Fans are notorious for setting the overall mood, year-in and year-out. Tennessee fans are no different, as the usual notes this spring begin to creep into conversation. "It's going to be a good year!" or "Oh, I can't bear to watch." Regardless, the stewards of Vol fandom speak, and I'm there to record it for posterity.
But this year I couldn't wait for the fall, so I headed home to the Tri-Cities, and then returned to interview a few Volunteer pilgrims living in the land of Bulldogs. With a few good questions, and a couple of silly ones, I embarked on an interview semi-pilgrimage.
My first stop was back to my old stomping grounds in Kingsport. Here I encountered friends, neighbors...and Virginia Tech fans?
Stepfather and his best friend George (Virgina native, state line five minutes due NE).
Me: (stepfather) Pap, do you think Coach Dooley has a handle on things this year?
George: Hey, is this gonna be on ESPN, or Sports Illustrated?
Me: No George, it's on the web. I'll explain after the interview.
George: You gonna ask me anything about Tech?
Me: No George, I'm writing about Tennessee.
Do you like the staff changes this season?
George: I don't give two craps about the Vols, but I like Dooley. I'm going home, call you later Pap.
George departs rather dejectedly, singing the Virginia Tech fight song as he pulls out of the driveway, and before I can ask again my stepfather launches into a rant.
Pap: Well...I don't like the fact that Chuck Smith was supposed to be this tremendous hire and now he's out the door. He's still a Vol-for-life, mind ya, but still I'm betting he stepped on Wilcox's toes or something like that. And that Sirmon fella they brought in looks like he's an old pal of Wilcox; he played okay for Fisher and the Titans...ahhh we'll see what happens. We won't know anything until they blow the whistle.
As I depart many, many, many hours later, he hits me with this.
Pap: Palardy can kick right? That's what you told me last spring, I sure hope he can do better than Lincoln, we ain't got anybody else, do we? John?
Me: Call ya later, Pap.
After a short drive I stop in to visit an old friend, Jeff Brittle, who happens to be a displaced Gator fan in a land of orange. As I pull up, I notice Jeff has replaced his old plastic, Gator-head mailbox with one made from bronze. It is an in-your-face gesture to his throngs of Vol neighbors.
Me: I notice you have a new addition.
Jeff: Yeah, I couldn't resist. I saw it on eBay and figured I hadn't p***** anybody off for awhile, so I was due.
After a brief explanation and some reminiscing we begin.
Me: Jeff, personally I think Tennessee has a chance to do better than fourth place in the SEC this season, what's your take?
Jeff: Hmmm, well as much as I would like to say Florida will be the winner I think they lose a stunner to somebody, hell, might even be Tennessee...I said MIGHT, get that grin off your face. Anyway, Muschamp has too much on his plate this year, too many new faces and each one of them more worried about keeping their job than winning games. To be honest, I have Tennessee and Georgia battling for second place.
Me: What do you think of Dooley and the staff he's put together?
Jeff: Don't really know that much about Chaney, but he put together a scary drive last season. I'm more worried about Wilcox and Heistand honestly. Those guys actually did about a hundred miles on a gallon of gas. The talent y'all had was pitiful, and then they turned em' into SEC players. Now they get those same kids back (Jeff does a pitiful imitation of a scary ghost with raised arms).
Jeff and I trade a few barbs back and forth before departing. I pause in his driveway, wait until he shuts the door and I then deposit my youngster's diaper in his new bronze gator mailbox. We're friends, so save the comments.
I spent the rest of the day exploring my old haunts collecting a variety of quotes, from the barber shop, bait and tackle, and Wal-Mart.
Kingsportian: Yea, I think we can win it all next season, not this year...but next.
Kingsportian: Don't care what they do as long Hamilton is gone.
Kingsportian: I miss Fulmer and Chavis, they were like family...well maybe not Chavis, he's got his nose up Miles's (expletive).
Kinsportian: I hope they start that Worley kid, Bray p***** me off with the whole...you know, right?
Kingsportian: It wouldn't bother me at all if they spent more money on the students than remodeling the stadium. You know, my daughter is there right now, and I just know her tuition is paying for that new stadium stuff.
Me: Mam you know they do a lot of fund-raising, and a lot of people including alumni help pay for that stuff.
Kinsportian: You sound just like they do...do you work for UT?
Me: No mam, I'll pass along your concern.
After a scolding from my mother for not coming home more, I return to the Peach State, by way of Hounddogs, for some brand new orange apparel (Volunteer stuff isn't exactly on the rack way down in Atlanta).
During my trip home, I recieve no less than six phone calls from George. He explains to me the nuances of Hokie football: past, present, more present and future. He gets mad and hangs up on me each time when I explain that I am not writing about Virginia Tech.
The next day in Atlanta, I drop by a local pub that, ironically, displays proudly a lot of Tennessee paraphernalia. Duece, the proprietor (a Knoxville native), knows me well and we have a chat over cold suds.
Me: Deuce, how do you see the season going this year?
He forces me at gun-point to drink another ale before he begins.
Deuce: I'm worried every season; I haven't felt comfortable watching since Casey Clausen, and even then he made me nervous.
Me: Okay, do you like Bray?
Deuce: Not really, no, he's a little brash for my taste. He's got an arm on him, though. Dooley will have to straighten him out this spring. Maybe Simms and that Worley kid will make him shape up. Now that kid looks intriguing, and I hope Simms gets some snaps. He was a good leader last year, just fell short more times than he needed to, to be respected more.
Me: How do you think the defense will do if Janzen Jackson doesn't come back, and do you think Wilcox can break out this year as a top DC in the SEC?
Deuce: Uhhh...I think this is a make or break year for Wilcox; the defense will always birth leaders to fill in for guys like Reveiz and Jackson but if Wilcox doesn't turn out All-SEC numbers, he will definitely be on the hot seat. Dooley won't have a choice...you know?
Another patron sits down, points at my recorder, I ask if I can record his queries and he jumps in on the fun.
Patron: Tennessee won't beat Alabama, (it) will win every game except for LSU and Bama.
Me: Wow, that's a pretty heavy prediction. You mind me asking how you decided on that?
Patron: Don't ask me how, but Chavis has Chaney's number, there won't be a single trick that he can pull that Chavis won't be able to counter.
Me: Okay, so the protegee still gets schooled by the mentor with Bama...is that what you're thinking?
Patron: Yep, Saban knows what he's thinking, and Dooley won't get by that for another season, plus it's at Bama.
Me: Okay so the Dawgs, Cocks, and Gators are free-game?
Patron: Well the home factor plays in for Georgia and Carolina. Neyland will be so loud it'll sound like a continuous loop of Rocky Top.
Again Deuce abuses me by forcing more suds.
Me: Alright, what about Florida? It's at Griffin.
Patron: Weis is OC right?
Me: That's what Muschamp says.
Patron: He'll mess it up like he did at Notre Dame, he'll try to play Patriot football with college sophomores and Dooley will leave a lot of Gator fans in crocodile tears.
I snicker a bit, pay my bill, and hand my wife the keys as she shakes her head at me.
Well...I don't know if I caught the flavor and spirit of the fans, but it sure was fun to try. All of the interviews were by real fans with verbal agreement for release of comment. Hope you enjoyed. And by the way, I guess that spirit meter is a little unsure, still.