You’re probably going to read plenty of articles in the coming days about the “classless” Tennessee football fans. You’ll be chastised about fan behavior, and told Tennessee fans committed an unforgivable crime against the sport. You’ll hear that they hate sportsmanship, the game of the football, the United States of America, and God (not necessarily in that order).
Most of this will come from national sports writers who have never been particularly high on Tennessee fans to begin with. The group that already thinks of Tennessee fans as “dumb redneck hillbillies“ was probably never going to give a fair assessment of the situation in the first place.
I’m not here to wax poetic about the scene which unfolded on Saturday night.
But I do want to genuinely talk about an issue with Tennessee athletics, and why we should still be a little bit embarrassed about Saturday.
In case you need a recap:
Saturday night’s unwatchable
Injuryball 4th quarter was usurped by the most captivating event of the fall, when Tennessee fans provoked a near 20-minute stoppage of play. This time, by throwing objects on to the field.
As Ole Miss players began moving to midfield to avoid the objects, discussion centered around if the game would even be completed. Mustard bottles, golf balls, and untold number of beer cans had their final trajectory conclude on the sidelines.
Eventually, the game did resume, and Tennessee was able to come up with a defensive stop. The ensuing offensive possession was hard fought, but ended anticlimactically with a quarterback running out of bounds with zero seconds to go.
Unfortunately, this game will not be known for the exciting ending...but instead, the loss where fans threw things on the field.
No, this is not the end of the world. If you have watched any major soccer game of the past 20 years, you will realize that fans throwing objects on the field is not unusual. It’s not even unprecedented in football (although admittedly I can’t remember an extended stoppage like we saw Saturday).
But even if it’s not as bad as some media types will argue, it is still an issue.
The reality is, Tennessee football—as a program—has an image problem.
Why does that matter? Well, for most instances, it doesn’t. I don’t particularly care what Florida or Alabama or Georgia fans think of Tennessee’s image, and neither should you.
But for coaches and recruits, there’s a different reality.
This might not shock you, but Tennessee is not exactly the talk of coaching circles following the past five years. The uprising against the Greg Schiano hire, followed by Jeremy Pruitt’s less than graceful exit, have tainted Tennessee’s standing in the coaching market. The reputation is one of a pressure cooker job, where the fanbase will turn on you at the slightest disappointment. It won’t just be some message board rage—it will be a stadium full of boos when a player doesn’t execute. Josh Heupel and his staff were aware of this reputation as much as anyone.
It’s an obvious answer, but do you think Heupel and staff liked Saturday’s fiasco? Do we think they appreciated the stoppage in play? No, and it’s not a great environment for a coach to instruct his players in. Fans are a great advantage of playing at home. But they have real drawbacks when they start to act malicious. Players can get emotional, they can get discombobulated—and that’s not what coaches want in a game they still have a chance at winning.
Let’s not beat around the bush: Recruits’ parents probably weren’t thrilled either. If you were in the stands with your son and witnessed people doing their best Tyler Bray impression from row 46, you’re probably not comfortable with the idea of your son playing for those same fans.
And that leads back to the coaches, who want to get the best players, and coach those players in front of supportive fans.
You also hate to see images like this. A fan, who just wanted to enjoy a football game, (presumably) got an object to the head, all because someone else decided to be a jerk to those around them.
So the image problem is a real thing. There’s many reasons Tennessee football got to the state it is in, and there are a few ways it can get out of it. One of those is making the job as attractive as possible for coaches, and making their jobs easy. Saturday’s incident did neither, and likely made some individual jobs harder in the end.
No, it’s not the end of the world. But yes, we should strive to be better as a fanbase, and hopefully create an environment where nights like Saturday are a blemish of the past—rather than a portend of the future.