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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee fans dressed in orange and white to form a checkerboard pattern in a sold-out Neyland Stadium for Saturday night's football game against Ole Miss.

Water bottles. A Krispy Kreme box. Beer cans. A French's mustard squirt bottle. Liquor bottles. A golf ball.

Really, a golf ball? Who brings a golf ball to a college football game?

Yet the image of the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium football field littered with those objects near the close of the Volunteers' narrow 31-26 loss to Ole Miss on Saturday night, after the officiating crew marked a fourth-down catch by Tennessee tight end Jacob Warren 1 yard shy of a first down inside the final minute, is what too much of America will associate with the school in the days and weeks to come.

If it wasn't exactly a full-blown riot, it was nevertheless a full-blown embarrassment.

"It's an emotional game and fans are emotional, but you never expect something like that, to see all that stuff come flying out of the stands," Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin told ESPN afterward. "I got hit with a golf ball, but at least whoever threw it was smart enough to throw a dirty range ball."

To her credit, UT chancellor Donde Plowman quickly issued the following statement on Twitter: "I am astonished and sickened by the behavior of some Vol fans at the end of tonight's game. Good sportsmanship must be part of who we are as Volunteers. Behavior that puts student-athletes, visitors and other fans at risk is not something we will tolerate."

She soon added: "I will be calling (Ole Miss) Chancellor (Glenn) Boyce in the morning to offer my personal apology on behalf of the University of Tennessee and discuss what we can do to make this right. Neyland Stadium has always been a place for families, and we will keep it that way."

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey also issued a statement that read, in part, "the actions of fans at Saturday night's game were unacceptable under any circumstances," and he also indicated penalties might be forthcoming.

If the school can find video evidence showing which fans, if you wish to call them that, behaved so abominably, Plowman should also find a way to keep them out of games for at least a year. Beyond a total lack of sportsmanship and civility, which seems to be disappearing at a remarkably swift rate in this country in every walk of life, such behavior could easily injure someone — especially throwing a golf ball and glass bottles.

Almost as disconcerting for the UT brass as this deplorable behavior — which probably added at least 30 minutes to a game that had already run entirely too long — is that it ruined what had pretty much been a free advertisement for both the football program specifically and the university in general in the 225 minutes that had come and gone before it on the SEC Network.

Because before everything went to heck, the UT fans and athletic department were putting on a show so mesmerizing and magical that even Kiffin admitted to the SEC Network just before the opening kickoff: "This is what college football is all about."

Or should be. From the intricate orange-and-white checkerboard pattern in the entire stadium, to some new lighting techniques, to a sold-out, jam-packed, loud-and-proud crowd, this is what makes football time in Tennessee one of the top 10 or 12 game-day experiences in the entire country when the Vols are winning.

"An electric crowd," Kiffin said afterward. "This is a great place with great fans."

But the word fan is also short for fanatic, which is not always a compliment.

And with this game not kicking off until 7:45 Saturday night after a long afternoon of tailgating, the fanatics in the house were probably a bit more inebriated than was likely to lead to them exhibiting best behavior throughout. It happens. Especially when you can buy beer on the premises.

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AP photo by Wade Payne / Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin talks with quarterback Matt Corral during Saturday night's game in Knoxville.

Nor was this only about one bad call or one tough defeat. Once upon a time, you may have heard, Kiffin coached the Volunteers for a single season in 2009. To hear the boos that greeted Kiffin both before the game and at halftime, the Big Orange Nation was in no mood to forgive his exit after that one season when he left Rocky Top to take his "dream job," as he called it at the time, at the University of Southern California.

And Kiffin being Kiffin, he seemed to delight in egging on that anger near the end of an opening half that ended with the Rebels ahead 24-12. Having failed to use any of his three first-half timeouts before the Vols lined up to attempt a field goal inside the final five seconds, he used them all, one directly after the other, in an attempt to ice kicker Chase McGrath — himself a former USC Trojan — on his half-ending 39-yarder.

The ploy didn't work. The kick was good. But Kiffin's smirks after each stoppage of the clock let anyone concerned about such things know he was more than willing to continue to get under the skin of Tennessee fans.

What all this means in the long term probably isn't much. Those who wish to rip the school and its fans no doubt will. Those who want to blame this on Kiffin and the officiating will do that.

That's life, be it fair or not, wise or not.

But this email sent my way early Sunday morning is also worth noting from a historical perspective. The reader, who was in attendance when Army shocked the Vols 25-21 in Neyland in 1986, wrote the following: "Immediately after the game the small crowd of West Point family and supporters was attacked by the Tennessee crowd with harsh, threatening verbiage and anything they could throw. My wife and I got drenched with beer, of all things. In my 90 years I have attended games in most of the SEC stadiums and find the Tennessee hoodlums to be by far the worst."

If nothing else, on a Saturday night that began with the entire school putting its best athletic foot forward, the evening ended with at least a few of the school's fans guiding it two steps backward into a steaming pile of dog excrement that may take a while to wash off and eliminate the smell.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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