Location: Knoxville, TN
States Visited: Kentucky, Tennessee
Ah, to be in college again. Not that I’d been to Knoxville before in my adult life. The family made a trip to the 1982 World’s Fair, but I can only recall the side jaunt to Silver Dollar City in Pigeon Forge. I’ve passed Knoxville at least twice earlier in this trip, knowing that its time would come. Excited to hear Rocky Top and check out one of college football’s great stadiums, I came away with new friends and a well exercised liver. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Before we come to all that, I would be remiss if I didn’t share the following with you:
Choose your own caption
I took in Friday night’s Tennessee vs Temple hoops contest and saw the unveiling of the newly refurbished Thompson-Boling Arena. I overheard someone say, “You could hold NBA games here”, and that was about right. I’d say it is comparable to the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, except snazzier and with much skinnier cheerleaders. I sat two seats over from SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, though we didn’t talk about anything.
From there, I met my tour guide for the weekend, a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend named Jon. Jon showed me a bit of the campus before we grabbed a booth at Cool Beans, a bar whose name I later heard referred to as a place “where skanks hang out.” I mostly saw girls dressed to the nines hanging out with guys who didn’t shave or even comb their hair. I fit right in. Jon and I shared a lengthy, jovial conversation about college football and we found ourselves in agreement on nearly everything. There was a moment when I mentioned Charles Woodson’s name, and his face suddenly turned very serious. I immediately feared some sort of intense altercation. In a low voice, Jon advised me, “Yeah, I wouldn’t bring that up again around here. You might find yourself in some trouble.” Duly noted, I followed his advice. I struggled to keep pace with Jon in terms of adult beverages, holding my own as best I could. We managed to close down Hannah’s and then scooted over to Gus’ Deli for some late-night grub. I had paced myself with the alcohol just enough that I chose to drive back to my hotel. That was perhaps inadvisable, but it was already four in the morning and I planned to get to campus by 8:30 at the latest.
Three hours of sleep probably wasn’t enough, and my knee was acting up worse than ever – it was downright wobbly. I had vowed to gut it out and actually felt pretty spry for an old guy trying to relive the college lifestyle. Most of the Vol Army was slow in arriving on Saturday. Perhaps the “cold” weather kept them tucked in bed. I’m sure the 12:30 kickoff didn’t help matters. After taking in the Vol Walk, Jon and I went in search of food, folks and fun. He kept telling me that things were subdued because of the cold and the early kickoff and the fact that nobody thought they could beat the Razorbacks. But we did encounter a lot of friendly people who were quick to share their beer, Jack Daniels, and homemade apple moonshine. I was once again in the press box for the game, and had the good fortune of being seated next to Roy Kramer. Kramer is the former SEC commissioner who is considered the father of the BCS. He looks older than I expected, but was very engaged in the game, and still quite sharp in both observation and strategic consideration. Various people greeted him throughout the game, wishing him well and happy to say hello. Despite his older appearance, he seemed pretty up on current technology as he checked the Michigan score for me on his cell phone.
Darren McFadden was held in check throughout the game, and UT came away with a big win, continuing their season-long dominance at Neyland Stadium. I hoped that would lead to celebration afterwards, but most people had a bite to eat, threw back a few more drinks and packed up their tailgates. Jon and I decided we needed to get aboard one of the boats of the Vol Navy, and we found a friendly trio peeling frozen shrimp. They spoke of how early in the season, the number of boats more than triples what we saw on Saturday and people swim in the river all day long. That just means that I’ll have to return some future September. I rested up at my hotel and watched Illinois follow my advice and beat Ohio State with play action passing. The evening ended at the VolPost tailgate which had been bumping since 8:00 am. I didn’t expect to find myself at a southern school huddled around a fire to keep warm, but it is November after all. Up next, a quick stop home in Chicago followed by homecoming weekend (for me at least) in Ann Arbor. Looking forward to both!