“It’s a game like any other game.”
-- Rolando McClain on the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry
The history of the Alabama and Tennessee football rivalry extends well before the existence of the Southeastern Conference itself, beginning in the first (or second, depending on how you count these things) year of the twentieth century. Except for a brief span in the 1920s, Alabama and Tennessee have been playing football for over a hundred years. For much of that time, the two schools were seen as perennial powers of Southern football and, sharing a border, it was only natural that a rivalry would ensue.
Occasionally, members of the Old Fogies Club will mention how the tone of the rivalry has changed since their youth. In the past, they say, the Alabama-Tennessee game was as much about measuring your own team as it was hoping they would win. General Neyland famously said, “You never know what a football player is made of until he plays Alabama.”
And, according to the OFC, the feeling was mutual. After all, this was Tennessee.
One imagines that rivalry being similar to those two weekends, years ago, when Alabama played a home-and-home series with Oklahoma. By the end of each game, clad in colors but a Pantone digit away from each other, the Sooner fans were consoling their new friends as much as they were celebrating their team’s win. How odd to share drinks with an opposing fan who says, “you’ll get us next year.” Odder still to imagine those fans were once dressed in orange.
Granted, we have our biases, but we lay a large share of the blame on Phillip Fulmer for poisoning this well. Tennessee fans probably blame--whom, exactly? Mike DuBose? Fine, have at it. Both characters are personae non gratae at their respective schools. What good does blame do now, or ever really? We have reached the volta, and the sonnet cannot be rewritten. After all, this is Tennessee.
Plus the game itself isn’t as important as it used to be. The rivalry most Tennessee fans care about today is with Florida (for example, the kid replacing the fat guy didn’t mention us in his introductory press conference to win over the fans). Even without Fulmer’s decline at Tennessee or Alabama’s rough waters through sanctions and coaching changes, this would likely still be true because of the conference’s two-division structure. In today’s SEC, a loss to Alabama in October would hurt Tennessee but it would never serve as a tiebreaker.
And what is an anomaly for one generation will become the nostalgia for another. Eventually, the new Alabama fans will look at their calendars and assume the rivalry is called the Third Saturday in October because Tennessee fans can’t count to four.
Or, if Rolando McClain is our example, they will not know it by that name at all.
Do not be disappointed in McClain’s statement, Alabama faithful. An athlete of his caliber does not get “up” for games, even rivalries. Rather, he is in his most natural state on the playing field. A place where he may finally liberate his solitary potential for physical excellence, withheld in our frail, papery world during the rest of the week.
In a profile of Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace wondered what tennis looked like to the game’s greatest player and imagined it a strange thing. Not the tennis we see from the stands, but a game where beach balls float toward Federer’s racket and are guided by his will to obscure places across the net. Such is the game of football to Rolando McClain, who runs past statues dressed like football players and summons opponents to his waiting and unyielding arms.
But despite the Great Leader’s unparalleled recruiting skills, no team is ever filled with eleven Rolando McClains. And surely one of the surprises Saban has found in Tuscaloosa is how young men of lesser ability are willing to commit themselves to his insane demands for the sake of this empty air, tradition. “It’s definitely Tennessee week,” to quote safety-turned-linebacker Cory Reamer. “You just get that feeling.” Tennis looks like tennis to Cory Reamer.
Perhaps it was a return to “that feeling” from the old rivalry that Lane Kiffin sought to evoke when he requested permission for his team to wear their home orange on Alabama’s field this Saturday, a tradition ended in the 1960s. Mal Moore, survivor of many Third Saturdays as player, coach, and ultimately Alabama’s athletic director, denied it outright.
It’s a petty thing to do, sure, but this is Tennessee. No battle is too small to fight.
Also, it is hard to trust Kiffin’s motives. His public identity is founded on bucking trends and dumping the past. It commands a willful ignorance to forget that his quick rise to head coach was bolstered more by his father’s name than his own innovations. However, Tennesseans are just the people to display that commitment to ignorance.
If 65 percent of them believe that the flu vaccine is a government plot to weaken their resolve to socialism, then accepting the enormous coincidence that the best head coaching choice just happens to be the son of the NFL’s most influential defensive coordinator is small potatoes. After all, this is Tennessee.
Not that having the son of a coach lead your team is necessarily a bad thing (recent history excluded). Our own Great Leader is himself the son of a coach, albeit a Pop Warner team in West Virginia. Mostly though, Nick Saban Sr. spent his time running a gas station. But according to Tennessee’s new head coach and lead recruiter, there’s nothing to be valued in pumping gas.
Our own coach may have different feelings on this matter:
By the time I was eleven, I was spending my afternoon and parts of my weekends pumping gas, washing cars, putting air in tires, and checking and changing oil under the ever-present eye of my father. Saban’s Service Station was full service—and I mean full. . . . We did it to perfection. I would wash cars with my hands and a bucket but after inspection from my father, I routinely had to wash them again. At the time, I could not understand his standard of excellence. But what I learned from my days at the gas station was to do a job right and not settle for anything less than the best.
(How Good Do You Want to Be? reprint edition [Random House, Inc., 2007], 37)
One wonders, after the game, when the coaches shake hands, will Lane Kiffin be asked what it’s like to have his ass kicked by the son of a guy who pumped gas for a living.
It would be a petty thing to do, sure, but this is Tennessee.