KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee’s Fan Day was still two hours away, which meant the Orange and White spring game was still nearly six hours from kickoff. Since this was a Saturday, even a respectable number of roosters were likely wearing out their snooze buttons.
But not Big Orange football fans. The clock having just passed 9 a.m., they were already lining up outside the Volunteers’ football complex, hoping to catch their first glimpse of new coach Lane Kiffin.
So Kiffin sent out his players to greet them on their way to breakfast.
“I wanted them to know how much this football team means to these people,” Kiffin said. “I’m just upset we couldn’t stay longer (at Fan Day). But they just kept coming.”
By the time it was official, by the time the White offense had bested a defenseless Orange defense 41-23 (Eric Berry didn’t play), the school estimated that 51,488 Volniacs had come to Neyland Stadium to witness the beginning of the Kiffin Era at Tennessee.
“I just wanted to see what the new coach looked like,” said Joyce Malcolm, a Bristol, Tenn., resident who has been accompanying her husband Harold to UT games for more than 30 years.
“This is very exciting,” said Knoxville resident Keith Wayland, who runs the Web site www.voljunkies.com. “It’s a lot different than last year.”
It was so different last year that Wayland and his buddy Chip Scarbrough arrived at Fan Day a few minutes before 1 p.m., leisurely entered Haslam Field and collected every autograph they wished from UT players and coaches in about 10 minutes.
This time around, with at least 25,000 people circling Haslam by the time the Fan Day officially began at 11:15, “We didn’t even try to get Coach Kiffin’s autograph,” Scarbrough said. “You couldn’t get close to the guy.”
Jake Stone hopes to get close enough to Kiffin to play for him someday. The 14-year-old is battling to become the South Pittsburg quarterback these days, but he attended UT’s quarterback camp last year and expects to return this June.
To understand the impact Kiffin can have on potential recruits, when the new coach climbed his tower overlooking the Haslam practice field to thank the faithful for coming to Fan Day, young Stone said, “I got goose bumps.”
This is what the UT fan base hopes to hear from every high-profile recruit in the country. This is why Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll made Kiffin his recruiting coordinator while Lane was still in his 20s. This is why the Vols finished the recruiting season ranked in the top 10 by Rivals.com despite the Lane Train not getting on track until Dec. 1.
Or as junior wide receiver Brandon Warren, a Knoxville native, said after catching two Orange touchdowns, “It’s a new team. We all have a new mindset. It’s a championship mindset.”
In one of the odder moments in Orange and White history, the man Kiffin replaced, Phillip Fulmer, received the General Neyland Award from the Knoxville Quarterback Club just before the game began.
Fulmer was justifiably greeted with a standing ovation for his 150 career wins and 1998 national championship. But as he addressed the media before that presentation in an interview room beneath Neyland, an open door allowed the prolonged cheers for his successor to fill the room, uncomfortably washing over the coach and his family.
Said Fulmer with a strained smile: “We love this university very much. But we realize that it can’t love you back. It’s bricks and mortar.”
Now it appears to love Kiffin, though he has yet to win a real Vols game.
“I’ve been coming here for games since 1948,” said 82-year-old Harold Malcolm, dapperly clad in an orange-and-white striped button-down and pale khakis. “And they looked impressive today. But when you run into good competition, that’s another thing.”
That’s when you find out how unforgiving brick and mortar can become.
But on Saturday, that good competition still months away, it remained a honeymoon still heating up between the Volniacs and their new coach.
Said Kiffin, his eyes wide, “The whole day was unbelievable.”
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...