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100 Days of Vols #80 - The Border

Wins, losses, and relationships matter more depending on where you are on the map.

Kevin C. Cox

I'm writing this from a hotel room in western North Carolina. It's Jonathan Crompton's hometown, actually, though they've yet to name anything after him as far as I can tell. Tomorrow I'll go home the back way through Bryson City, home of another Vol quarterback. Because part of the reason Heath Shuler and Jonathan Crompton signed with the orange and white is they grew up wearing it, even though their parents had a North Carolina driver's license.

Back in Athens, Nick Saban is speaking Tuesday night. The word "infamous" belongs somewhere in that previous sentence, though I'll leave it up to you to decide whether it should be attached to the coach's reputation everywhere outside Tuscaloosa or the event itself which has caught both rightful and inappropriate wrath from Tennessee fans in the area. The Athens Chamber of Commerce estimates 90% of the expected 1,500 attendees will come from outside McMinn County. I estimate most of them will be driving northeast to get there.

What hasn't helped the uproar are the billboards, including one just outside Knoxville, with Saban's face and the Alabama logo on display in East Tennessee. Saban is the best college football coach drawing breath and I don't blame people for wanting to hear him. But I don't blame others, including myself, for not liking the fact that he'll be speaking 45 minutes from HQ. If you think Phillip Fulmer was drawing speaking engagements (even for charity) in Birmingham advertised with a Power T on billboards in Alabama during his tenure, you're crazy.

The Third Saturday in October gets a little more serious depending on your proximity to the border. Battle lines get drawn around Chattanooga, but as they bleed north and south they bring increased interest and passion because now Bammers aren't just in your stadium every other year, they're in your workplace, in your Wal-Mart, and, cue dramatic music, in your family. I'm sure Brad can tell us much more about that.

But when Alabama is king and Tennessee is peasant, the bandwagon moves north as well. Case in point, we have a 24 year old on staff at our church here in Athens who believes it's okay to cheer for both Tennessee and Alabama because he's grown up in a world where neither was threatened by the other. Because the last time Tennessee and Alabama were nationally relevant at the same time he was 10 years old.

Many of those who wear crimson today were wearing orange fifteen years ago. They're not the sort you worry about, because their allegiance (and thus their opinion) are meaningless. But they are the sort that annoy. And they're always the first ones you see at Wal-Mart when the rivalry hasn't gone your way that particular year.

This is the blessing and the curse of football in the south: unless you live in Knoxville or Tuscaloosa or headquarters somewhere else and never stray, you are not isolated. You don't just dislike Alabama fans in theory or in general, you've got practice because odds are you know some of them in real life. And practice makes for a perfect rivalry.

Such is the case in Chattanooga, where Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia collide. It's the case in Memphis, where the crimson horde show up when they're winning to join a melting pot of Tennessee and Ole Miss and Arkansas. It's the case throughout the state of Alabama, in Nashville, in Atlanta, and wherever two or more are gathered below the Mason-Dixon.

It's also the case in upper East Tennessee and southwest Virginia, where I spent six years from 2006-2012. No unplayed rivalry carries as much potential as Tennessee and Virginia Tech; Blacksburg is the third closest non-SEC BCS campus to Knoxville, and Georgia Tech and Clemson already have their hands full with SEC rivals. For residents of southwest Virginia, the horde was our shade of orange for most of their lives; the Hokies were irrelevant until Frank Beamer took over in 1987 and went 32 years without a conference title until winning the Big East in 1995. The year before an up-and-coming Virginia Tech squad took on Tennessee in a rebuilding year. And behind freshman Peyton Manning, the Vols rolled the Hokies 45-23 in the Gator Bowl. Even not at our best, we were still far better than Virginia Tech.

That fact and the ensuing bandwagon throughout SWVA only raised the ire of many toward Tennessee. But in the last ten years, as Virginia Tech has won the ACC four times and Tennessee has slipped further and further toward the bottom, the bandwagon has been run out of town. And the Hokies had their revenge in the 2009 Chick-Fil-A Bowl by another three touchdowns.

It was moving to Virginia from Knoxville that caused me to put fingers to keyboard and start blogging in 2006. I was the kid who grew up in headquarters and never strayed, and moving away made me miss the everyday conversations I had about the Vols. But what I also found living in Hokieland was the everyday proof of what I should've already known: there are people who love Virginia Tech just as much as I love Tennessee.

It's hard to have a good relationship with someone who cares as much about their team as you do about yours when your two teams don't like each other. But it's not impossible. Because some of the same things that are true about being a good fan - loyalty, shared sorrow, s

I'm not sure that lunacy respects lunacy; if you're the sort of person who's emailing in death threats to Nick Saban, I'm pretty sure that actually makes you less likely to respect the Alabama fan doing the same to Butch Jones. But maybe love respects love. The curse of football in the south is you have to see your rivals face to face when you lose. But the blessing of it is more than getting to see the same people when you win. It can be the entire relationship itself. Because we're all, in a way, kindred spirits cheering for the laundry we grew up with.

It was easy for me to cheer for Virginia Tech until that Chick-Fil-A Bowl, because our interests were never in conflict. But even after that loss, I did and still do take pleasure in the Hokies doing well because I know what it means to people I care about. Don't misunderstand: I wanted to win that Chick-Fil-A Bowl, badly. More than most of the games Tennessee has played in the last six years. But even in defeat, I found good people returned to me the same grace I had showed them.

There's far less grace in the SEC, everyone's interests are in conflict, and it becomes a bit of you win or you die. But I also know one of my closest friends in high school, college, and roommates after college loved Alabama every bit as much as I love Tennessee. And while I didn't have to like it and certainly didn't support the Tide, I found I could absolutely respect it, and him. Because he really wasn't any different than I was.

I'm not in favor of my city inviting the crimson horde to come into East Tennessee and celebrate their leader 45 minutes from Knoxville. I think it's a bad idea and respect will be hard to find in Athens Tuesday night. But I also know it can and does exist. Life on the border can be difficult, made so much worse when we lose and so much better when we win. But life in general as a college football fan in the south is unlike anything else, and I would argue it's ultimately made even better by the border, not just for the wins when they come, but for the good, grace-filled relationships that last.