Skip to main content

‘It’s Time for Football to Kick Butt’: Tennessee’s Revival Faces Biggest Test vs. Alabama

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—On Wednesday nights in the fall, Calhoun’s On The River is the place to be.

Nestled on the banks of the Tennessee River, the 34-year-old barbecue joint hosts the weekly radio call-in show for Tennessee’s football coach, whoever it may be. From 2009 to ’20, four different people came here each week during the season to talk about the Volunteers. There was brash and bold Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and his country twang, Butch Jones’s brick-inspired clichés and Jeremy Pruitt’s monotone musings.

But within the restaurant, its walls covered in Big Orange sports memorabilia, there is little to no mention of those coaches. There are no photos, signed footballs, no schedule posters or artwork. In this showcase of Vols football, whole characters are missing. Games are absent.

“Well, there hasn’t been a lot to cheer about, but the history is there and the tradition is there,” says Hall of Fame quarterback and Vols legend Peyton Manning. “So many fans have experienced the highs of UT football and know what it’s like and know what Neyland [Stadium] can be. The new generation has never tasted that.”

Which is why this Saturday has never felt more significant.

Alabama and Tennessee will meet in the 105th installment of their storied rivalry, but this clash has both teams ranked within the top six for the first time. Knoxville is in a state of jubilant disbelief—the Vols are 5–0, ranked No. 6 in the country and only a touchdown underdog against coach Nick Saban and his third-ranked Crimson Tide (6–0).

“This will be the biggest weekend we’ve had since 1998,” says Kim Bumpas, president of the Visit Knoxville tourism group. “It’s like the days of old.”

Days before kickoff, bars are extending hours, restaurants are doubling staff, and the 9,500 hotel rooms in the county are all booked. The cheapest ticket to the game is $350, while midfield seats are going for $2,000 apiece. More than 150,000 people are expected on campus. The school is installing jumbo screens outside the stadium for those who can’t find their way into the 101,915-seat cathedral. Not far from Calhoun’s, three dozen boats, most of them streaked in orange, were already docked as part of the Vol Navy’s famous sailgating scene.

The matchup feels much bigger than just one game. And there is likely no better barometer for Tennessee’s blazing start than the vaunted Tide.

Are the Vols really back?

Twenty months removed from a 3–7 season that resulted in a third consecutive coach being fired and an NCAA investigation, the Vols are roaring into this one with such momentum and fire power that they’ve shocked both college football and their own fan base—a passionate crew of people who’ve spent 13 years waiting for this moment. Tennessee, one of college football’s most iconic brands, home of the Power T, Big Orange and “Rocky Top,” six national championships and 13 SEC titles, fell into irrelevance.

“Recruits today don’t remember the mid-90s or the 1985 Sugar Bowl. I remember those teams. I was in New Orleans for that Sugar Bowl,” Manning says.

“That’s what we are trying to do,” he continues. “We are trying to send a message to recruits: Tennessee is coming back.”

Fans take part in the Vol Walk leading up to Neyland Stadium.

Fans will be back in full force Saturday, making the Vol Walk ahead of Tennessee’s clash against Alabama.

Near the Tennessee athletics compound, vehicles drive along Johnny Majors Drive, pass Doug Dickey Hall of Fame Plaza, turn onto Phillip Fulmer Way and arrive at General Robert Neyland Stadium.

One former UT athletic staff member refers to the drive around campus as an “unhealthy obsession with the individual.” Others might describe it as an aggressive reminder of expectations.

“No matter who you are and where you come from, you go to work on Neyland Drive and you play your games at Neyland Stadium,” says Dickey, now 90 and living in Florida. “The man set a precedent, and everybody is trying to get back to that.”

In three different stints as coach, the last ending in 1952, Neyland won four of Tennessee’s six national titles. Dickey won in ’67, and Fulmer won in ’98. A decade later, Fulmer was fired, and the jury is still split over the controversial dismissal of one of the game’s greatest leaders. Despite playing in the SEC title game in 2007, UT finished ’08 at 5–7, its second losing season in four years and fourth consecutive season with four-plus losses.

“I got fired after playing for the [SEC] championship the previous year,” says Fulmer. “People screw up sometimes. People make bad decisions.”

Tennessee football’s trajectory spiraled after Fulmer’s dismissal. From his last season in 2008 to Pruitt’s final year in ’20, a collective five coaches led Tennessee to losing records in eight of those seasons, dropped an average of five SEC games a year, lost to Vanderbilt five times and finished unranked 10 times. The Vols also never beat Alabama and three times managed to do something Fulmer never did: lose to Kentucky.

“I’ve been on board with every coach we’ve had. I’m a Vol for life,” Manning says. “I want all those guys to succeed. Sometimes we hire somebody and the fans immediately say, ‘It’s not going to work!’ I try to give the person all of my support until it can’t be supported anymore. It’s hard to put an exact reason on why it hasn’t worked out.”

Dickey points to the coaching hires. Others attribute the problems to an alignment with university officials. Some even say things grew political, which isn’t unusual in an SEC college town. During one five-year stretch from 2016 to ’21, four athletic directors. That overlapped with the university going through four different chancellors.

Tennessee’s success in the 1990s was rooted in stability, says John Chavis, the legendary defensive coordinator who worked on the Vols staff for 20 seasons. Chavis worked under Fulmer. Fulmer worked under Dickey, then the athletic director, and Dickey worked under Joe Johnson, the UT president. Adds Chavis: “We had the backing of our AD and president; it didn’t matter what the money people said.”

Peyton Manning throws a pass under pressure in a game for the Tennessee Vols.

Peyton Manning finished his final season at Tennessee with 3,819 passing yard and 36 touchdowns.

In 1999, Johnson retired. Dickey followed in 2002.

“People didn’t know where their parking place was,” Fulmer says. “I look around the country and see most of the programs that are struggling, that’s the case—not on the same page.”

While Fulmer points to alignment as the issue, others point to him. His shadow stretched far and wide, to the point where the university had to report itself for an NCAA violation after Fulmer coached players at a practice. During the search to replace Jones in the winter of 2017, Fulmer maneuvered himself into the athletic director chair and replaced John Currie. It was a “coup,” says one former department staff member.

The story of Tennessee’s 2017 coaching search has been exhaustively told. The leaked name of Currie’s top candidate, Greg Schiano, triggered a social media storm from UT fans that nixed the hire. A pursuit of then Washington State coach Mike Leach was met with such resistance, the school ushered Currie out the door. After announcing Currie’s departure, the university president introduced the new athletic director at a department-wide meeting. Fulmer stepped into the room, and attendees erupted in cheers.

“It was bizarre,” says a staff member, who requested anonymity. “Someone had just lost their job.”

Manning was part of the search committee that selected Currie, one of the more respected administrators in college sports who is now athletic director at Wake Forest. “Still sorry that didn’t work out,” Manning says. “John is a good man.”

Fulmer hired Pruitt in what continued a line of failed coaches who, either before or after their stint at UT, had links to Saban. Pruitt worked under Saban for five years. Dooley worked on Saban’s staff at both LSU and the Miami Dolphins. Kiffin and Jones eventually worked for Saban after their time at Tennessee, and each returned to Knoxville wearing Crimson.

In fact, after the Tide’s 58–21 win in Knoxville in 2018, a photo of Jones smoking a cigar surfaced, eliciting outrage from UT fans. On Saturday, another former Tennessee coach returns here. Dooley joined Saban’s staff this offseason as an offensive analyst.

“I’m glad [Josh] Heupel doesn’t have any Saban links,” says Jayson Swain, a former Tennessee receiver and radio host in Knoxville. “There’s only one Saban. You can’t be Saban.”

Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker greets fans as he heads to Neyland Stadium.

Hendon Hooker is now among this season’s Heisman Trophy favorites, amassing 1,432 passing yards, 231 rushing yards and the third-best total QB ranking in the country (90.4) through five games.

In January 2021, Tennessee’s athletic department got a new boss, Danny White, who then hired his former coach at UCF, Heupel, after the chancellor fired Pruitt amid the NCAA scandal.

The overhaul of the athletic department began, a modernization that featured revamped fundraising efforts and revenue-generating moves. Less than two years in, the program has sold more than 17,000 new season tickets to hit the 59,000 mark in total sales. This past fiscal year, the university set fundraising records at $80.7 million.

Neyland Stadium has undergone multiple facelifts, with new video boards, a north social deck premium area and lower west club level. The university started another fundraising effort, the Shareholders Society, that helped provide up to $4 million in investments for athletes.

“At one point, we had 20 projects going on,” says UT deputy athletic director Cam Walker, who arrived from Orlando with White. “I looked at Danny and asked how many projects we’d have going on during a normal year. He said, ‘About seven.’”

In the most controversial change, White implemented a seat-licensing system in Neyland Stadium that substantially increased prices for older season-ticket holders who had been brought in at a lower rate. He says the increase has generated about $20 million to $30 million in additional revenue and has helped the Volunteers move up the SEC financial ladder.

In the 1990s, the Vols’ athletic budget normally topped the conference. Over the past three years, UT’s budget (around $135 million) has fallen behind Kentucky for eighth in the SEC, despite having the third-largest football stadium in the league. The budget has now grown to $170 million, and “we’re not even close to done,” White says.

The university is getting help from outside entities, too. Its name, image and likeness (NIL) effort is one of the strongest in the country. The Spyre Sports Group, a marketing agency turned NIL fundraiser, distributed about $4 million to some 130 UT athletes this past season. Its goal is to raise $25 million, and officials tell SI they believe it is doable.

“You combine the university alignment with powerful and enthusiastic donors, a rabid fan base and a strong NIL program, and it is a perfect storm,” says Hunter Baddour, co-founder of Spyre and a 2008 Tennessee graduate.

The alignment seems to have returned to the days of the 1990s. Even Fulmer is back in the fold. He says he often meets with Heupel and White. He shows up to practice occasionally, as well, and he says there are no more “silos” within the department he once operated.

It’s why the Vols are “ahead of schedule,” says Marcus Hilliard, UT’s senior associate AD and chief of staff.

During the coaching transition from Pruitt to Heupel, UT lost 15 scholarship players to transfer, including linebacker Henry To’oto’o, now the linchpin of the Alabama defense. In Year 1 last season, the Vols won seven games with 69 scholarship players, 16 below the NCAA standard of 85.

“It was broken here,” Heupel says.

During a meeting on White’s first day on the job, players expressed that they were emotionally and physically exhausted. They were frustrated.

“They talked about the amount of [physicality] and they were telling us about injuries in warmups and that they would go into games tired,” Walker says.

Then Heupel came in and brought the fun back. In one of his first moves as coach, he held a team dodgeball event. The team has various competitions away from football, such as Wiffle ball and softball games. The team would eat meals and play video games together, building back a sense of camaraderie. During Heupel’s first team meeting, players asked if they could play music at practice. A confused Heupel shot back, “What team doesn’t listen to music at practice? Of course we can play music.”

The players cheered.

Those small changes helped the players on the field, as well. Heupel and offensive coordinator Alex Golesh now have the top-ranked unit in the country after it sat 102nd in 2020. The Vols are averaging 547 yards a game, 200 yards better than that ’20 squad. They have scored on 62% of offensive drives, the best rate in the FBS.

Quarterback Hendon Hooker, emerging as a Heisman Trophy favorite, is completing 70% of his passes and averaging a stunning 10 yards per completion, good for third in the nation. He hasn’t thrown an interception in 239 attempts, dating back to last November.

He is a microcosm of the team’s growth as a whole. After transferring from Virginia Tech, he lost the starting job last season before coming off the bench for an injured Joe Milton in Week 2. He has grown to be a vocal team leader, comfortable in his role and confident in his arm.

“His growth from when we took over at the first practice at spring ball to now … holy cow,” Heupel says. “He’s gone through ups and downs, and now you see his resurrection.”

Will Hooker and Tennessee turn the Tide? Saban is 16–1 against the Volunteers, including a comeback victory in the 2001 SEC championship game while he was coach at LSU, a loss that derailed the Vols, who were on track for what might have been Tennessee’s seventh national title.

In Knoxville, no one likes the man. “He is despised,” says Leigh Burch, a 65-year-old Knoxville bar owner and UT fan. “They call him Little Devil Nick.”

There is no guarantee for victory. Knowing the fickle nature of his fan base, White wisely tampers expectations. “Just because we are having a great run, it doesn’t mean the sky is falling if Saturday doesn’t go well,” he says. “We can’t be reactionary.”

How passionate are the fans here? It starts at an early age, says Melissa Charles, a longtime Tennessee booster who is from the town of Rocky Top, about 25 miles north of Knoxville. In one Rocky Top middle school, students can get extra credit each Friday in a particular class if they wear orange and sing “Rocky Top.”

“It is bred into the kids here,” Charles says.

Part of that passion comes from “Vol Twitter,” a strong social media movement known for pushing the football program to make changes. Last offseason, it hounded USC officials in such a way that many here believe it expedited the Trojans’ release of transferring receiver Bru McCoy. Swain calls it an “orange swarm.”

“The fan base is kind of scarred,” White says.

A few months into his tenure, White was introduced to Vol Twitter in the replies of upbeat messages he had posted on the social media site. “I’d get tweets scowling and firing back at me,” he says. “I was like ‘Man, what’s going on with these folks?’ They’re just beat down and in a negative place.”

The attitude trickles down to the players, says Todd Kelly Jr., who grew up in Knoxville and played defensive back for the Vols from 2014 to ’18. “When I was on the team, no one in Neyland thought we could beat Alabama. It almost became an acceptable thing—to be a Tennessee fan and Tennessee player and lose to Alabama.”

Tennessee coach Josh Heupel calls in a play from the sidelines.

Coach Josh Heupel and Tennessee are 5-0 after posting a 7-6 overall record in his first season with the program in 2021.  

Back at Calhoun’s, the place is jammed. A line of fans, two dozen long, wait for Heupel to sign memorabilia. During the call segment, fans air various grievances over the phone.

Coach, our punter seems too slow in kicking the ball!

I think we need to keep a running back in the backfield to help pass block!

Amid the proceedings, a whiff of cigar smoke wafts from one of the Vol Navy boats stationed at the restaurant’s riverside dock.

Cigars? Already?

In the 1950s, Alabama started the tradition of celebrating a win against Tennessee by smoking cigars in the locker room, a custom that eventually became the norm for the Volunteers. When you beat Alabama, you smoked a cigar, recalls Chris Treece, a 54-year-old high school football coach in Knoxville who played for Majors. Treece helps run a nonprofit called Legends of Tennessee, which operates football camps in underserved areas of the state and holds a fundraiser each year to auction off expensive bourbon and cigars.

This year, instead of purchasing cigars from a retailer, Treece opened his own line of Nicaraguan cigars, each with a gold band inscribed with VFL: Vol For Life.

As soon as Tennessee beat LSU last weekend, orders began pouring in for the cigars, as optimistic fans prepared for Saturday’s game. 

As it turns out, one of the orders—for 100 cigars—was delivered earlier this week to a location at 1300 Phillip Fulmer Way. That’s the address of one Neyland Stadium.

“We sent them over to the equipment guys,” says Treece, laughing. “We haven’t been able to smoke cigars for a while.”

But maybe, just maybe, that changes? Perhaps the lost decade of Tennessee football history is over.

“Our baseball team is kicking butt, and [coach] Rick Barnes in basketball is kicking butt,” Manning says. “It’s time for football to kick butt, too.”

Watch college football live with fuboTV: Start your free trial today!

More College Football Coverage: