tennessee to be as highly ranked as possible before we play. I feel the same way about Alabama. It just means more.
3. Alabama's road to redemption. Since Gene Stallings, Alabama has had six coaching changes. What does that mean? It means that Alabama has had to find itself. New coaches trying to convince a high school recruit to come play for an already declining team was like trying to convince me that Alabama fans are cool.
I have actually come to a God-awful conclusion. As hard as I tried to really dislike Sam and his other Alabama cronies, I couldn't. Because they want what I want, a good hard-fought game between Alabama and Tennessee once again!
Another conclusion that I came up with? The real obnoxious Alabama fans aren't in Alabama. They live here in Tennessee—oozing out from under the rocks that they dwell under. I like to call them bandwagon fans. They are the ones that will follow any team that has a winning record. Today they wear Crimson, tomorrow it's, "GO BLUE!"
So to Sam and the rest of the Alabamians that I ran into while at Guntersville, thank you for showing me the light. I appreciate your honesty and love for the game. You aren't much different from Tennessee fans at all. As much as I like you right now while writing this article, I will hate you more on that third Saturday in October!