The Scruffy City and B.A.S.S. Strong

Fans pack out the Day 3 weigh-in at the University of Tennessee’s Thompson Boling Arena.

There were two big winners at last week’s Bassmaster Classic — the new champion, Ott DeFoe, and Knoxville, Tenn., the host city.

As you know by now, DeFoe beat a strong field of 52 anglers, walking away with the trophy and $300,000. Knoxville garnered a significant payoff as well, hauling in massive kudos from fishing fans, the media and my colleagues here at B.A.S.S. for its beauty, vibrant downtown and the general friendliness all encountered. And the town set a new Classic attendance record of 153,809, topping the previous record in Greenville 2018 by nearly 10,000. 

But it wasn’t always so for this Southern Appalachian city. As a native son of Knoxville, I appreciate just how far it has come in the past few decades.  

The Knoxville of my youth was a bit insecure about how it was viewed by the outside world. Located at the headwaters of the Tennessee River, with the Smoky Mountains to the east and the Cumberland Plateau to the west, the town was somewhat geographically isolated. Some may have considered us provincial — hillbillies perhaps — dressed in overalls and listening to bluegrass music. That was the stereotype, at least.

Two writers who visited Knoxville, and wrote negatively about it, actually did the town a favor.

In 1947, author John Gunther referred to Knoxville as “America’s ugliest city” in his book Inside USA. Knoxvillians were offended, but Gunther’s words motivated residents and organizations to start planting trees — red buds and dogwoods — and flowering plants. In 1955, the Knoxville Garden Club took up the torch and laid the foundation for what is now 60 miles of dogwood trails and an annual Dogwood Arts Festival that energizes the city each spring with blooms and thousands of visitors.

Then in 1980 Wall Street Journal reporter Susan Harrigan wrote a skeptical story about Knoxville hosting the 1982 World’s Fair titled, “What if you gave a World’s Fair and nobody came?” She described Knoxville as, “a scruffy little city on the Tennessee River.” 

While the “scruffy” label was not initially welcomed, locals soon embraced it with defiant pride. As evidence, you can now find the Scruffy City Hall, a bar and entertainment venue, in downtown Knoxville. And the Scruffy City moniker adorns t-shirts, hats and bumper stickers all around town. 

Gunther and Harrigan forced us to look in the mirror, and they inspired us — or angered us — into actions that made Knoxville a better place.

Knoxville, you’ve revitalized the city while hanging on to our history, and you just set a new standard for the Bassmaster Classic. I’m proud of you.

B.A.S.S. Strong 

This was my eighth Classic with B.A.S.S. and I continue to be amazed that a small staff puts on this giant event. It takes months of preparation, experience and great teamwork to pull it off. This year the content teams, which includes the website, social media, and video crew at JM, generated more high quality content than every before, with additional video cameras on the water, and more photography, stories and video than any previous Classic. Most of that content was pushed out in our social media too. For the 2019 Classic we set new records in video views, minutes viewed and social media consumption. This group continues to up its game. 

B.A.S.S. is 51 years young now, and I’m convinced we are entering a new golden age. Interest in the sport is growing, and the whole organization is looking for new ways to super-serve fans and anglers. The ownership group (Knoxville guys as well) is fired up, and the staff, which is a mix of wily veterans and new blood, is passionate and the hardest working team I’ve ever been a part of.  

B.A.S.S., I’m proud of you. To the fans who attended the Classic or followed it online, thank you. Deeply. You fuel our passion. 

Full circle 

On Day 3 of the Classic, I was on the water with Steve Bowman and Jordan Card in an area of Fort Loudoun Lake known for a massive rock wall called Saltpeter Bluff. We were covering nearby anglers for when I noticed a familiar navigation marker on the far shore. It looked a lot like the spot where Granddaddy Sexton had a little cabin many, many years ago, just a short drive from his home in Friendsville, Tenn.

The next day I asked my dad if that was indeed the old family spot. “Was it right across from Saltpeter Bluff?” he asked. Sure enough, it was. “They call that Sexton Point on the TVA maps now,” he added with just a hint of pride. That little stretch of rocky bank is where my first fishing memory resides. My dad, granddad and I camped and fished there when I was maybe 5 years old. A lifetime later, I’m covering a Bassmaster Classic in the same spot.  

I now live in Birmingham, Ala., and don’t get back to East Tennessee often enough. But it’s fair to say this full circle journey to the place that made me was extra special.