Listen closely and you can hear the cheer bouncing off the Smoky Mountains, kissing Rocky Top, rolling effortlessly and rhythmically along the Tennessee River, especially on its way past Neyland Stadium and the University of Tennessee campus.
It’s an old chant blessed with new life and legitimacy.
So all together now, at least for those of you whose blood runs orange, let it rip: “It’s great. … to be … a Tennessee Vol!”
Look closely. Suddenly the Big Orange looks good and getting better in almost every single sport. It may not all be due to athletic director Danny White because pretty much every coach doing good to great work save football coach Josh Heupel was already here when White came aboard in 2021.
But oh, how times have changed under his watch. Lady Vols softball just reached the Women’s College World Series final four before bowing out to Florida State on Monday night. The baseball Vols are returning to a Super Regional for the third straight season with the goal of reaching the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, for the second time in three years.
To show how highly regarded coach Tony Vitello’s Vols have become as they reach college baseball’s penultimate stage, ESPN college baseball analyst Todd Walker - the ex-LSU great - said of UT this past weekend, “I think they have everything it takes to win it all.”
But White’s athletic department’s success doesn’t end with its diamond darlings. Both the men’s and women’s basketball programs reached their respective NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, each team’s season ending against schools that advanced to the Final Four.
And, of course, football not only spent a good portion of the season viewed as a College Football Playoff participant, but may only have missed that fortunate four because of a season-ending knee injury to quarterback Hendon Hooker at South Carolina.
Yes, Hooker is gone, along with more than a few other talented players, but Heupel has twice proven during his two years on the job that he can exceed expectations with the best of them, so it’s fair to believe anything can happen with the 2023 football Vols, including slipping into the College Football Playoff.
Either way, there arguably hasn’t been a brighter time across the board in UT athletics since the late 1960s or early, early 1970s, when every team that wore Big Orange - be it baseball, track, swimming, football or men’s basketball - was an SEC power. In fact, for years, if not decades, UT was one of the few athletic programs in the country that seemed dangerous in every sport, a huge credit to athletic director Bob Woodruff, then Doug Dickey. White seems cut from the same cloth, determined to have an athletic department filled with national championship contenders across the board, not just in one or two sports.
Nor is his brilliance as an athletic director first surfacing on Rocky Top. At Buffalo, he noticed a Division III head football coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater was winning six national titles in eight years with five of those seasons ending in 15-0 record and decided to hire Lane Leipold away from the Warhawks. Buffalo football immediately flourished. To prove that was no fluke, Leipold just guided formerly woeful Kansas to a bowl game in his second year with the Jayhawks. And Leipold was not White’s only stunning hire. Current Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats got his big coaching break at Buffalo.
But it was at Central Florida where White’s genius for coaching hires became inarguable. Scott Frost may have recently failed at alma mater Nebraska, but he directed UCF to an undefeated season. Only a couple of questionable officiating calls down the stretch of a 2019 NCAA tourney loss to Duke, kept men’s basketball hire Johnny Dawkins and the Golden Knights from reaching the Sweet 16. Then, of course, White made Heupel the head coach when Frost departed for Nebraska.
And now, under White’s leadership, the Vols recently announced that 96 percent of last year’s football season ticket holders have renewed for 2023, and that fewer than 300 season tickets remained as of late May.
Said White last month: “It’s really hard to get north of (85-90 percent retention). I’ve never heard of a (96 percent) renewal rate. Our fans are pretty special. It’s unbelievable. Nobody expects everybody to renew all the time. Life happens. People change jobs, they move or whatever. Our renewal rate being as high as it is … it’s unprecedented in my career. I’ve never seen that.”
But the Big Orange Nation has made it happen mostly because White is showing what can still happen at certain schools when a culture of winning across the board takes hold.
Or as White recently said of his goals for he and his staff: “Everything we’re doing every day is to continue to build a program and get the culture right and all those things.”
That culture can show up in lots of ways. One is player retention, something that has become more and more difficult to achieve in this era of NIL and the transfer portal. Yet there was men’s basketball star Josiah Jordan-James removing his name from the NBA Draft last week and returning to UT for a fifth season because, in his words, “I am excited and blessed to be able to represent Tennessee for one more year.”
That’s the sign of a strong, positive culture and a credit to the program Rick Barnes has built both on and off the court in Knoxville.
Of course, It could all fall apart as quickly as White has put it together. College sports are like that these days. A couple of disappointing seasons, especially in football. A deep recession. Another pandemic, heaven forbid, and event’s beyond anyone’s control could threaten all that White is building in Big Orange Country.
But as Vitello’s Vols travel to Southern Miss this weekend for a Super Regional best-of-three showdown that will begin at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, the UT athletic department is beginning to once more become the envy of rival fans in far more than a single sport.
It is indeed a great time to be a Tennessee Vol.