You can always tell how long someone has been following Tennessee Football if you ask them who our biggest rival is. If they tell you it's the Gators, you know they're fairly new at this. Because even though the Florida game has become more important based on divisional alignment and the Gators' success and national prominence over the last two decades...the lifers know that there's only one answer to that question, and it'll always be Alabama.
Earlier this decade, Tennessee Basketball enjoyed a temporary bump thanks to Kevin O'Neill's recruits playing under Jerry Green's banner. I sat in the student section at Thompson-Boling Arena during Green's final two years and Buzz Peterson's first two, surrounded early on by a bunch of 18-22 year olds with little to no sense of history when it came to our basketball program.
They, like me, were born too late for Ernie & Bernie. And even if they were from the East Tennessee area, the basketball pedigree in Knoxville during their lifetimes included the tail end of Don DeVoe and five very long years of Wade Houston. Most of them didn't remember because there was nothing worth remembering, or more likely because they just weren't there at all.
This new blood was so quick to turn on Jerry Green and his final team - which is another story - because in part they had no appreciation for anything that had happened during that four year run of NCAA Tournament appearances from 1998-2001. To those students and anyone else who jumped on the bandwagon when the Vols showed up in the Top 25, Tennessee had never been 5-22 in 1994 or without an SEC Championship since 1982. Tennessee was always good in the student section, and when the 2001 Vols went in the toilet during the second half of the season, those fans were quick to flush them.
Eight years later, Bruce Pearl has instilled something more in the Tennessee fanbase, aiming for his own four year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances but also drawing 21,000+ for games against the Louisiana-Lafayette's of the world and not just the biggest games of the season. And with Pearl has come another group of not just students, but fans of all ages, many of whom are making their first real investment into Tennessee Basketball. And likewise, to them Tennessee has always been good and when we struggle in Year Four, they seem louder about it than perhaps they should.
But it's that question about the biggest game of the season that once again quickly separates the lifers from the rest.
If you asked all of the 21,000+ people that regularly fill the arena these days who Tennessee's biggest rival is, who do you think they'll say?
For many people, the answer to that question would be Memphis.
There's a unique brand of dislike that exists between the Vols and Tigers, between East and West Tennessee. The fact that last year's game between the two schools was so well-publicized and featured #1 vs. #2 certainly helped that idea.
For others who've only been following the Vols as long as Pearl's been our coach, when you consider that Florida won two National Championships in those first two years, the answer would have to be the Gators.
Certainly, you could say that the meetings between Tennessee and Florida in 2006 and 2007 were the most important games of both regular seasons, and Vol fans like that answer even more because Tennessee went 3-1 in those games.
But just like football...even when others rise up or an in-state rival brings a unique brand of hatred, there's a reason that Bruce Pearl doesn't pull out the orange blazer for just anybody.
Because the answer to that question is and will always be Kentucky.
For those who did just come with Pearl or who don't remember, maybe you're better for it.
It used to be that the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry held a level of balance that neither side really liked, but couldn't be denied: in football, the Vols dominated. In basketball, the Cats returned the favor. In November, Kentucky fans yelled "Wait 'til basketball season!", and in January and February Tennessee fans reciprocated.
Tennessee is still in the midst of a 24 game winning streak against the Cats in football, the nation's longest active. But even back in the 90s when that streak was just in its teens, in wasn't just that the Vols beat Kentucky, it was how they did it: scoring at will and often putting the Cats to bed by the second quarter, putting 50 on the scoreboard more often than not.
But during the same stretch, Kentucky under Rick Pitino was owning the Vols on the hardwood, winners of 11 straight matchups from 1993-1998, and going 17-3 against Tennessee until the final year of the decade. And likewise, it wasn't just the wins, it was the how. Once in 1993, Tennessee actually slipped up and beat Kentucky in Knoxville towards the end of the regular season. When the Vols drew a rematch in the SEC Tournament, Kentucky won. By 71 points. That's not the only example, it's just the best one. Of several to choose from.
Back when nobody cared about Tennessee Basketball but we still played in an arena as big as TBA, the Kentucky game was the one game you could count on every year to be an event. Not only did you get to play a team that was almost certainly ranked in the Top 5, and not only did you get to see a ton of future NBA talent, but it was the only basketball game that carried a football atmosphere. Because UK faithful would come by the literal busload from Lexington to Knoxville, packing out the 300 level to cheer on the Wildcats.
Aside from my days in the student section, I've always sat on the second row of section 315 in the upper deck. And my childhood and teenage years are packed full of memories of turning around and looking up behind me, and seeing nothing but blue.
No matter how bad we were, you always entered that Kentucky game with the hopes that something magical might happen, the way it once did when Allan Houston was here. But after he left, your hopes were swiftly dashed before the first media timeout.
During these years of UK's recent prime, Kentucky trotted out lineups that included Derek Anderson, Keith Bogans, Tony Delk, Jamal Mashburn, Jamaal Maglore, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Scott Padgett, Tayshaun Prince, Wayne Turner and Antoine Walker. And the Vols, for the most part, trotted out their usual ho-hum.
And it got dunked on. A lot.
They'd press. We'd turn it over. They'd dunk on us - and not just the average stuff, the Michael Jordan "Come Fly With Me" era stuff - and we'd call timeout. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And then your choices were either head for the exits even though you just sat down, or stay there and listen to that same sound, over and over:
"C-A-T-S CATS CATS CATS!"
In our gym.
If you were a glutton for punishment and stayed til the end to see if we could keep it under 30, you got treated to several renditions of Rocky Top by the UK faithful, who I'm sure viewed the whole thing as a stress-free weekend in the Smoky Mountains with two hours of basketball and a sure W thrown in just for fun. That's how I felt about trips to Lexington for football during the same era, without the mountains.
When the Vols finally beat Kentucky in Knoxville in 1999, 68-61 on the final day of the regular season, my friends and I rushed the court from the 315 level as seniors in high school. To this day, that's my favorite memory from Vol Basketball, moreso than any of the Pearl stuff...because it was the first time I'd seen it with my own eyes. That maybe, just maybe, we didn't always have to get beat by these guys.
Maybe we could start winning.
Some things have changed over the years.
Rick Pitino, who as a Vols and Celtics fan I consider my biggest nemesis in the holistic world of sports, left and Tubby Smith showed up as the Vols were becoming more competitive. Kentucky has always been good, but they haven't been late-90's good, when they were an overtime away from a three-peat. Bruce Pearl showed up and changed a lot of things.
With Pearl and Calipari and the renewal of that series, Memphis' ability to run off 16 free wins in conference play always assures that they'll have a great record when they play us. Florida being in the state of Florida, they're going to be good as long as they don't get in their own way, something Billy Donovan is good at avoiding.
But some things haven't changed. And more important than state bragging rights or keeping up with the Gators, to me, is getting even with Kentucky.
It would take decades to even out the record books, even though no team has beaten UK more than UT.
But what Bruce Pearl has done, in the here and now, is level the current playing field.
Since Bruce showed up, the tally reads Kentucky 3 - Tennessee 3. And what Buzz Peterson started by recruiting Chris Lofton, Bruce Pearl continued by putting him in position to succeed on an All-American level...and followed up by taking Scotty Hopson.
In the present, football still unquestionably belongs to the Vols...and under Pearl, basketball has been a push. And the balance of this overall rivalry is shifting hard towards Knoxville.
And that, my friends, is a very big deal.
It's actually very noteworthy on the other end too, though I'm sure this isn't the sort of recognition that Kentucky fans are used to: Kentucky has beaten the Bruce Pearl Vols more than any other team.
Pearl is an astounding 5-1 against Florida. 2-1 against Memphis and Texas. 0-1 against Pitino in the most important game of his Tennessee career, just to twist a new knife in old wounds.
Tennessee has pulled even with Kentucky right now, but no further. And Kentucky has been the only team to beat the Pearl Vols three times, showing that no matter what the coach or the talent looks like, they're still Kentucky and you're not getting off so easily. It's a lesson the Vols have learned once each of Pearl's three seasons.
Tuesday night, they'll come to Knoxville again. The busloads from Lexington don't come around anymore, replaced by the new breed of Vol fans who have Memphis and Florida circled on their calendar.
But for some of us...we remember. We remember how it used to be. We don't forget people who sing Rocky Top and don't wear orange and blaspheme the words. We'll feel those feelings again when we see the orange and the blue line up for the tip.
Pearl wasn't here to remember, but he gets it. The orange blazer is a witness to the past and a sign of the present.
In five years, if the Lane Kiffin Family doesn't work out and Kentucky continues to make progress as a football team, breaks the streak and then starts beating Tennessee teams that aren't quite what they used to be, new fans will show up in Commonwealth Stadium. It's bound to happen if the Cats ever get really really good; a school that already cares so passionately about one major sport will do it for the other when the product is winning and worth it. Ask Pearl.
These new fans will talk about Louisville and then turn most of their hatred towards Florida, who like UK in basketball is simply always going to be good in football. And when the Vols continue to struggle, they'll take them for granted or put them in a second tier with leftover passion.
But there will be Kentucky fans who remember. Who remember what Rocky Top sounds like over and over and over when it's sung the right way. Who remember Tennessee simply overwhelming Kentucky with talent some years, and then finding every way possible to break their hearts in others. Who remember celebrating when you even came close to beating them.
And they'll look at that younger, newer generation of fans, and tell them no matter what they think now...if Kentucky beats Tennessee in football, you'd better appreciate it.
Tuesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena, if we win...appreciate it. Appreciate it. Know that it hasn't always been this way, know that it used to be only suffering and hope, and even as our hope has been rewarded some now, know that there's no guarantee when you're going up against this level of tradition that it always will be; Tennessee is good right now and all signs point to that continuing as long as Pearl is here. Kentucky will always be good.
This basketbal team needs the great home crowd to play well. But more than that...the Kentucky game deserves it. It deserves our best and nothing less. Because no matter what anyone else tells you, they don't get any better than this.
There's only one Kentucky.
And there's only one way to keep this game - which we can truly call a rivalry now - and this series moving in the right direction.