Wiedmer: Could gray still pave way for UT Vols turnaround?

Wiedmer: Could gray still pave way for UT Vols turnaround?

October 16th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones walks around linebacker Curt Maggitt (56) while explaining some of the features on the Volunteers' new alternate smokey jersey.

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Around the University of Tennessee campus, if perhaps nowhere else, gray's anatomy dramatically changed body types 11 days ago. Long perceived to reflect sadness, depression, doom and gloom, the seemingly dark color "smokey gray" suddenly stood for something far more positive and inspirational. It elected to forever more -- at least on football Saturdays in the Volunteer State -- represent hope.

That it arrived at this decision through bitter defeat, its debut on UT uniforms permanently linked to a 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia, only heightens the fascination with its power and influence. A single example: The game just ended, the Volunteers trudging out of Neyland Stadium with their heads down, their smokey gray uniforms failing to deliver the upset, the Big Orange Nation rose to its feet to deliver a standing ovation.

We repeat: ... a standing ovation ... after a loss.

Those doubting the power of gray from that point forward, beginning with this weekend's visit from No. 11 South Carolina, must do so at their own risk and future regret.

"I was speechless," defensive lineman Corey Miller said as he recalled the fans' salute. "As a Tennessee team we haven't given the state of Tennessee very productive football the last few years. For them to give us a standing ovation after a loss just proves that they're the greatest fans in America."

And the role of the gray uniforms in that near win against a Top 10 foe?

"Oh, I love those uniforms," Miller said. "I think we all do. They brought excitement. I'd love to see them again."

The Georgia game might have produced the same feel-good emotions without the presence of those smokey gray threads, which are supposed to make an appearance only once a season.

Yet a quick trip to the Vol Shop campus store on Phillip Fulmer Way (and no more than a Justin Worley screen pass from Neyland) more than hints at what gray can do for you, loyal UT fan.

"We're even changing the black type on our business cards to smokey gray," said Tommi Jamison, the store's marketing manager. "The color's officially called 0/0/0/85 cmyk, which is a computer color code. But smokey gray is a university color for the first time ever."

(Side note: The C stands for cyan, the M for magenta, the Y for yellow and the K for black. Mixed precisely, those four colors will produce smokey gray.)

But it's what has happened since that color was worn against Georgia that has most impressed Jamison, a 1998 UT grad.

"You can feel the excitement growing steadily since then," she said. "The fans now have clarity that Coach [Butch] Jones is good for our team. He's our coach and he's going to make us a winning team again."

Tennessee Sports Radio host Dave Hooker agrees. Since the Georgia game, his callers at 1180 AM have been "far more positive," he said. "Fans seem to believe in the on-field product now. Even though Georgia was a loss, they got more excited."

Unfortunately for Jamison and the Vol Shop, all those excited fans won't be able to purchase any more of the replica gray adult jerseys until February -- a surprisingly shortsighted production move by Adidas, given what would surely have been a massive Christmas rush.

"We've completely sold out of the adult jerseys," she said of the $65 shirts. "All 1,300 of them. We do still have some of the children's jerseys left, and we'll have a lot of gray items before Christmas -- just check our website (shop.utk.edu). But it will be February before we have any more of those jerseys."

UT quarterback Justin Worley doesn't necessarily believe that gray's the way to ensure a brighter UT future.

"To me, a jersey is a jersey," he said. "But it definitely got the fans pumped up, and a lot of our guys really liked them. They do bring some excitement, I guess."

Worley has strongly sensed a different attitude among UT students and fans in recent days, however.

"It's just been all-out support for us," he said. "Georgia really opened a lot of people's eyes. They've jumped back on the bandwagon. Lots of naysayers have gone back to being hardcore fans."

Added linebacker A.J. Johnson: "We've learned we can play with anybody in the country. We played like UT used to play back in the day."

Yet for all those wishing to bring back the gray for at least one more day -- One online poll has 62 percent of UT fans hoping for its return -- there was that August statement from the Vols' head ball coach that the Big Orange's fade to gray would be a "one-game deal."

Or will it?

"We're not ruling out that possibility," Jones smiled when asked about gray's return. "That's still to be determined."

If only Santa's helpers at Adidas would say the same about the return date for those replica gray jerseys.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.