There’s a narrative playing out in Big Orange Country: Tennessee fans are the nastiest, most disloyal, most delusional college football fans in America.
It’s a narrative that’s being propagated by national media types, like ESPN’s Greg McElroy — which is almost comical, since he played quarterback at Alabama, whose fans wanted to fire Nick Saban after the kick-six loss in the Iron Bowl four years ago. It’s also being propagated by some Knoxville media types and some Tennessee fans.
Tennessee fans are frustrated. Ready to unleash 10 years of pent-up frustration with a break-through SEC East championship in 2016, the Vols instead suffered through late-season losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt that first cost them the divisional title and then a Sugar Bowl berth. That is being followed up with a lackluster season that could end with bowl ineligibility for the fourth time in seven years.
Those frustrations have spilled over into social media, where fans have been vocal about their disdain for Butch Jones. Irritated by what they perceived as a hesitance by Tennessee athletics director John Currie to act on the situation, they mounted an #EmptyNeyland campaign that largely flopped.
And now those who are espousing the idea of this out-of-control fan base are promoting the narrative that 5-star offensive lineman and hometown boy Cade Mays decommitted because of the fans. After all, who would want to play for such nasty, disloyal, delusional fans? Right?
Let’s step back in time about a quarter-century, to 1992. Tennessee was off to a 5-0 start, with big wins over No. 14 Georgia and No. 4 Florida. Back-to-back shutouts against Cincinnati and LSU had left the Vols in the thick of the national championship race, heading into an October 10 showdown with SEC newcomer Arkansas at Neyland Stadium. The high-flying start was thrilling, but hardly surprising. The Vols had come off a terrific run of success from 1989 to 1991, ranked in the Top 10 at times in each of those seasons.
Fast-forward about a month, and the tide had turned in Knoxville. The Vols had lost three consecutive games — to Arkansas on a last-second field goal, to eventual national champ Alabama by a touchdown, and to upstart South Carolina on a failed two-point conversion. They were out of the running for the inaugural SEC East divisional title and a slot in the first conference championship game. And Johnny Majors was on thin ice.
Majors had missed the first three games of the season while recovering from open-heart surgery. Amid open and growing admiration from media and boosters towards interim head coach Phillip Fulmer, Majors returned to the sideline for the Vols’ wins over the Bearcats and the Bayou Bengals. Some argued that he had returned too quickly; that jealousy was pushing him back to the stadium on gamedays before he was truly ready. But UT won his first two games back, not allowing a point in either game.
Then the wheels came off. In mid November, on the eve of the Vols’ game in Memphis, Majors released a statement. He was stepping away at the end of the season. He had been forced out, less than a year removed from back-to-back SEC championships.
There was a sophomore from just out I-40 in Kingston on that 1992 Tennessee team. He was still trying to find his spot on the Vols’ talented roster, switching back and forth between the offensive and defensive lines. His name? Kevin Mays.
Mays, who had been recruited to Tennessee by Majors after a standout high school career at Roane County High School, would go on to settle in on the offensive line, and became an All-SEC performer as a guard, where he blocked for freshman quarterback and future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning. Mays could have had an NFL career if not for a freak off-season injury.
If anyone has experienced the fickle nature of the Tennessee fan base, it is Kevin Mays. The lifelong Tennessean saw it first-hand when UT fans turned on Majors in a short five-game span in 1992.
Mays, who still lives in his native hometown of Kingston, and his son, Cade, have been around for every Vols coaching change since. They saw Tennessee fans become rabid amid a losing season in 2008, which resulted in the firing of a Hall of Fame and national championship-winning coach in Fulmer. They were there in 2012, when Vols fans really did empty Neyland as the Derek Dooley era drew to a close.
What’s playing out in Knoxville this season is no surprise to a VFL like Mays, nor is it a surprise to his son. Cade Mays has eaten and breathed Tennessee football his entire life. He was hardly in school when his dad was named Tennessee’s Legend of the Game — along with Travis Stephens — in 2006. He has been committed to the Vols since he was a sophomore in high school. He has been a fixture at Neyland Stadium for UT’s home games.
The idea that the fan base turned Cade Mays away is preposterous. It’s such a nonsensical and far-fetched idea that it would be laughable if there weren’t some fans who truly believe it to be true.
The truth is that Tennessee’s fan base is fanatical — which can make them unbearable at times. The truth is also that Tennessee’s fan base is not unlike Alabama’s, or Florida’s, or Georgia’s…not unlike Kentucky’s in basketball, either. This is big-time college football, and this is how big-time college football fans behave. Maybe they are overbearing, but it is that overbearing nature that causes them to lap up $100 game tickets and overpriced officially-licensed merchandise, which in turn makes Tennessee one of the NCAA’s most desirable coaching gigs. Fans are relatively laid-back at schools like Florida Atlantic or Memphis or Wake Forest, but FAU, Memphis and Wake Forest aren’t big-time college programs. They aren’t going to lure top coaches (or top recruits), and they aren’t going to play all their games on the ESPN family of cable networks. There’s a certain trade-off that’s involved. It is, as a certain big-time college football coach likes to say, what it is.
And, let’s be honest here: the same traits that can make a fan base like UT’s unbearable are the traits that make them among the best fan bases in college football — which is why 95,000 of them (“officially”) would show up for a game against lowly Southern Miss to watch a team that would currently struggle to score points against air. Do you want to talk about fan base loyalty? Compare and contrast Tennessee’s Saturday crowd with the same day’s attendance in Fayetteville and College Station.
If Cade Mays signs anywhere but Tennessee, it’ll likely be with Clemson, Ohio State or Georgia, with Clemson being the clear-cut favorite. And if you doubt the tenaciousness of big-time college football fans applies across the board, just wait until any of those programs stop winning. Just ask Jim Cooper. Better yet, just ask Mark Richt.
It’s fair to debate whether Butch Jones deserves to be fired, although there’s hardly an argument that can be as convincing as there was for not firing Fulmer or for not firing Majors. For that matter, there were plenty of folks who would’ve said that three years was not enough time for Dooley. But the primary point is this: What the Mays family has seen in Knoxville this season is nothing they haven’t experienced before. The Tennessee fan base isn’t the reason Cade Mays is reconsidering his commitment to the Vols. The Mays family is the Tennessee fan base.