Wiedmer: Sewanee football is always right

Wiedmer: Sewanee football is always right

October 19th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

SEWANEE, Tenn. - Bill Barry has witnessed college football at both its loftiest levels and more humble roots. Now 69 and recently retired, he has worked at both Division I Tennessee and Division III Sewanee, which doesn't allow athletic scholarships.

Yet to listen to Barry discuss both programs Saturday afternoon as he sat on the edge of Sewanee's Hardee-McGee Field, the fourth oldest piece of real estate in college football at 123 years young, was to be at least a little bit surprised by which former employer he placed in which category.

"Knowing both of them," he said of the Volunteers and Tigers, "the most genuine form of football is on this (Sewanee's) level."

The Tigers' form of football fell short Saturday against Centre College, the undefeated Colonels clubbing them by a 31-3 score. The loss dropped Sewanee to 1-6 for the season despite 3,500-seat Harris Stadium overflowing with students and their well-dressed parents on Family Weekend.

Yet the outcome did little to dampen the joy of Tigers freshman defensive back and former Baylor School standout Glenn Ireland, who stands second on the team in tackles.

"I didn't expect to play this much my first year," he said. "But there hasn't been as much difference in speed as I expected. Coming out of Baylor, it was either try to play football here or go to Auburn and not play football. I'm so glad I came here. Everybody's so helpful -- professors, coaches, everyone. Everybody has your back. And I get to play college football for four years. That's what it's all about."

It is certainly what it used to be about, for those old enough to remember major college afternoons in the South during the 1960s and early 1970s. And having Earth, Wind and Fire's classic "September" blasting from the press-box speakers at halftime wasn't Saturday's only reminder of a warmer, fuzzier time in college football.

It's Sewanee's timeless all-male twin drinking societies -- the Highlanders in their kilts, the Wellingtons in their capes -- filing into the stadium as one at the start of the second quarter.

"They're sort of like a fraternity," said junior Adam Biro, a proud member of the Highlanders. "But they cross all organizations. If you're an upstanding citizen, you have a chance to join one. It's all pretty crazy."

For those Big State U souls who live and die with each snap of the ball, determined to blanket themselves in school colors from dyed hair to painted toenails, their emotions elevated by deafening rap music, it's crazy in its subtlety. Almost every guy but those in kilts wore kakhis, the classic slacks often accompanied by a button-down shirt, blazer or tweed sport coat. There were almost as many women in skirts or dresses as slacks. The only thing missing from the numerous tailgates was fine china.

"It's just much smaller and more intimate," said Oliver Springs, Tenn., native Danny Roberts, who has become a fixture at Sewanee games since his nephew Brody Roberts became a Tiger last season. "Just look (at the tailgaters). It's a party."

Added Barry: "Really, Sewanee never changes."

Everything changes, evolves, sometimes for the better. Because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Sewanee cheerleaders shook pink pompoms and wore pink bows in their hair. Though not necessarily an improvement, the Tigers' helmets have a dull rather than shiny finish, which is all the rage at UT's level. And while Hardee-McGee Field is still framed by magnificent tulip poplars, oaks and maples, it now is covered in plastic grass.

Yet 79-year-old John Greeter will swiftly tell you that what makes Sewanee special is those kids on the field.

"I watched over 500 Tennessee games in person," he said. "I had a skybox at Neyland Stadium and 20 season tickets. Then I got a letter one day that I wasn't giving enough money. That was that. Sewanee's in my will. These kids aren't on scholarship. They play for the love of the game."

Jaimie and Steve Potts' son, Tanner, went to high school in Agoura Hills, Calif., because his father is the Pepperdine athletic director. But Steve worked at Lipscomb University in Nashville before heading for Southern California.

"Tanner wanted to play football in the South," Jaimie said. "He wanted a high academic school and he loved Sewanee's history (which includes charter membership in the Southeastern Conference). It's been a perfect fit."

Sewanee isn't the only Division III program to welcome Chattanooga prep products. Centre counts former McCallie linebacker Andrew Busby among its best freshmen.

"I was scared at first," Busby said. "But it's been fun. You don't have to be a superstar. You just play."

Few have played better for Sewanee than kicker Callum Wishart, who spent his early years in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, before his family moved in 2004 to Ooltewah, where he became a soccer star and football place-kicker with the Owls.

The junior economics major's second-quarter field goal provided the Tigers' only points against the Colonels. But as he headed for the locker room he wasn't thinking about the loss so much as the setting it was played in.

Said Wishart: "It's a little heaven."

And you wonder why the words on the stadium press box read: "Yea, Sewanee's Right."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.