Good, old Rocky Top

Back during October of the 2000 college football season, I was covering Alabama for The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer newspaper when it came time for the Crimson Tide’s annual game against the Tennessee Volunteers.

 One of the country’s greatest rivalries, I had watched and attended the game for many years as a fan. But this was my first time covering the showdown known as “The Third Saturday in October” as a full-time reporter.

I was mesmerized — and what sports fan wouldn’t have been?

I traveled from Columbus to Knoxville with Ledger-Enquirer columnist and good friend Guerry Clegg, and we arrived early enough to watch the line of boats, known as “The Volunteer Navy,” come up the Tennessee River for the game.

After grabbing some hot dogs from the press box, we ventured down into cavernous Neyland Stadium, which was still empty at that point, and ate lunch overlooking the world-famous checkerboard end zones.

When I finished my hot dog, I stood up and told Guerry to make me a promise. “If I ever reach a point where I don’t think this is the coolest job in the world,” I said, “I want you to rear back and kick me as hard as you can right in the backside.”

As fate would have it, I was long gone from Columbus by the time I realized I wanted college football to remain my Saturday-afternoon passion during the fall instead of a thankless, seven-day-a-week job that robbed me of the joy I experienced through it.

Guerry wasn’t there to kick me.

But it’s OK. I’ve found a new job that’s even cooler — and in the irony of all ironies, it keeps leading me back to the magical sports town that is Knoxville.

I’ll be making my second trip to Rocky Top later this month as an employee of B.A.S.S. to cover the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota on the Tennessee River. If it’s anything like the last one, I’ll experience the same chills that day I did inside Neyland.

When we were there in 2019, Tennessee pro Ott DeFoe claimed the title — and there may be no home crowd on earth that pulls for its favorites like the ones that wear orange and white.

The crowds that week were amazing, as thousands lined the banks of the Tennessee River each morning before daylight and then shifted over to the Knoxville Convention Center to pack the place shoulder-to-shoulder for the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo.

When it was time for the anglers to weigh in, fans packed Thompson-Boling Arena like the Vols were hosting Kentucky on the hardwood — and they stayed until the last strand of confetti had fluttered to the ground.

Some are wondering if there will be a repeat this year, but I’m not. I know too much about the Knoxville sports scene to wonder.

I’ve walked out onto the playing surface at Neyland Stadium during the final stages of games with 100,000-plus rabid fans that seem to be hovering right on top of you. I’ve sat inside Thompson-Boling during basketball games when it felt like the roof was gonna come off the place. 

The fans in Knoxville show up — and they bring well-broken-in voice boxes with them.

Then … they have a strange way of turning off the vigor and vitriol that makes them so memorable during games.

Not only is Knoxville one of the most passionate sports towns on earth, it’s home to some of the nicest people on the streets.

The last time we were there, I spent a lot of my time wearing the Alabama hat I’ve become known for, and I never received anything but the finest Southern hospitality in the world. 

I won’t do that this year because B.A.S.S. now makes a fine hat, and I strive to wave our flag anywhere we go.

But no matter who fishes, no matter what I wear, my expectations are set.

I fully expect record crowds at every event we hold Classic week, from the Kick-Off Party to the morning takeoffs to the final weigh-in on Sunday.

With the whole world watching on FOX, I expect everyone to see what those of us who’ve experienced it already know.

Rocky Top is a special place.

And Tennessee folks are special people.