Roy Exum: UT Fans Vs. The World

Sunday, October 24, 2021 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

No sooner than the last hurled water bottle was caught by Lane Kiffin last weekend, a Tennessee beat writer wrote, “After the chaos, there was more trash remaining in the stands than was on the field.” Tennessee, unfortunately as a whole, was roundly castigated across the country a week ago when a late fourth-quarter referee’s call went against UT and its fans rained debris, water bottles, a hot dog still in its bun, and even a mustard bottle onto the playing field.

With the cheerleaders and the band immediately hustled beneath the stadium, the near-riot was sportsmanship at its worst and negated a valiant fourth quarter by the Vols.

Tennessee lost far more than a 31-26 defeat to Ole Miss, best exemplified by a huge fine of a quarter-million dollars by the Southeastern Conference. The ugly blemish was broadcast across the nation on Sunday’s talk shows and some of the miscreants are in the process of being banned from all athletic events at UT for the remainder of the school year. UT’s reputation was clearly tarnished.

David Ubben, a senior writer for the acclaimed sports website, The Athletic, wrote a story several days ago about Tennessee’s lack of class and I believe all Big Orange fans should read it with the resolve to help get their house back into order:

* * *


Written by David Ubben, a Senior Writer for, Oct. 17, 2021

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There’s simmering anger that pervades the average Tennessee fan. I noticed it when I moved to this town in 2018 and spent more time around the Vols and their people than I ever had before.

Most of it centers around a simple concept: The program used to be very good. It is no longer very good for a variety of reasons, but mismanagement from those in charge at a variety of levels has done nothing to make it better and quite a few things to make it worse. That has produced too much turnover, which makes the problems harder to fix. Then the losing becomes too much to stomach, everyone is sent packing, and the cycle repeats.

I’ve spent time around similar programs where disappointment and longing for better days that always seem just out of reach are the default state of the fan base. Texas, Texas A&M and Nebraska are the obvious candidates, programs that find themselves in similar plights.

Tennessee? It’s just different. And Saturday night, we saw those big-picture frustrations boil over in an ugly scene that delayed the frantic final 54 seconds of the Vols’ loss to former head coach Lane Kiffin for around 20 minutes as trash (and a scuffed-up, yellow driving range golf ball) rained from the stands, pelting Ole Miss’ players and staff. It also forced Tennessee’s spirit team and band to leave the stadium and run for cover underneath the bowels of Neyland Stadium.

For once, having a trash can on the sideline could have been a valuable asset.

No one was injured, but it marred an electric night in a stadium starved for excellence. Josh Heupel’s team offered a taste with blowout wins over South Carolina and Missouri the previous two weeks. Fans responded by selling out the stadium for the first time since 2017 and providing one of the season’s best atmospheres. A day later, we’re talking about the fans. And it’s not a compliment.

“I am disappointed that will be the story from this football game from a small amount of our fans because there were so many that represented intensity in a great way tonight,” Heupel said.

It also ignited the latest chapter in one of college football’s most underrated rivalries: Tennessee fans versus the world. (And The National Media, which is much more a conglomerate than a monolith.)

On paper, the Tennessee fan experience during the past decade-plus should be one that inspires sympathy. Instead, it inspires far more punch lines and derision. It’s not because people like picking on poor ol’ Tennessee. It’s not because the entire sport has conspired against Tennessee fans or the idiots who spawn embarrassments like we saw Saturday.

That shift, like many of Tennessee’s struggles on the field in that same time span, is self-inflicted. Saturday night was the latest in a long line of embarrassing overreactions to small slights that have hurt Tennessee fans’ reputation in college football at large.

Frustration had been simmering all night with constant “cramping” against two up-tempo offenses, an early Tennessee fumble return for a touchdown that was overturned and a series of iffy spots from the officiating crew.

But the final spot that pushed the crowd over the edge? Officials got it right! At worst, it was questionable. And by night’s end, Tennessee’s chancellor and athletic director had to issue statements of apology, plus an admonishment from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.

No apology is coming from the SEC officials.

Earlier this year, Mississippi State lost a game because of multiple errors on the same play. Last year, Arkansas lost a game on an absurd call that ruled a clear fumble on a spiked pass as an incompletion. The SEC apologized for both. On Saturday, another questionable call on a fumble helped Auburn beat Arkansas. In those cases, trash didn’t find its way on the field. The game didn’t have to be stopped.

Tennessee fans were angry their team had lost, and since it was close, more than a few in the crowd found whatever was closest to them, be it a golf ball, mustard bottle or water bottles full of mysterious liquid, and chucked it on the field.

It was a childish response, but it fits a trend that’s most to blame for the Tennessee fan base’s reputation across the sport: overreactions that are not commensurate with whatever slight, perceived or real, Tennessee fans are dealing with on the given day.

Coach leaves unexpectedly? Flood the streets to trap him in his office until 4 a.m. and set a mattress on fire. Don’t like your new coach’s proximity to the worst scandal in college sports history, and one dubious, doubly denied link to knowledge of it? Paint “Schiano Covered Up Child Rape” on a campus landmark.

Don’t like a reporter agreeing with the hire and texting the athletic director that he’ll defend it in a column? Harass that reporter online endlessly and turn him having an opinion that aligned with the athletic director and not the fans into him being a PR agent for that athletic director.

These. Things. Do. Not. Happen. Elsewhere.

At least not all of them and with the frequency that they happen on Rocky Top.

These are all situations where Tennessee fans could have drawn sympathy, but their overreactions turned them from victims into villains. Tennessee fans aren’t treated unfairly. The world isn’t against them. Their reactions just create the problems they complain about.

Saturday night, no one had a bigger right to be furious than Lane Kiffin. Tennessee fans put his team in danger. It’s easy to say “nobody got hurt” on Sunday morning, but in the moment, you never know what a fan might have or might be able to do. It’s a scary situation for a coach who’s ultimately responsible for the safety of his players and staff.

Instead, Kiffin laughed it off, held onto a golf ball and won over even more fans after joking about a bottle of brownish liquid that nearly hit him.

“Probably wasn’t moonshine,” Kiffin said. “I don’t think they’d waste moonshine on me.”

Later, as he left the field, he swatted away another bottle and chucked his visor into the stands for Tennessee fans to catch. Kiffin could have finger-wagged, called Tennessee fans classless or thrown that golf ball back into the stands at whoever hurled it at him in anger. But his reaction made him one of the weekend’s biggest winners.

And time and time again, the reaction of Tennessee fans to slights and misfortune has made them losers in their rivalry with the rest of the world.


* * *

The author -- David Ubben -- is a senior writer for The Athletic covering college football. Prior to joining The Athletic, he covered college sports for ESPN, Fox Sports Southwest, The Oklahoman, Sports on Earth and Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, as well as contributing to a number of other publications. Follow David on Twitter @davidubben.

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