Author's note: I'm doing something really different with this book. Obviously, there will be a lot of books released in the coming years by sports media guys who'll do an outstanding job of breaking down the sequence of events that resulted in the Rocky Top ReVOLution from a journalist's point of view. But to me, the big names of decision-makers or influencers aren't the real story embedded within the six day revolt that saw the UT fanbase came together with loal media, former players, alumni, boosters, students, and state officials to stop the hire of Greg Schiano as the new head football coach and the day that Coach Phillip Fulmer was hired as the athletic director. The real story is the fans' story, and that's what this book is about. So have a look at the foreword and the first chapter. Drop me a comment either here or on social media and let me know what you think. I'll be announcing the release date next week.Big shout out to Spencer Barnett for the cover design!
Rocky Top Revolution
Where were you on November 26, 2017?
That’s a question people who love the University of Tennessee will probably be able to answer for the rest of their lives. Not because they were all in the same place physically, but because they were all in the same place mentally and emotionally.
November 26, 2017 was the day a fan base revolted against the hiring of a football coach. Six days later, the athletic director who’d tried to sneak that hire past everyone—fans, boosters, players, and alumni alike—was fired and left UT in an absolute shambles after the worst-conducted head football coach hiring search in the history of the NCAA.
On the same day, former Tennessee head football coach Phillip Fulmer was named as the athletic director for the foreseeable future. Six days later, he hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, one of the top assistants in the country, to the head coach position after a calm, methodical, and thorough evaluation process.
On the face of it, this is exactly what happened. The Cliff notes version.
But there’s so much more to the story than that.
The events of that day were\unprecedented in the world of big-name universities and big-money athletics. The people who loved Tennessee united in a remarkably short time—students, alumni, former players, local media, boosters, and just regular fans—and with their unity forced the university to change the ways decisions were made and influenced in the athletic department. The astonishing uproar, the Rocky Top ReVOLution, was thoroughly lambasted by national sports media. The protesters were called “trailer park Bubbas from Pidgeon (sp) Forge”, a “lynch mob” that was “completely ignorant” of what football was all about. That media narrative portrayed UT fans as ignorant, uneducated, and stupid as those famous sports personalities tried to force Ohio State Defensive Coordinator and former head coach of Rutgers University and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Greg Schiano down their throats as a great hire for UT.
But these events weren’t about a coaching hire. Not really. Hidden behind the rhetoric was a slew of sobering facts. A football coach whose association with a national scandal had painted him, fairly or unfairly, with the same brush. An athletic director, who was telling boosters one thing while working to bring Schiano through the back door. A mega booster, who was controlling the whole show and determined to foist Schiano upon Tennessee regardless of what anyone thought. A civil war was instigated among the top tier of millionaire donors to a university whose prestige in college football had declined since the glory days just two decades ago when Tennessee won the first BCS National Championship game.
The characters on the main stage are fascinating. A desperate athletic director who went AWOL in an attempt to save his job. A former Tennessee head coach, ousted unfairly and in humiliating fashion nine years before, returning to right the Volunteer ship. A vampire in the shadows, determined to suck more power over the university and their hiring practices in the athletic department. A suddenly vivid and blatant divide within the sports media, which demonstrated which journalist’s foot was in which camp.
And out front, vocal and angry and exasperated, were tens of thousands of UT fans who exploded in a spontaneous protest that shocked the sports world…and against the odds, won.
That’s where the real story is. The ones who were the real impetus behind an incredibly visible and public drive to take control away from the power brokers in the shadows and give it to the countless people who are the backbone of UT athletics aren’t mega boosters. They don’t have buildings named after them on campus, or spend tens of thousands of dollars annually for sky boxes in Neyland Stadium. Some are season ticket holders, some only get to a few games a year. Some don’t get to any. Few are wealthy, but they’re all rich with a shared passion for the University of Tennessee.
I was part of that protest. This is the only place for an “I” in this story, which is so patently about so many different people. I was at home on that Sunday morning when everyone got blindsided by the news that Greg Schiano had been offered and accepted the Tennessee head football job. I bore witness to the exponential swelling of that “lynch mob”. As a sports op ed contributor to the Orange and White Report, which covers UT athletics, I joined in the local media’s drive to get news of the protested hiring out. I was part of the “deplorable” social media mob that refused to accept the hire. I listened to live streams of local radio and TV broadcasts as people showed up on campus and gathered in front of the athletic department, chanting “Hell no Schiano!” with signs and bullhorns.
So I am a part of this story. A very small part that had to get a new phone the following week since I'd texted and retweeted the poor thing to death.
But then, all Tennessee fans are a part of this story. Anyone who knows every word to Rocky Top can pick up this book, read the story, and immediately recognize the fact that it’s basically part of their biography. Their memoirs. Because every Tennessee fan knows that they, too, were part of the Rocky Top ReVOLution and so they, too, share in the victory.
Don’t let anyone fool you. There was no one person who began this protest, no shock jock leading the charge for truth and justice on a white horse. No one was more important than anyone else. What’s remarkable about the Rocky Top ReVOLution is that everyone was instantly unified, to the point where Tennessee government officials joined the “uneducated idiots” on Twitter to voice their displeasure with the Schiano hire. Even White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke out against the hire.
So the media narrative that the folks from the trailer park were mad because Schiano wasn’t a good football coach isn’t even remotely accurate. Those claims were part of an agenda that national sports media has maintained regarding the University of Tennessee and its fans for years. But what also happened as a result of that day was that people started to come to me with their stories of what was happening behind the scenes. As a result, I began to piece together a tale that didn’t match up at all with what the major sports networks and websites were saying.
I promised at the end of that tumultuous week that I would write the real story of what happened around the University of Tennessee. You may think this is a story about ten days, but it’s not.
This is the story of two decades in Knoxville, and the people who remained loyal to the Tennessee Volunteers no matter what was going on.
This is the story of an unprecedented event in sports, where the fans took back their program from the fat cats who were systemically destroying it from within.
This is the story of the Rocky Top ReVOLution and the people who made it happen…a blueprint for fan bases everywhere that face similar problems with their beloved school. A blueprint that every major university’s athletic department now dreads and fears because none of them want to see a fan movement take over their campus, their public relations, and their until-now unaffected hiring processes where the opinions of the little people hold no sway.
This is a story of humiliation and revenge, exile and vindication, fury and triumph. But ultimately, it is a story of the passion people have for the University of Tennessee.
This is the story of Volunteer Nation, and the way they put an end to the most tumultuous and humiliating era in the University of Tennessee's proud history, and no matter what anyone else may tell you this is the real story. This story shouldn't be told in just one voice, but in the voices of the real heroes of this modern-day revolution.
This is the story of the fans and their shared passion for the University of Tennessee.
Chapter One--Vol Nation
Being a Tennessee fan has never been easy.
For the fans who grew up, like I did, learning about college football when Johnny Majors or Phillip Fulmer was the head coach, the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s were a constant roller coaster ride. Although UT was growing into a powerhouse program, the fan base was isolated...condescended to by the national sports media and all those people who knew everything about the game.
Let's be honest: the national media never had much respect for the Vols. Only the Lady Vols under beloved and iconic basketball coach Pat Summitt was acknowledged by the media as a powerhouse team. What they failed to realize was that over in the football section on Rocky Top, things were starting to change.
But for the fans? Not so much.
Back in the days before social media, the fans' opinions didn't matter. There wasn't an avenue that a sprawling group of people could utilize to make those opinions known aside from talk radio on the local level. ESPN was a growing monster, and UT fans quickly learned to tune them out.
Make no mistake: ESPN has never liked the University of Tennessee.
That all changed drastically when personal computers created a platform everyone could use. Suddenly, fans from all over the world and all walks of life could take about what they loved online. They could respond instantly to games...or the latest snide remark from some sports analyst who thought it was funny to broadcast the generalization of UT fans as uneducated, stupid, and incapable of understanding big money sports.During the last four or five years, the UT fan base has taken over social media, and hundreds of thousands of people came together under on unifying brand. When Lyle "Butch" Jones was hired to replace the woeful Derek Dooley as the head football coach, the Vol Nation platform was firmly entrenched in Tennessee culture. Jones had to learn to deal with this new aspect of his job and how best to utilize the immediacy of online interaction with the fans.
But coinciding with the beginning of the Butch Jones era as head coach for the football program at UT, a major power player arrived on the field.
Vol Twitter--Still Undefeated
Anyone who’s waded into the shark pool known as Vol Twitter quickly learns the value of social media in today’s society.
Social media is a dog eat dog world anyway, but when you add in the volatile emotions of college sports it can get downright scary. Vol Twitter is the most outrageous, aggressive, keen-edged fan base on social media.
Vol Twitter quickly became very powerful. It drove public opinion about everything UT. Watching a game while on Vol Twitter was almost ridiculous because they miss nothing.
Every call is analyzed and argued. Every misstep is under the immediate glare of the fan base’s spotlight. Every snafu is dissected. Vol Twitter is so practiced at breaking down game film that some members can do it in real time. They immediately interact with local media, and the younger journalists who cover the UT beat became expert at working with and within Vol Twitter. This extraordinary relationship changed the way that Tennessee sports were reported, and turned journalists into friends. Or enemies, depending on the journalist.
Vol Twitter was also very in tune with what’s going on with every sport on Rocky Top. And while UT fans congregated on other mediums, like Facebook, Vol Twitter became the online face of the fan base. Vol Twitter and Vol Facebook groups, like the immense Vol For Life group, also exemplified a major divide within Tennessee fans. The Facebook-connected fans were more forgiving of Jones's missteps initially; Vol Twitter, on the other hand, savaged the coach for them.
As with any large group of people, there were spats and cliques within Vol Twitter that made for some very interesting off-season nights. But since the beginning of the 2016-2017 football season, Vol Twitter was fairly united on one thing they thoroughly disliked about Tennessee football.
Before the 2017-18 football season, there was a strong sense that it was the last gasp chance for head football coach Butch Jones. In 2016, Tennessee fans had watched in horror as the most talented team to run through the T in twenty years had crashed and burned. Instead of the college football playoffs or a major bowl game, the Volunteers had gone 9-4 and subsequently played Nebraska in the Music City Bowl on December 30 while much of its roster watched from the sidelines or from home. For the second season in a row, a baffling rash of injuries had deep-sixed the season with more than twenty-five players out of commission by the end of October.
Now the Vols were facing a new football season, and the matriculation of talent had created a great deal of uncertainty about what the season ahead had in store. The Vols were picked to finish third in the East division at SEC Media Days, with most prognosticators predicting a seven or eight win season as the pinnacle of what UT could hope to accomplish.
The 2017-18 season was the fifth year of the Butch Jones era. Every player on the roster was one he’d recruited and coached exclusively while at UT. And while everyone was aware this was a rebuilding year, the success of the team would decide once and for all if Jones really was the coach Vols fans had been waiting for.
Butch Jones needed a legendary season.
He got one.
The first eight-loss season in school history, leaving Ohio State University as the only D1 program never to lose eight games in the same year. The first winless season in SEC play, going 0-8 with humiliating losses to Missouri, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Florida along the way. A 41-0 pounding by Georgia, the worst loss in Neyland Stadium history.
No doubt about it. The season was legendary, but for all the wrong reasons.
After that embarrassing Georgia loss on September 30, everyone knew that Jones would be gone. I, for one, expected him to be fired almost immediately. After all, Athletic Director John Currie obviously didn’t have a problem with firing coaches mid-season, considering that he was implicated up to his eyebrows in orchestrating the Fulmer dismissal nine years earlier. But what emerged from the UT athletic department was…nothing.
For a month and a half, through a woeful October and half of a disastrous November, John Currie took no action, made no comment, and didn't seem to care that the Tennessee football program, the pride of the university for decades, was being utterly destroyed. For a month and a half, Currie smirked his way through a Volunteer nightmare, while Vol Nation boiled online, local sports media crucified Currie and UT for its inaction, and the rest of the college sports world turned UT into a laughing stock.
Not until November 16, when Missouri massacred a woefully undermanned UT roster—with only fifty-five players available…a loss of thirty players from the team—50-17 while dropping 659 yards of total offense on the Vols, did John Currie finally take the step everyone knew was coming. During that month and a half of inaction, the Vol Twitter beast was seething, fans were blacking out their avatars--which made their timelines look like targets at a shooting range. And at last, frustration and rage brought all the scattered elements of the Tennessee fan base together. The groups on Twitter and Facebook, the people who called in to local and national radio shows, the local media, the alumni and students, and the former players were all in agreement that the status quo of Tennessee athletics was no longer acceptable.
And while all these elements were stewing together, a recipe for a fiasco was created. At the end of the day, the debacle of a John Currie-run coaching hire was inevitable. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell that concoction wouldn’t boil over.
The Rocky Top ReVOLution had begun.