Tailgating At Tenessee!
The Vol Navy to The Rooftop Parking Lot
The checkerboard end zones are a long way from the upper deck at Neyland Stadium.
Editor's note: This story was written by Kevin Wilkerson, a native of Knoxville who sold Cokes in Neyalnd Stadium while in high school and now lives in Los Angeles. He loves the atmosphere and flavor of UT games.
It's football time in Tennessee!
Those were the words of legendary UT announcer John Ward when he opened the broadcast of games, and today it's a call to the wild that are Tennessee football games.
Where else do cheerleaders go up in the upper deck stands?
The Vols play at Neyland Stadium (named after UT’s great coach, Gen. Bob Neyland), which sits adjacent to the Tennessee River. It holds 104,000 fans and the stadium rocks. Literally. Whenever the Vols do something positive, the fans stomp their feet and the stadium shakes like an earthquake.
This could be something as basic gaining a first down (which is not so basic lately with the Vols' offensively-challenged team). Heck, even the second-string cheerleaders go up in the stands and cheer in the aisles.
The Pride of the Southland Band plays “Rock Top.” And plays "Rocky Top." And plays "Rocky Top." It takes about three days to get the song out of one's head.
“Wish that I was ol’ Rocky Top, Down in the Tennessee hills,
Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top, ain’t no telephone bills...”
But this is only AFTER the game has started. In the South, college football is not a sport, it’s a passion.
When the band does the Salute to the Hill, thousands watch the ritual.
There's a lot of excitement in Neyland Stadium at the start of games.
East Tennessee is a beautiful area of the country with slow rolling hills, recreation on rivers and lakes and the Great Smokey Mountains.
But it is football that drives the lifestyle. It's not uncommon for the local paper, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, to run two to three stories every day on UT football In May! On football Sundays, it produces an entire section to review the previous day's game.
The football atmosphere, as is the case at many SEC schools, begins well before kickoff.
The Vol Navy docks across from Neyland Stadium on the Tennessee River.
Here, it starts Thursday when the Volunteer Navy begins to arrive. What’s the Volunteer Navy, you ask? Well, it’s a flotilla of some 50 boats that pull up to the docks across from the stadium and tie up to each other for one of college football’s greatest scenes.
By Friday afternoon, the boats are in place and it's a PARTY! People are Southern friendly and visiting fans are welcome to show up with their own "Mountain Dew" and get invited into the Navy for a drink and perhaps some BBQ. They will want to talk about UT football.
That's most visitng fans, by the way, Alabama, Florida and most Georgia fans being exceptions.
Once two strangers climbed ‘ol Rocky Top, lookin’ for a moonshine still.
Strangers ain’t come own from Rocky Top, reckon they never will...”
The Vol Navy is comprised of alumni. If they are not on their boat, then they are at Calhoun's, a restaurant on the river with an outdoor deck – and $2.50 beers Fridays at Happy Hour – that specializes in ribs. And this will drive Vol fans crazy – the ribs at Calhoun's are very good, but nowhere near as spectacular as the ribs at Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, AL.
To find the students, head to the bars on nearby Cumberland Ave., otherwise known as “The Strip.” On game days, it's a choice between partying with the Volunteer Navy and all the on-campus activities. The prime tailgate party takes place at G10, a parking lot adjacent to Neyland Stadium. This is literally a tailgate party, for there are not really any pop-up tents, just people who party out the back of their SUVs, trucks and cars.
It's called G10 because it's the parking garage by gate 10a and it features hundreds of vehicles, thousands of fans dressed in orange and even a hilbilly pep band that plays "Rocky Top" for tips.
You can easily go from G10 to the pre-game traditions of Tennessee, which happen right around the corner on each side of the stadium.
These girls with the boots might be
half bear and the other half cat.
Yes,UT girls can be sweet as soda pop.
“Once I had a girl on Rocky Top, half bear the other half half cat,
Wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop. I still dream about that...”
These are the gameday traditions of Tennessee football that fill up the jug like that good ‘ol Mountain Dew.
Okay, find the players in this mass of orange.
It begins with the Volunteer Walk. An hour and 45 minutes before the game, the entire football team walks through campus and into the stadium. People line up 10 deep for it – some arriving two hours beforehand – at Peyton Manning Pass and Phil Fulmer Way (yes, there's a street named after a coach that was fired) which runs in front of the stadium. It's so crowded its nearly impossible to see the players. But that's not the point.
UT's pregame rituals are like a St. Patrick's Day parade.
A few minutes later, the band does the same thing on the other side of the street. Down Andy Holt Blvd., they come, stopping at the corner across from the student center to "salute the Hill." Half the band then parts like the Red Sea, through which the majorettes come sprinting out to perform a routine on the street corner while the band plays "Fight Vols Fight" and the "Tennessee Waltz." The band then walks down Phl Fulmer Way into the stadium to, of course, "Rocky Top."
A sea of orange by the Tennessee River for the G10's tailgate.
These events happen back-to-back but since they are only a couple of blocks apart, it's easy to partake in both. It's also an easy walk to the far side of the stadium to the rooftop parking lot for the tailgate party.
The "splitting of the 'T' as the team runs on the field is a UT tradition.
Soon afterward, one of the great traditions in all of college football occurs. In the stadium, just before kickoff, the band lines up in two rows, forming a “T.” Then, just as the football teams runs onto the field, the band “splits the T” and the team runs through the center of it. The stadium is SHAKING at this point.
Bring sunglasses, because it's bright with all that orange.
There’s no longer the magestic Tennessee Walking Horse (some animal rights activists complained about having a horse at a football game but USC successfully has Traveler), yet thee is the blue tick hound dog mascot (Smoky) and all those people in bright orange. Bring your sunglasses!
Everything about UT relates to something about the school or the state. The colors come from flowers that used to grow on the Hill. The coon-tick hounddog is as Appalachian as the hills. The nickname Volunteers comes from all the volunteers Tennessee sent to fight battles such as the Battle of New Orleans and the Alamo.
Tennessee fans cling to these traditions because its team rarely matches this glorious celebration. The Vols won a national title in 1998 (and can thank Arkansas QB Curt Stoner for helping make it happen) but mostly it's season after season of high expecations brought down by frustration.
For a long while it was Alabama that sucked the juice out of the Big Orange. When the Tide faltered, UT was ready to ascend to the top of the SEC but along came Steve Spurrier – Steve Superior, Vol fans sarcastically call him – and Florida took Alabama's place as annual tormentor. Now, Alabama has risen back to the top and UT is left to fight for being third or even fourth best in the SEC.
So heck, the fans must have its great traditions to keep the Saturdays entertaining.
It's not always been that way but it sure seems like it, even to many old-timers. For in the inaugural game at Neyland Stadium, Tennessee lost 27-7. To Alabama.
Rocky Top, you'll always be, home sweet home to me.
Good 'ol Rocky Top. Rocky Top Tennessee.
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