If I asked you to name the games that rank atop Neyland Stadium's all-time attendance chart, what would you guess?
You'd probably start with Florida, and you'd be right: the top three crowds in Neyland Stadium history are contests against the Gators.
But you know what's fourth?
Not Alabama. Not Georgia. Not Notre Dame or #1 Miami.
September 6, 2004. Tennessee against...UNLV?! On a Sunday night?!
That's right: 108,625 showed up for the 2004 season opener. They didn't come for those fancy orange & white alternate unis, and a Sunday night in the Bible belt on Labor Day weekend means there should've been plenty of other reasons to have a lesser crowd. And it goes without saying that there have been dozens and dozens of more important contests in Neyland this decade than a game against UNLV.
People came from far and wide to see not a game of national significance or a bitter rivalry matchup, but to see Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer for the very first time. To see two true freshmen in their very first action. To see something new. That's the reason.
Don't believe me? Check a little further down the attendance chart: at #5 is the post-9/11 game against LSU, and at #6? The debut of Joey Matthews and AJ Suggs in 2000...against Southern Miss.
In a way, it doesn't matter how much you win. And the Vols have done plenty of that during the Fulmer Era. Even - and especially - after winning a National Championship, sooner or later it's more than just the wins and the pageantry and the rivalry that draw people in. Sooner or later, no matter how successful you've been, people will start to crave something new.
So is it really all that surprising when you read this week from Mike Hamilton that new donor numbers are up in spite of the current economy, or that the Vols put almost a thousand people at their (now-infamous) recruiting celebration, when the previous high was around three hundred?
Apathy was clearly present in 2008, and that's been well documented. But even going back before that, in spite of some big wins in this decade and some good teams, sooner or later...
Against Arkansas in 2007, in an incredibly important game with the Vols in the lead in the SEC East race and playing Heisman frontrunner Darren McFadden...a large number of seats were noticeably empty. The Vols have landed a ton of recruiting classes that are ranked higher than the 2009 edition that have not been met with this level of enthusiasm. Sooner or later, no matter how successful you've been...we are prone to wander, and we will crave something new.
Enter Lane Kiffin.
Kiffin has made the most noise not for signing a class that, while not as high as what the Vols are used to, must be commended for being as high as it is for a staff that's working on such short notice...but above that, Kiffin made the most noise for a verbal jab at Urban Meyer, which has also been well documented.
It's something new.
And Vol Nation appears to love it.
Two things I think both we as Tennessee fans and everyone else need to remember:
- This is an isolated moment right now, and right now it's all Lane Kiffin has. If the Gators deliver on the 50-point beatdown everyone is warning us about this morning, we'll shrug it off and remind you that Nick Saban went 7-6 in his first year at Alabama. We were decidedly not okay with .500 football under Phillip Fulmer, and it cost him his job. We will more than tolerate .500 football - at least at first - under Lane Kiffin, because he's something new.
But if the Gators continue to deliver on 50-point beatdowns in the years to come, then Kiffin's statement is sound and fury of no significance. It's the wins and the losses that will decide that part of the equation, not what he says at a recruiting function.
And right now there are no wins and there are no losses, Kiffin is 0-0 as the coach of the Vols. So yeah, enjoy the moment and the spark that's been reignited in this rivalry, because right now it's all Kiffin has. I for one like the confidence. And I like the effort and have to trust the talent evaluation on recruiting and coaching...it's just that I find it better to celebrate great recruits when they turn into great players, having been coached by great coaches. And I hope that transition doesn't take too long in this case.
But also, know this...
- We're still Tennessee. Lane Kiffin has had only two months and a series of isolated soundbites, coaching hires and recruiting closures that look really great - but we haven't seen any of it yet. In football only wins and losses are certain, and so we know nothing for sure about Lane Kiffin. And I blame Dave Clawson for making me this way.
But...this program as a whole has years and decades of winning on its side.
It's an odd marriage here, between the new guy who's generating all this love and enthusiasm, and a program that's enjoyed success on a level that more than half of the SEC would kill for.
My point here is this: I'm used to getting excited about more than just what our head coach says at a recruiting function.
It's still the wins that will generate the true excitement, and the losses that will generate the true frustration. And Kiffin hasn't had that chance yet. I think the Kiffin Family did a tremendous job with what they had in this recruiting class.
I'm just also confused because we're celebrating a class that's ranked 16th nationally - and again, I realize what a great accomplishment that is for a new staff - but Tennessee has had three classes that finished in Rivals' Top 4 since 2002, and none of them feel like they were met with this level of excitement. Credit Kiffin for doing a better job of generating that excitement maybe. And I'm not saying Fulmer is a better recruiter than Kiffin. I'm saying I'm confused over exactly how excited I should be. Because we're still Tennessee.
It's amazing the energy that something new can bring. Because some Tennessee fans are reacting to one quote from the head coach - and the player behind the quote in Nu'Keese Richardson, sure - but some people are reacting to it like it's the best thing that's happened to Tennessee football in years.
And maybe it is. But we don't know that yet.
I'm confused because it seems like the move of a fanbase that's not used to winning, and all they have is quotes.
It's a fickle game, this college football. In 2007, I watched a noticeable number of Georgia fans head for the exits when Tennessee took a 21-0 lead on the Dawgs. At that point, Mark Richt had lost something like six consecutive games against SEC opponents.
Two months later, those same fans were crying because they weren't included in the BCS Championship Game (...because of that very loss). You're kidding yourself if you don't think Richt was on thin ice in October 2007. And you're kidding yourself if you don't think most Georgia fans fully believed that they were the best team in the country by December.
It's why people on the Tennessee message boards were wishing devastation on Nu'Keese Richardson in the form of Eric Berry one minute, and then predicting the Heisman Trophy and professing their undying love for him when they realized what was actually going down. This game is all about the moment...but the moments are always a smaller part of a larger story.
You could see this written all over the wall at Steve Spurrier's departure from Florida. Because the Fun 'n Gun was only mildy amusing at 10 wins per year instead of 12, and because it was no longer new and exciting, I think it stopped being fun altogether for the Ballcoach. And he left before it got worse. 10 wins at Florida in 2001 was different than 10 wins at Florida in 1991. Spurrier did that. And then he left before the consequences of his success got even with him.
Phillip Fulmer wasn't so lucky. But all the same, Fulmer's story isn't defined by 1998, and it isn't defined by 2008 either. It's the full story of what he did at this university. But it always plays out in the present, and in 2008 the present was enough to cost him his job.
Seeing only the moment at the expense of the larger picture is why I've been so frustrated with the Alabama fans who first said things like "I hope Fulmer stays forever!" last year, with no sense of history for the fact that he beat the Tide 11 times in 16 years...and who are now trying to educate Tennessee fans on the finer points of a good coaching hire, when Alabama's lineage from Gene Stallings to Nick Saban looks a lot like the line from Don DeVoe to Bruce Pearl, only with more strippers.
In a conference where the grace period on National Championships is 10 years, at most - or 4 years on an undefeated season if you're Tommy Tuberville - nobody is safe. Les Miles still has plenty of shine on his ring from 2007, and he's not safe. I honestly wonder if Urban Meyer has ever thought about leaving all of this behind...because how can it get better than this? And like everyone else, Meyer won't be defined by Tebow or two rings, he'll be defined by the whole story...but the individual moments may not reach a higher point than what he's already seen.
The reality is, every season tells a story. Only one story...or sometimes two, depending on which poll you believe in, ends in a National Championship. Only a small percentage of stories in the SEC get to end well each year: in 2008 I'll give you Florida, Ole Miss and Vandy for sure, and you'll have to ask the folks in Tuscaloosa what they think about being the fourth on that list. That means 2/3 of the SEC had an average or disappointing season in 2008. And that figure isn't likely to change anytime soon.
Winning will cure anything - and it's winning and winning alone that will ultimately decide the fate of Lane Kiffin, Gene Chizik and anyone else who ponies up to the most difficult conference in the history of college football.
But right now, there is power in being new, at least for Kiffin. Being new extends grace to new places, and causes unparalleled levels of excitement for things that we've actually done better in the past.
In America right now, you understand the power and the consequence of change, depending on who you voted for. And in time, the new will wear off. But while it's still here, you see things that you haven't seen before and you really don't fully know how to react to.
That's why one of the hottest tickets in recent memory will be a game against Western Kentucky.
But at Tennessee, we should also understand the power of what's old - not just our wins, our traditions or our stadium, or the fact that we don't have anything to prove to anyone in this conference except Florida, arguably. But also the fact that seven starters return from a defense that ranked 4th nationally and just inherited Monte Kiffin as their biggest pickup. And about a dozen guys are still wearing orange who saw significant action during the 2007 SEC Championship Game, who don't have to be told what it's like to be relevant or good. They know. We're still Tennessee.
We're Tennessee married to a young head coach and a world of potential. This is the honeymoon. September is the marriage. And it could be a beautiful one. But with nothing else certain for the new coach to stand on right now, we have potential and we have a quote. And with Vol Nation in a frenzy of change, right now that's more than enough for us.
One day the new is going to wear off. Can't say when. But when it does, will Lane Kiffin have enough wins to stand on to keep the marriage not only alive, but moving forward?
That story is getting ready to unfold. This part is just the prologue.