Let’s be honest. Tennessee football is the ultimate Boomer program. The Baby Boomers were responsible for instituting tons of social change in the 1960s and 1970s, and Gen Xers and early millennials enjoyed the fruits of that labor in the 1980s and 1990s. However, refusal to adapt since then has created problems.
That all applies to the Vols. In the 1960s, they began new traditions like running through the T, the Vol Walk and the Power T on helmets. Rocky Top became the program’s unofficial fight song in the early 1970s. Shield’s Watkins Field became Neyland Stadium and expanded ahead of all other stadiums in the SEC.
On the field, the Vols moved away from the single-wing. They became the first school to play African Americans significant time. Then they embraced Title IX and women’s sports in the 1970s, allowing for the women’s basketball program to become the standard of the sport.
All of these changes allowed for Tennessee football to have a solid 30-year run from roughly 1981 to 2010, and they had their peak success during that time from 1989 to 2004. However, starting in the 2010s, not ironically the decade the first Boomers reached retirement age, things fell apart. What happened? Well, failure to stay ahead of the curve happened.
This is where Danny White comes in. White’s first 100 days were covered in a range of topics he discussed with Brent Hubbs of VolQuest Wednesday. One of those was facilities and increasing revenue, and that’s where the good stuff came in.
Referring to all the traditions we just named, White made the point we made. He noted that not during just the Boomer generation, but throughout history, the Vols have grown as a program by being ahead of the curve.
What I have learned is that we (Tennessee) have always been progressive. If anything we have lost our way a little bit there. If you look at the history of Tennessee, just simple things like the Southeastern Conference was founded in Knoxville.
We were the first from what I can tell, at least one of the first flagship public universities to build a national brand and we did it with this bold orange color.
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White is right. What makes the Vols so special is their ability to stay ahead of the curve. That’s not to say don’t embrace old traditions, but don’t forget that there was a time when those traditions weren’t old even though the program was still established.
Every new tradition we mentioned in the opening paragraphs came at a time when Tennessee football was already an established program. We’ll even throw in another one. Smokey became the school’s official mascot in 1953. That’s one year after Robert Neyland’s final season.
As a result, if you look back on Neyland’s tenure, the most successful run in school history, it was done without any tradition we have mentioned so far on here. That doesn’t mean it was bad to start the new traditions and, as White said, be progressive on other things. In fact, it was proof that the Vols needed to be ahead on these things.
Don’t forget that when Neyland took over in 1926, the single-wing was cutting-edge at the time. It bucked tradition. He was also interested in architecture and personally responsible for lots of the changes to the stadium that kept it ahead of the curve.
New traditions took hold in the Doug Dickey years and set the stage for the success in the Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer years. They also set the stage for the late Pat Summitt’s incredible run with the Lady Vols and made the Lady Vols a brand. However, there’s been limited change since, and both football and women’s basketball have taken steps back.
Not everything White said in this interview was right. He did talk about the negativity of fans at one point holding things back, and he has been critical of fans’ negativity since he took over. With all due respect to White, he needs to understand how often fans have gotten their hopes up and been let down. The negativity is warranted and not their fault.
Still, even with that wrong take, White’s overall perspective is right. Tennessee football, and the Vols as a whole, are at their best when they buck, tradition. That is their tradition. Moving away from that the past decade has proven costly.
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