So yeah, we didn’t have any fun last Thursday and in its aftermath we haven’t had much fun this week. We were so excited about being really good for the first time in ten years we get really cranky when we look anything but. There is much, it seems, to be anxious about.
But, even if just for a moment, we should look around - at Bristol Motor Speedway or from the comfort of our own homes - and breathe deeply of this weekend. And smile.
The largest crowd to ever assemble to watch a football game will gather. And our team gets to be at the center of it. And it gets to happen here.
I’ve lived here my whole life. “Here” is born, raised, and now back in East Tennessee. Six years in Southwest Virginia from 2006-12. And one summer & two falls in Lexington, Kentucky to continue my education. I missed basketball season in the Bluegrass, something I thought I’d regret. But it’s really always basketball season in Lexington. And I know this is true because it’s always football season here.
I can almost guarantee you’ve spent some time here too. The primary and perhaps only way one becomes a Vol or Hokie is to be a Southern Appalachian, by birth or blood.
The similarities between us should become even more evident when we gather this weekend. It remains the case that Knoxville and Blacksburg share an undivided passion so many of our neighbors cannot claim: no professional sports teams a few miles away, most houses undivided in our hometowns without the burden of an Auburn to our Alabama or a Duke to our Carolina. The University of Virginia may be the Hokies’ in-state rival, but there is a world of difference between Charlottesville and Blacksburg, culture and agriculture as some say. Agriculture has won 12 in a row.
Virginia Tech hired a coach from Memphis, which is just as much Tennessee as Knoxville but none of the Appalachian. Our biggest rivalries tend to carry pieces of our home grown culture and values. We still view Florida as new money even though Steve Spurrier is 71 years old and playing golf. And unless you were around and paying attention in the 1940’s, you don’t know the Third Saturday in October as anything other than an oppressive feud for one side and then the other: nine straight for them now, 10 of 11 (and one forfeit) for us before that, eight straight (and another forfeit) for them before that, four straight for us, eleven for them, four for us, etc. Sooner or later we’ll take back our land. Sooner or later they’ll take it back again.
Virginia Tech had the same coach for 29 by God years. Tennessee had two coaches who did it the same by God way for 33 years. All three were native sons, a battle now lost to the mercenaries. Ours comes from Cincinnati and Central Michigan, but he’s learned to walk and talk like one of us for the most part. Theirs is from Memphis and Texas and Oklahoma, and he’s learning too.
Lots of places fancy themselves God’s Country. We’ve got the data to back it up. We have seasons, four of them, to teach us about death and resurrection and beauty. About hope, like the snow day that’s really going to happen this time. We are surrounded by ridges and nestled in valleys, to teach us perspective.
The last two meetings between the Vols and Hokies - the first two since the 1930’s in a series that dates back to three meetings in the 1890’s - have taken place in someone else’s backyard, outside Southern Appalachia on uneven footing. In the 1990’s the Vols went to the mountaintop, and along the way took a Virginia Tech squad still looking for that giant leap to the woodshed in the Gator Bowl in 1994. The Hokies may have been a step below UT’s greatest heights, but they stayed up there longer. And when Tennessee was on the edge, Virginia Tech helped give its new head coach one last push in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Now the Vols, after almost a decade in the valley, can see the summit from here once more. And we’ve already figured out the terrain can be much more hazardous. The Hokies are plotting a new course, unproven but exciting. And now here our paths cross again. Not in a December bowl game, but in the national spotlight. And not in Florida or Atlanta, but at the intersection of Knoxville and Blacksburg in front of more fans than anyone else, ever.
The nation will be watching for the spectacle. But we come for our spectacle. It’s always this, far more than wins and losses, that draws us back each autumn. Before Beamer and after Majors and Fulmer we’ve both known plenty of losing. And under them, we knew plenty of winning. And we are hopeful with Butch and Fuente that more is on the way. But we keep coming back, either way, for the orange and maroon, for Smokey and Hokie, for Rocky Top and Enter Sandman. The largest crowd to ever watch a football game will do so for this. For us.
I am so proud it’s Tennessee and Virginia Tech in this game. I hope it leads to at least two more, one for each of us in our own homes. But this one, this night will be special. And for all the struggles Tennessee has been through and all the uncertainty a new coach brings to Virginia Tech, tomorrow night we’ll add something else we can agree on to all which we already share: the view from here is better than anywhere else.