The following is one of the articles from our preseason Tennessee football magazine. If you're late to the party, it's 116 mostly ad-free pages of nothing but the stuff Vols football fans care about. It's not too late to get the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 print edition ($19.99), the Kindle version ($9.99), or the ebook (a downloadable PDF) for $7.99. Enjoy!
The SEC is football that is unlike any other. In my life, I have been graced with the ability and privilege to travel, and travel I have. I spent three years in New York State while held prisoner of war (I met my current wife there). I spent a multitude of years in Seattle while stationed at Ft. Lewis with the US Army. Maine, Key West, South Dakota, Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Germany, Ireland, Bosnia, Bahrain . . . the list goes on and on. Some visits were short, a matter of mere months. Others were years. However, I've never seen a following of the game of football like I've witnessed in the SEC.
The SEC is a unique place, full of rich history and rivalry. Lewis Grizzard famously wrote of the Georgia versus Georgia Tech rivalry (before the Yellow Jackets turned . . . well, yellow, and ran for another conference) "It's our way of life against theirs!" It is a place I dearly love and a love I have taken with me from state to state and country to country. Our way of life is sacred, and if you schedule your wedding for the Third Saturday in October, don't bother sending me an invite cause neither the preacher nor I are gonna make it.
I grew up in the SEC, splitting my time between Crossville, TN; Sevierville, TN, and Ellijay, GA. My grandfather was a dyed in the wool Georgia fan. One of my grandmothers was a Tennessee Volunteer, heart and soul. The rest of the family is split between the two, with myself being a Vol For Life. Both sides of my family are predominantly Irish. You can imagine how my family reunions are, especially during football season. Now I live on the fringes of the SEC, deep in southwest Missouri, only a handful of miles between myself and the University of Arkansas. I can be in Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arkansas in almost no time. It is a place that has been referred to as the Puerto Rico of the SEC, and I can hardly deny that description.
When asked if Fayetteville, Arkansas was located at the end of the world Lou Holtz famously stated, "No, but you can see it from here." Given the good doctor's grasp of geography, this has surely left many of the SEC's reverent fans scratching their heads with the admission of the University of Missouri and Texas A&M. If the world of the SEC ends outside Fayetteville's doorstep, then these two schools have emerged from the darkness, or some unknown place not marked on any map. Like some mythical beasts that have appeared on the edge of our map after being told for years that the world was flat, these beings have appeared and demanded their right to join us on our hallowed fields and arenas. They are the Outsiders, and they wish to be let in to our pearled gates. This is a unique time for the SEC. It has been many years since we've changed our alignment and since we fans have been given an opportunity to have fresh meat for our grinders.
There is no argument that Missouri is probably pushing the boundaries of the definition of the word "southern" just as Texas is stretching the limit of the compass point of "east." Nevertheless, make no mistake: These schools are not only coming to the SEC, they are coming with the intent of playing for keeps. No one likes to be the underdog, and both of these schools have more than enough history to go toe to toe with any of the SEC storied legends.
Consider the story of the Texas A&M 12th Man. The story varies from person to person, as any good southern tale should. The one I know goes like this: A full month after the Volunteers had closed out their 1921 season with what was to be considered a tie game with Kentucky, Texas A&M was still playing football. On January 2, 1922 Texas found itself in a brawl with Centre College and its ranks were being depleted quickly by injury and exhaustion. As the game wore on and the wearied bodies of players dragged themselves back to the bench, Coach D.X. Bible could stand no more. He called out to a young man who had been in the press box helping reporters identify players. That man was one E. King Gill. Gill was a former football player. He had left the football program to play on the school's basketball team. However, his roots and dedication went beyond a mere name on a roster. He heard his coaches call, made his way to the dressing room, and moments later appeared on the sideline fully dressed to play football beside his mates. At the end of the game Gill was the only player who remained on the sidelines for the beleaguered A&M team, but they had won, and Gill's actions had inspired not just a team but a tradition within the school. A willingness to stand when called upon, much like our own Volunteers.
Missouri too, has its own traditions. The college that bears the Show Me State's name has been blazing its own trail for over 171 years. Its entrance to the SEC will doubtfully be any different. Much like Tennessee's own warrior background, the Tigers get their name from the Missouri Tigers, who protected the city of Columbia in 1864 from raiders. However, if folks from Tennessee think that the home of bourbon in Lynchburg has no rivals in the barn-burning department after a righteous home game win, they had best think again. Since 1971, after any miracle win the University of Missouri's goal posts have been torn down, physically removed from the stadium, then summarily dragged to a local watering hole called Harpo's where they are placed outside by the exuberant fans and celebrated around for most of the remaining weekend.
Missouri is also home to what is arguably the most locally beloved and rival detested tradition in college basketball: The Antlers. Formed in 1976, The Antlers have won numerous awards for fan dedication groups. They have also won immense notoriety for their outlandish pranks. In 2003, for instance, the Antlers' prank called then Kansas University coach Roy Williams repeatedly during the night and wee hours of the morning prior to the KU vs. Missouri game. This was also done with all of his players and the entirety of his coaching staff leaving them riding the morning of the game bleary eyed and cranky. The Antlers will bring a completely new level of fandom to our games, to say the least.
Don't think there isn't already some rivalry in the makings, either. Before current Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin came to Knoxville, the University of Missouri made pretty clear that it was interested in his talents. There are those who consider Martin's departure from the state of Missouri traitorous, that he should have simply stepped up the ladder from Missouri State to the University of, and they will be seeking revenge on the courts. Kentucky will no longer be the only team to worry about come hardwood season.
There are other items that are the basis of some rivalry as well. If you ask someone from Texas about BBQ, they are liable to hand you a brisket that has been slathered in something that was found in one of their many cow pastures. Missouri, on the other hand, is famous for both its Kansas City style and St. Louis style versions. Tennessee is no slouch with Memphis, and let's face it, East Tennessee is a force to be reckoned with in the barbeque department. Just bringing up who has the better BBQ is guaranteed to start a serious debate among tailgaters in record time, and the argument may last longer than the game itself.
Music is no different. Kansas City may be home to jazz, Memphis home to the blues, and Nashville the home of country music, but there is no doubt that in Texas Bob Wills is still the King as Waylon Jennings famously attested. Texas is arguably more famous for its music production than its food goods by far with many famous artists such as the notorious Outlaws, Robert Earl Keene, Roger Miller, Steve Miller Band, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. If you are so inclined, you shouldn't have any trouble at all stirring up controversy as to who offers the better musical selection.
The weather loves the SEC as well, unfortunately. In my hobby as a storm tracker, the storms that permeate the infamous Dixie Alley often bring massive devastation and fatalities. Texas and Missouri both sit on the outskirts of this Alley and smack dab in the middle of its more famous big brother, Tornado Alley. The same week that Tuscaloosa, Alabama was ravaged, the city of Joplin, Missouri - population in excess of 50,000 and a mere 20 minutes from my own home- was all but wiped from the face of the earth.
Both of our new competitor states also have rugged, frontier histories. Kitt Carson, the Missouri equivalent of Daniel Boone, hailed from Boonslick, Missouri. And who can forget Sam Houston from Texas frontier history? The man was raised in Tennessee, later served as Attorney General of Nashville, Adjunct General for the state of Tennessee, Congressman for Tennessee, and Governor of Tennessee before he became the General of the Texas revolutionary Army and President of the New Republic of Texas. In my opinion, that just proves that when Texas struggles to find good help, they continue to rely on Tennesseans. You can bet they will be trying to do the same thing with our stateside recruits, mark my words.
Some folks are going to say that Missouri isn't southern enough. A quick glance at any map will show you that Kentucky's northernmost border is a full 40 miles north of Columbia, MO the home of University of Missouri. Not that it matters much, as I have never met a Kentucky fan who knew how to read a map in the first place, but I digress. If you're one of the Mason-Dixon Line arguers, just note that the losing faction in one of our country's darkest hours recognized Missouri's secession on October 30, 1861.
Some folks might say that Texas A&M is too far away. Have any of you been to a Florida game in the last decade? That trip to Gainesville is enough to give a dead man a crick in his knees trying to drive to it. And for that matter just how in the hell is Florida considered southern aside from geography? If anything, Florida is the most Yankee southern state in the Union. There aren't even any rednecks in Florida, because the last fool that said "Hey, Ma, watch this!" was eaten by an alligator. Again, the "southern" title part of our conference title has less to do with stereotypes than culture.
There will be naysayers. There will be those who argue for the inclusion of other schools and different match ups. Those who say that food, sweet tea, drawls, boots, rodeos, and dedicated fans are not enough to grant entrance of a school to our fabled lands. Nevertheless, for now, this is the hand we have been dealt, and these are the schools that have entered our fold. Like any younger sibling who enters a family, they should be treated accordingly. We must razz them, berate them, heckle them, and otherwise make them beg for their very existence in our presence.
It is our responsibility, nay it is our very duty to teach them that they must respect the stadium that we call Neyland, to fear Smokey and to ensure the fact that when they line up against their next opponent the following week that the words of Rocky Top still echo inside their reptilian brains. They must be schooled in our ways. We must show them! We must lead them out of the darkness from the edges of their maps, bring them in to the light, and forever make them wish they could escape it.
And when the smoke clears, the seasons are over, and the new rivalries have one go-round under their belts, don't be surprised if the new blood hasn't gotten in a couple of lucky shots as well. For that is what makes college sports so special.