This week, Vol fans get one last chance to rubber-neck the final season of the Fulmer Era, but this time you can get out of your car and examine the wreckage up close and personal. Yesterday, It Books released Clay Travis's On Rocky Top, an in-depth look at the 2008 Tennessee Volunteers. This is Travis's second venture into the world of SEC Football, following Dixieland Delight, a hilarious trip through the 2006 SEC season.
We're betting that when Travis learned he'd been given full access to the Tennessee Volunteer football team for an entire season so he could write a book about it, he fantasized about the team making a historical run through the SEC on its way to a championship with him there to record every successful milestone along the way. Instead, he was given a "front row seat to the end of an era." The resulting work is still full of Travis's irreverent wit, but the wretched season also provided Travis a platform to eloquently capture the emotions of coaches, players, and fans as they endured extraordinary disappointment.
Essentially a chronology of the 2008 season, On Rocky Top is a quick read. The pacing of the book is aided by the fact that Travis doesn't just tell the story from his own perspective but through the unique perspectives of several other folks as well, such as Arian Foster and his family, Josh McNeil, UT booster Thunder Thornton, Volquest.com's Brent Hubbs, team truck driver Charlie Harris, and others. And although the book never strays for long from its primary theme, Travis nevertheless pauses often along the way to discuss Tennessee history, surface never before reported facts about the season, or relay behind-the-scenes stories about the players and coaches. No detour disappoints.
Of course, much of the book centers around Phillip Fulmer, and Travis does an exceptional job of portraying both the man and the coach. The big guy comes off exactly the way you'd expect him to, but On Rocky Top offers a closer look at Fulmer's emotions not just at the end of the disastrous season, but during its downward spiral. Such an intimate look will no doubt stir the emotions of even the most anti-Fulmer fans.
As you'd expect, the book primarily deals with the disappointment of the 2008 season and how it led to the firing of Phillip Fulmer. The book chronicles the death spiral from Mike Hamilton's raising of hypothetical questions to unnamed boosters about Fulmer's status as early as the Florida game, to Hamilton's public statement after the Georgia loss that he would not be adverse to making an in-season change, to Hamilton's consulting with an eight-person circle of trust just before the Alabama loss, and finally to Hamilton's meeting with Fulmer to tell him he was being replaced just after losing to South Carolina. It captures well Fulmer's emotional speech to his players confirming ESPN reports that he would not return in 2009.
The book also recounts Hamilton's search for Fulmer's replacement from his first clandestine interview (he refused to use any UT plane to travel to interviews, aware of fans' proclivity for tracking flights) with Lane Kiffin to the decision to hire Kiffin a mere 12 days later, and pieces together from multiple sources the other five coaches interviewed for the position. Teaser: fans would have been shocked at Plan B.
How does access impact a fan's perspective on his team?
The most interesting thing to me about On Rocky Top, though, isn't the retelling of the fall of the Fulmer empire, but Travis's insight into what it means to be a fan and his repeated ponderings about what his all-encompassing access might or might not do to his fandom. During the UCLA game, for instance, he moves from the sidelines to the stands and finds that he just feels more comfortable there. After that, he wonders in several places whether the access to the team will kill the fan inside him by removing that buffer of anonymity between fans and players. His access gains him an uncomfortably personal view of a Tennessee fan unleashing a profanity- and insult-filled tirade directly at Arian Foster's back immediately after the Georgia loss, which Foster dutifully ignores and never mentions except to his family.
Travis apparently finds the other end of the spectrum just as bewildering, as he is relegated to the press box for the final game of the season and describes it is less then flattering terms:
The press box is packed, three rows of orange countertops filled with balding white men who make a living observing the team from a view that provides a much worse vantage point than a nice flat-screen television in front of your home couch.
Travis then informs readers that the authorities actually announce to the press before the game that anyone caught cheering will be kicked out of the press box. And Travis pens a simple but chilling line about the assembled media's collective response to one of the most emotional moments of the 2008 season from fan's perspective -- the point at which Phillip Fulmer jogs out through the T with his family for the last game of his long and distinguished career and waves to the crowd:
No one in the press box reacts.
No, it seems that Travis discovered that a true fan's place is neither in the unfeeling press box nor on the sidelines but in the stands. Yet the access he enjoyed for a full season seems to have forced him to examine his fandom and impacted him in some way. Surprisingly, despite the unencumbered access to the football team, On Rocky Top deals with Jonathan Crompton only from afar, and the reason, found in Travis's recap of the Alabama loss, is especially thought-provoking:
The UT offense scores a touchdown, and as they come off the field, Jonathan Crompton, who has kept his helmet on the entire game, congratulates every member of the offense. As I watch this, I think, not for the first time, about why I've blamed so much of this season on Crompton's failings. He's never done anything to me, never said a word to me on the sideline or in the locker room or in the hotel. Several times I've seen him look at me as I write things. I've thought that I should introduce myself. But I haven't.
I think I know. Because it's easier to blame him for the season if I don't know him. The Jonathan Crompton of my fan's mind, the gunslinging big-armed dolt who throws every pass as hard as he can, is not an accurate image. It's far too simplistic and probably not fair. I've made him a caricature. As I watch Crompton congratulate his teammates, including the quarterback, Nick Stephens, who currently has the job he wants more than anything in the world, I start to think that maybe I'm the jerk in the Jonathan Crompton-Clay Travis relationship, that what I write about Crompton reveals far more about me than it does about Crompton. And maybe that makes me the kind of guy who wouldn't stand on the sideline in the fourth quarter of a loss, wear my helmet the entire game, and congratulate my teammates as they come off the field after scoring a meaningless touchdown.
There's something about the contrast between those in the press box who are told not to care and who therefore don't even react to an emotional and history-making event and those on the sidelines who care so much that failure is a forgivable part of the relationship. A fan's devotion lies somewhere in the middle, and it's not necessarily a continuum of caring; it may be more a different kind of caring.
We don't know. These bloggers are wrestling these things out in our own minds right now, and we haven't come to any conclusion yet. In any event, as great as the rest of On Rocky Top is, it's this repeated examination of the impact of access on fan psyche that we found the most interesting aspect of the book.
So yeah, On Rocky Top is a great read. It may resurrect some bad memories for Vol fans, but it is insightful, and it offers access on a level we've never seen before with this program and forces us to examine our own fan hysteria along the way. If you like rubber-necking disasters or humorous anecdotes about being a fan, or if you want inside information on how the decision to terminate Phillip Fulmer was made or how his replacement was found, or especially if you are interested in the impact of access on a fan's perspective -- you need to read this book.