How many games do you think Tennessee will win in 2009 under first-year coach Lane Kiffin? E-mail Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org with your prediction for the Vols’ record this season and why. Selected responses and an overall look at how area fans feel about the Vols’ prospects will be printed prior to the season opener against Western Kentucky.
Gary Watkins and Sharon McGill began dating 10 years ago.
"We went to a UT football game," said the 61-year-old Watkins on Saturday afternoon. "It was the only way I could get her to go out with me."
As Watkins spoke on the lower floor of Hamilton Place mall, a Tennessee ball cap atop his head, a Big Orange T-shirt covering his torso, McGill excused herself to look for wedding shoes. The couple is getting married this coming Sunday.
"I wanted to get married at Neyland Stadium," she said, her Tennessee orange T-shirt partly hidden by her shopping bags. "But we didn't think we could work it out. So we'll have the wedding the day after we watch the Vols beat Western Kentucky on television."
They're everywhere this weekend, college football addicts struggling through a final weekend without their drug of choice.
"I've been waiting all year," said Alabama fan Jamie Rector, who strolled through the mall wearing a Crimson Tide cap and crimson-and-white striped golf shirt with a Bama logo on the chest.
Though he won't make the trip to the Georgia Dome to watch the No. 5 Tide face No. Virginia Tech on Saturday, "I'll be watching it on TV with a bunch of friends. I'm really excited about this season. I think we'll lose in the SEC championship game, but that will be our only loss."
Standing next to Rector was his 6-year-old son Ethan. Asked how soon Ethan learned to shout "Roll Tide," Rector grinned and said, "As soon as he was born."
Brad Baker wore a Virginia Tech cap as he pushed his two-year-old son Liam around the mall's second floor.
"A friend of mine is a big Hokies fan," said Baker, when asked about the cap. "Ever since the (shooting) tragedy at Virginia Tech I've worn this cap to support the school. But I'm a Tennessee fan through and through."
Like a lot of Big Orange backers, Baker is anxious to experience Lane Kiffin's first season as a college head coach.
"I'm looking forward to see what Kiffin's capable of," he said. "He's already caused a big uproar, now he's got to back it up. Let's see if he can put his money where his mouth is."
Unlike most Volniacs, however, Baker goes home every night to a mixed marriage.
"My wife (Meredith) is a huge Georgia fan. She's already brainwashed our daughter (8-year-old) Olivia. Liam's my last chance. And while I'm teaching him about Smokey, she's teaching him about Uga. It's tough."
Despite a struggling economy, what isn't tough these days is selling UT merchandise.
According to David Bradley, who owns the College Station sports apparel shop at Hamilton Place, the off-season coaching changes at Tennessee and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have been a business saver.
"It's been tremendous, a very big deal," he said. "With everything that's gone at Tennessee, our sales have been through the roof, probably triple what they were this time last year. And UTC sales have gone sky-high, too. Those two schools have really been a big help."
Bradley is beginning his ninth year at the mall. He says T-shirts, hats, license plates and spirit flags are his biggest sellers this time of year. He says women's attire has become a large moneymaker, as well.
As for which schools sell the best, Bradley says Tennessee is tops at his shop, followed by Georgia, a third-place tie between Alabama and Florida, with UTC fifth.
Don Gilman -- who manages the Sports Stop shop in Hamilton Place -- says Georgia and Alabama are his two best performers.
"We're sort of known for our Georgia stuff," said Gilman, pointing to a number of Bulldog jerseys signed by former UGA players. "And it's been really busy all weekend. You can tell the difference. Everybody's excited about football again."
Brad Baker's been excited, "Since Christmas, right after the coaching change. But I don't think I'm alone. College football's almost like a religion down here."
Or at least a religious experience.
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 ...