Rivalries are the essence of college football.
Rivalries — and I mean “real” rivalries, not just the “Oh, I really hope we beat Team X” sort of competition — are what drives so much of the passion that comes with college football season and what compels so many of us to travel great distances, expend huge sums of money, lose sleep, risk personal injury, get arrested for disorderly conduct, and the like for the sole purpose of seeing our team play against our fiercest rival. It is the fire-in-the-belly that keeps us coming back for more. It is a question of pride, of respect, of tradition, and (sometimes) insanity.
The funny thing about rivalries is that they are not always two-way streets. That is, just because Kentucky Wildcats fans feel in their heart that the New England Patriots are their most intense and hated rival, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Patriots care about Kentucky at all (except to the extent that Bill Bellichick is willing to rent a helicopter and hire some off-duty FBI agents to tape the Kentucky practices, but that’s really nothing the slightest bit out of the ordinary).
My point is this: rivalries are special and they require … the only word I can think of is “maintenance.” As the old axiom goes, “there is a thin line between love and hate” — they are opposite ends of the same consuming emotion. In our “real” lives — independent of the sports world – strong relationships or aversions require something to keep them going. Anyone who is married (or perhaps used to be) knows this is true. By the same token, for most people, the same is true for hateful relationships (the exception to this being people like Adolph Hitler, members of the KKK, and the like – they simply enjoy hatred too much, which is why they have special condos reserved for them at the warmer end of Hell). For most of us, however, it is hard to continue truly despising someone, unless they give us a reason to do so. The fundamental point here is that, over time, both good and bad emotions cool and fade.
The same is true for college football rivalries. The peculiar thing is that, unlike personal relationships, a heaping helping of animus and acid can be a good thing when it comes to football. Thus, keeping the flames of animosity burning is very important. Thus, I pose a simple question:
What is the “state” of football rivalry at Tennessee?
As a general rule, I think that the core rivalries between Tennessee and others are healthy and hateful. Then again, precisely who is Tennessee’s biggest rival?
Throughout the history of the Tennessee Football program, rivalries have often been heated, but not always lasting. For orange-blooded fans who came of age at any time during the period spanning from the late 1950s up until the early 1990s, there really was little question about who the Vols’ most despised rival is and always will be. Falling within this era, it is easy for me to give rivalry a face…
I know the true colors of mine enemy, and he is as crimson as blood in the vein.
Yes, for me Tennessee’s greatest rival will always be the Alabama Crimson Tide — there is no other rivalry in my mind which even comes close. It is a rivalry which spans decades — beginning in the late 1930s and the era of General Neyland, flowing into the late 1950s and 60s and the emergence of the man known as “Bear,” and continuing up to the present. To me, the truest rivalry for Tennessee is its blood-feud with the Tide. The Tennessee / Alabama series is Dixie’s great football war. To me, the most important game of the season will always be known not by its participants, but by its date…
…The Third Saturday in October.
This is what I have always known, this is what resonates with me. For some followers of the Big Orange, however, the face of rivalry takes on a decidedly different hue. Most notably, Vol fans who cemented their bonds in the 1990s — in many instances — consider not the Tide, but the Florida Gators to be the most fearsome rivalry for Tennessee. Given the course of SEC football history for the last 15 years or so, this is understandable.
Still others — due to location, personal experience, perceived slights, the balance of power, where their ex-spouses went to school, how much they’ve had to drink, or whether it is a Tuesday — consider other teams to be Tennessee’s greatest rival, such as the Georgia Bulldogs or the Memphis Tigers (which I simply don’t get).
Thus, I suppose it is fair to ask who is Tennessee’s greatest rival?
If you look at rivalries in terms of tradition and history, I really think it is hard to argue with the notion that Tennessee and Alabama have fought one another doggedly for a longer period of time than any of the other schools in the SEC. My blood still simmers at the thought that Alabama is one of only a handful of schools against whom Tennessee has an all-time losing record. In 89 contests since 1901, Tennessee is 38-44-7 all-time against the Tide. Even more bothersome for me were the two noteworthy streaks by Alabama during my lifetime: 1971-1981 and 1986-94. During those 20 seasons, Tennessee’s record against the Tide was an abysmal 0-19-1.
Statistics like that make you wake up at 3:00 am and retch your guts out — therein lies the birth of rivalry.
Then, of course there are the Florida Gators. Surprisingly to some, Tennessee and Florida have only played 36 times in the schools’ collective histories. Tennessee clings to a lead in the series at 19-17-0. That statistic, however, is really a tale of two different eras. From 1916 until 1990, Tennessee was 14-6-0 versus the Gators, but from 1991 to the present, Tennessee is only 5-11-0. Those numbers speak volumes about the way that series has changed since the day a guy named Steve Spurrier walked into Gainesville and — for the first time in the history of the University of Florida — made the Gators respectable. From there it was a short way to making them winners. It is easy to understand why many modern fans of the Vols seethe with venom at the mention of the U of F.
Of course mere competition and loathing is not the only thing that goes into a rivalry — there are a lot of other elements to a rivalry, including that little thing called “respect.” Even though I consider Alabama and Florida to be Tennessee’s two main rivals in the modern era, the “faces” of those rivalries in my eyes are decidedly different.
I hate to lose to Alabama. Hate it, hate it, hate it with a passion — with all that I am, I hate to lose to those people. Man, do I hate it! I do not, however, hate Alabama — I respect them. No, that does not mean I want Phil Fulmer to start emulating Nick Saban, or anything like that, but as a program — taking all of the history, tradition, fans, and other intangibles into account — I do respect the Crimson Tide. I have often described Tennessee’s rivalry with the Tide as a “classic” or “gentlemen’s” rivalry (and, no, that doesn’t mean that there are pole dancers involved). Speaking from my own experience, I would sum it up like this:
When it comes to the Tennessee / Alabama game, you pull like hell for your team in the stadium, and then you drink a beer with one another after it is over…
My point is that while the Vols and the Tide may declare war on the field — for me — it stays on the field. I can honestly say that any time Alabama is playing a non-conference opponent I pull for the Tide without reservation. The rivalry is one grounded in mutual respect (after all, I think Johnny Majors in his prime could drink just as much bourbon as the Bear — which is pretty cool, if you ask me). I know there are those who will disagree with me on this, but that’s what the rivalry “feels” like to me.
When it comes to Florida, on the other hand, I cannot stand one single thing about that school, and having attended games in Gainesville on multiple occasions, I can honestly say that I’d rather have my intestines removed through my nose … with a spoon … than go back. That would be true regardless of whether Tennessee won the game or not. I am not going to use this article as a flame-fest and just talk about how much I hate Florida, and I’m trying very hard not to let my personal thoughts and bad experiences seep into this too much — there’s no point or value in that. Thus, in the interest of avoiding a slanging match, I will use an example.
As many Tennessee fans can doubtless recall, on several occasions there have been instances where, Florida winning against another team (most notably Georgia) would help Tennessee in terms of the Vols’ ranking in the SEC East. I remember being asked at the time, whether I would pull for Florida if it would help the Vols. My response to that question is as simple as it is heartfelt:
I hate Florida more than I love the Vols…
I will never pull for Florida under any circumstance, no matter how much it might hurt the Vols. Suffice it to say, based on my personal experience I have no respect for the Gators. Not a drop.
That is but one more reason Alabama ranks first in my book…
Thus, the team which I rank as Tennessee’s greatest rival is not the team I hate most — which I suppose is inherently inconsistent. For me, however, a rivalry is something more than unabashed hatred — though it does go a long way toward starting a rivalry. Ultimately, I feel that a true rivalry requires more. For me, that will always mean Alabama. Quite frankly, I don’t think Florida is worth elevating to that status (yep, that one’s gonna get me some hate mail).
Of course, another thing that must be considered if assessing these rivalries is what the rival thinks of Tennessee. For any rivalry to be maintained, the feelings of animosity must be mutual. Let me give you an example.
The reality is that most fans of the Vanderbilt Commodores probably consider the Vols to be their biggest rival. Tennessee and Vanderbilt are only about 3 hours apart, and they both call the same state home. It is easy for Vanderbilt to hate Tennessee. If you ask the average Vol fan, however, it is doubtful that Vanderbilt is anywhere near the top of their list of Tennessee’s rivals in terms of significance. While Vol fans tend to take Vanderbilt more seriously than they used to since Vanderbilt’s 2005 victory against the Vols — snapping Tennessee’s 22-game win streak — with an overall series record of 68-27-5 in Tennessee’s favor, it is doubtful most orange-clad faithful truly despise Vanderbilt. Having been present at Vanderbilt’s 2005 win, there were more than a few Vol fans (already disgusted with Tennessee’s performance that year) who openly congratulated Vanderbilt, or — at a minimum — admitted that the ’Dores were due.
Still, it wasn’t always that way…
From 1892 until 1927, Vanderbilt dominated Tennessee, compiling a record of 18-2-3 against the hapless Vols. The rivalry between the two schools was so great that, in 1925, when it came time to hire a new football coach, Robert Neyland was told that the only requirement of his employment was that he beat Vanderbilt. Keen on maintaining his livelihood, Neyland completely reshaped the dynamic of the Tennessee / Vanderbilt rivalry. Under Neyland, Tennessee began establishing itself as a winning program and embarked on an 82 year stretch during which Vanderbilt would win a grand total of 9 games in 77 tries. With that change, the rivalry rapidly faded into memory — at least for Tennessee fans.
So do Alabama and Florida consider Tennessee to be a true rival?
While I am not going to purport to speak for the Tide or the Gators (and I freely invite any comments from those out there who might actually stumble upon this article) I would imagine that the Vols are definitely an “honorable mention” in terms of rivalry for each. Still, given the fact that both Alabama and Florida have fierce in-state rivalries with the Auburn Tigers and Florida State Seminoles respectively, I doubt that — if polled — a majority at either school would place Tennessee at the top of the heap in terms of rivalry. In fact, at some level, I question whether any school in the SEC other than Vanderbilt would dub Tennessee as their most hated rival. The one other possible candidate might be the Georgia Bulldogs who — for the better part of my lifetime — have seemed utterly unable to consistently find a way to beat Tennessee no matter how heavily skewed the odds are in the Bulldogs’ favor.
I suppose, in the end, Tennessee is everyone’s second most hated team…
Either way, however, I do hope that these rivalries continue to exist and grow in terms or their intensity and fervor. While “true” hatred (and by that I mean real hatred of real people along the lines of the whackos noted at the top of this article) is a terribly ugly and reprehensible thing, I believe that a little faux-hatred directed at another team (not its individual fans) can be a very healthy thing for the game of college football — if for no other reason than to drive those competitive instincts into a fury. While I feel Tennessee’s rivalries with Alabama and Florida are in good shape at present — at least in terms of their staying power — it is always possible that they could fizzle out.
Of course, each fan of each team has the ability to define rivalry in their own terms. So too, changes in the game constantly reshape the landscape of college football, creating new affection, enmity, and apathy. Thus, it is impossible for me to say who Tennessee’s biggest rival will be in 10 years, 20 years, or beyond. I will not try to tell anyone what team they should despise.
I just hope that they find that one team … and keep those fires stoked for years to come.