Grantland Rice, Knute Rockne, and Fred Russell Are Not Laughing

Yesterday. Maureen was off to a luncheon and then took Sarah to see her Aunt Patsy, who is recovering (well, thank goodness) from surgery. The afternoon, actually pretty much the whole day was mine.

i did a few productive things, but generally screwed off as i am wont to do. Old man privilege, you know.

Then, i sat down in front of the television. Yes, i have knocked all sorts of sports, professional and even college. But after all, this was Tennessee and Vanderbilt playing for all of the marbles…oh, excuse me that was about 100 years ago when they played each other for all of the marbles. This time, they were playing to escape embarrassment and dump that embarrassment all over the other team.

i should have been happy, Vandy escaped embarrassment by a score of 42-24. i am a huge Vanderbilt fan in case you weren’t aware. i should have been overjoyed.

i wasn’t.

Happy for Vandy. Yes. But there was an emptiness there.

Growing up, i was fascinated with both teams. i loved…no, i worshipped football, and these two teams along with the Lebanon High School Blue Devils and Castle Heights Military Academy Tigers were my idols. They were front and center in my life from August to New Year’s Day every year from my first recognizable thoughts until i joined the Navy.

The Bob Neyland and Bowden Wyatt Volunteers were far and away the Tennessee superstars in those days. But i rooted for both the Commodores and the Vols as well as my high school teams. i spent copious hours learning about the stars of all college and pro teams.

The Vols and the Commodores remained almost equal in my adoration until November 29, 1969. UT was my favorite because of their success and their idiosyncrasies. When they quit wearing high top black football shoes, stopped donning only only orange jerseys and white pants, gave up the single wing, and i became a student at Vanderbilt, my favorite switched  to the ‘Dores, but i still rooted for both teams except when they played each other.

But on that fateful day 48 years ago, i flew into Knoxville from my ship in Norfolk and attended the game in Knoxville with Vandy friends. We sat in the closed end zone. Because of the timing, i wore my Navy service dress blue ensign uniform to the game. Throughout the game, the Vol fans surrounding us, cursed us, denigrated us, and threw coke and whiskey on us.

i remain not enamored with many Vol fans but i root for the team, again except when they play Vandy.

So i should have been just fine Saturday. But i wasn’t. i felt an emptiness. It’s not fun to watch a team get beat when they are down. i wanted both teams to win. To see a proud tradition with my memories of games in Neyland Stadium, sitting in the end zone or on the northwest corner hill when that end was still open, on a crisp, cloudless day was magic. It was college. It was Tennessee. It is no more. There is this dearth of loyalty. When they built that behemoth stadium for capacity bragging rights (and money of course), and then dumped Johnny Majors followed by doing the same to Phillip Fulmer because they didn’t win enough to satisfy the blood thirsty, it changed.

Now the Vols’ culture is an athletic administration searching for an answer and a conglomeration of fans, many, if  not the majority of which are sore losers. Some even denigrated Vanderbilt after Friday because their team got beat, badly. Go figure.

That is sad.

It is also sad UCLA after several good seasons, but not quite the pinnacles they reached three or four decades ago, fired a good coach, and hired a bounty hunter. Chip Kelly had a good record at Oregon and a bad one with the Philadelphia Eagles. He will be paid $23 Million over 5 years. That makes Kelly the highest paid state employee in California. Hmm, that makes some statement about priorities.

It wasn’t sad to learn the results of “rivalry week.” Top rated teams fell like dominoes, including the top two, Alabama and Miami, getting whacked by Auburn (Earl Major is smiling) and Pittsburgh. This of course, throws the whole bowl and playoff system into an uproar. And that’s bad for these folks. They are going to lose money. Oh, okay, they aren’t going to make as much money.

The results also point out the absurdity of a playoff system and the ranking systems. A good football team can beat a great football team in any one game. That doesn’t mean one team is better than the other. It means one team won and one team lost, and no one ties because the frothing at the mouth fans and administrations AND the coaches didn’t like ties.

Brain injuries may kill the sport. It is already becoming more and more of a freak show. i confess i have mixed emotions because playing the game (a defensive linebacker, not the running back star for which i dreamed), even practicing, was some of the finest, most rewarding moments of my life. Yet, i am very glad my grandson is not interested.

It is sad the college game has morphed into something making no sense. It wasn’t perfect, but growing up, a nine-game season and five bowl games seemed like its own heaven for this fan. Conference championships were determined by the season record against the other conference teams. The rankings were subjective and created all sorts of dialogue. Today, those rankings, just as subjective in spite of all the stat gurus, strength of schedule, computer input and famous committee members are just as subjective but creates venom at perceived injustices.

Back in…lord a mercy, i find myself writing “back in my day,” but it was back in my day, there was a symmetry to the season. Nine games, not a ridiculous twelve, no real patsies for warming up,  conferences maxing out at ten schools in a region, not some giant and rich organizations running a conglomerate of teams across the country. Back then, there were traditional rivalries, regional for most of the games. A conference champion was declared and the winners of the major conferences with some nod to independents (yes, i liked Notre Dame and Penn State being independent) went to five, FIVE bowl games, played on New Year’s Eve, one: the Gator Bowl, and the other four, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, and the Rose Bowl (from east to west on your radio dial), the  on New Year’s Day.

Over. The season was over. January Second. Every year.

i think Grantland Rice, Knute Rockne, and Fred Russell would agree with me. It’s sad.



3 thoughts on “Grantland Rice, Knute Rockne, and Fred Russell Are Not Laughing

  1. I’m in your corner. As my apathy becomes more front and center there’s still that lifelong love of the game trying to drag me back into the fold. So, periodically I check my Golf APP to see how long I must wait for the 2018 tour to begin.

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