KNOXVILLE -- As University of Tennessee legendary personality Gus Manning was honored prior to the Vols' epic basketball win over Missouri on Saturday, my thoughts drifted from my Section 330 seat and into the past.
The photos rolled across the jumbotron of Manning standing behind General Robert Neyland, celebrating a touchdown in what had to be the 1960s, posing with fellow legendary athletic department staple Haywood Harris. Then as the reel ended, Manning was presented an old Tennessee jersey with "51" on it representing the 1951 national championship team.
Though my dad wasn't even a glimmer in my grandparents' eyes for that championship, Manning's ceremony helped turn those thoughts that escaped my head into memories of my old "good ol' days."
At once I was a 19-year-old Daily Beacon writer again, sitting in my Neyland Stadium pressbox seat and watching a dapper Manning roam the hallways with a handful of cookies from the gameday spread. I was listening to the late Haywood Harris call out official plays to the media members. I was taking in Doug Dickey perched in his skybox like an eagle, watching the empire he'd helped restore. I was watching Phillip Fulmer coach championship teams, Jerry Green trot out the most talented basketballers in the SEC, Pat Summitt cut down the nets yet again, Chris Burke smack home the game-winning run for Rod Delmonico's baseball team.
I was re-watching my glory days, my highlight reel.
Heading back to Knoxville always does that to me, gives me feelings of nostalgia that words fail to invigorate. It brings my soul to a place where I feel like -- regardless of where I ever grew up and where I currently live -- the city and campus will always be my true home sweet home.
But rarely lately have those feelings of that hallowed hill actually been something more than a romanticized recreation of days long gone. Not far on the heels of my mental recapturing of those great times would come a crippling loss that would snap be back to reality with a feeling of dejection and a concern that those halcyon days would stay in the past forever.
Saturday wasn't like that. For once, it felt like Tennessee was special again -- if only for a day.
My Dad and I began the day setting out for Knoxville under cloudy skies. As I kissed my wife and son goodbye for the day, my sadness from leaving them was soon replaced by an excitement of getting to watch my first in-person basketball game in four years. Win this game against Missouri, and Cuonzo Martin's Vols stood a good chance of getting into the NCAA Tournament. Lose, and those hopes are probably dashed, especially with Kentucky's upset of Florida.
The farther north we drove, the better the weather got. That in itself was the perfect prologue to what kind of day it would be. By the time we arrived outside the softball field where we were meeting my good buddy and Tennessee sports information employee Drew Edwards, Knoxville was blanketed in sunlight, and the day already had gotten off to an incredible start across UT athletics:
- The morning started with the opening of spring football practice, and new head football coach Butch Jones got his tenure off on the right foot by washing some of the bad tastes from our mouths of the Derek Dooley tenure. Contrary to Dooley's baffling decision to not reach out to former football players to be a part of the program, Jones welcomed more than 30 former players to the 2013 spring football inception practice, including Bill Bates, Todd Kelly, Jamal Lewis, Leonard Little, Erik Ainge, Dwayne Goodrich and many, many more. The legends were home, and I completely believe there presence led to the aura permeating UT throughout the day.
- While very little can be gleaned from an opening football practice, Jones complimented the team's up-tempo style and energy. People who attended the practice said the buzz among the many recruits who attended practice, their coaches, the former players and others was palpable. The difference from the other regime, several attendees said, was night and day.
- As you guys may have missed, Saturday brought with it news of UT's second verbal commitment of the '14 class, a huge need in 6-foot-6, 298-pound center Coleman Thomas of Virginia.
- Meanwhile, Dave Serrano's baseball team was in the midst of using a nine-run inning to dispose of Alcorn State 13-6 after winning Friday's opener 16-0. Jones' blaring of instructions to the football team over his loudspeaker interrupted the game at Lindsey Nelson Stadium more than once, but obviously, it wasn't much of a distraction to the coming-of-age baseball team.
- Then, not long before the UT basketball team tipped off, the No. 8 Lady Vols softball team began the rubber game of its series against No. 1 and defending national champion Alabama. Some time in the first half of the basketball game, it was announced that Ralph Weekly's gals topped the Tide 2-1 to take two of three from Bama. And, as you know, it's ALWAYS great to beat Bama in anything.
- Finally, the day's main event took place with UT facing a much more talented Missouri Tigers team with matchup nightmares galore in front of nearly 22,000 screaming fans inside Thompson-Boling Arena. But even though the Vols couldn't defend Laurence Bowers and struggled to match the speed of Phil Pressey, they found answers in grit, determination and hustle plays. The Tigers entered the game second in the nation in rebounding margin, but UT would not be denied the boards Saturday and fought from an eight-point deficit late to put a resounding stamp on a second-half-of-the-season surge with a 64-62 win. The heroes were many -- from Trae Golden's big first half to Jordan McRae's huge second-half to Jarnell Stokes' double-double to Skylar McBee's senior-day big 3s to Josh Richardson's best offensive game as a Vol to Quinton Chievous's much-needed spark against the team where his father starred -- and all their efforts were needed to win the game, move to 19-11 and lock up the SEC Tournament's fifth seed.
Even the trappings of Saturday were memorable. We arrived in Knoxville, passed football at my cousin Brian Wall's house on the French Broad River, grilled out T-bones and hamburgers, listed to some music, took the boat out for a spin, got to campus to experience the gameday atmosphere and even got to see parts of the campus I haven't been to in years. Most importantly, we got to see basically every team on campus win its game to put the cherry on top of an ideal trip.
Sure, the day wasn't completely perfect. The Lady Vols basketball team wilted down the stretch to allow Texas A&M to come all the way back and win by four in the semifinals of the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament. That was a gut-punch to a sterling day on the Hill, but it wasn't enough to spoil the experience.
So, here I am, having driven back home to rural Alabama, sitting at my computer and hacking out a poor attempt of the excitement I felt today, the excitement still coursing through my veins. We're losing an hour tonight, and I can't sleep. My clock says 1:20 a.m., and I cringe at the thought that perhaps my wife hasn't even re-set it yet.
Mostly, my insomnia is because I don't want this day to end. I don't want to wake up tomorrow and face the days that Tennessee fans know lately seem to follow days like today. When you've endured the stretch we've endured, you fear somebody important is getting arrested tonight after celebrating too hard or about to get injured or that we'll lose an important assistant coach or have some embarrassing news published by the News Sentinel or that we'll succumb to an also-ran in our opening-round conference tournament game ... or ... or ... or ...
But maybe today was different. There have been good days few and far between during These Dark Times, sure. But nothing like this. Today was the BEST day. And it's still nowhere near the best it can be. We know that because we remember. We're fans, and we love the Vols and we remember why we love the Vols and when the times were better than this and when we all took them for granted. We won't do that again.
You know how I know that? Because I didn't take today for granted. This was a great day; but maybe there are even better days than this ahead. Maybe this good feeling was only the beginning. Maybe that atmosphere surrounding our campus on Saturday and the sun shining overhead was symbolic. Maybe it's starting to be our time again.
It is ALWAYS great to be a Tennessee Vol. Today it just felt like it.