Mr. Clifton, Mr. Fulmer, and UT's 170-year-old campus

by Jack Neely

The city of Knoxville opened a kettle of angry worms last year when it made a cute pun and at the same time named a short, block-long street near the stadium "Peyton Manning Pass." At the time, it seemed an innocuous move.

After all, "Yale Avenue" didn't make much sense on UT's campus, anyway. Is there a UT Ave. at Yale? This shred called Yale Ave. was only a plaintive leftover of an old residential neighborhood with scholarly aspirations. When UT was still confined to its Hallowed Hill, several of these streets were named after big-shot Eastern universities. Besides Yale, there was once also a Cornell, a Princeton, even, for a time, a Harvard Street. You could say it was a silly, pretentious name to begin with, one calculated to make the neighborhood seem classy, sort of the equivalent of modern West Knoxville subdivisions being named after fictitious British dukedoms.

Only a few things were regrettable about losing that name, and you'd have to be a real obsessive just to know about them. For one, Yale Avenue was the last Knoxville home of Robert Bateman, the English missionary who died on the Titanic. He might have been startled to discover his old street had been renamed for a Vol quarterback. That is, if he knew what a Vol was, at all. UT football was no big deal in Rev. Bateman's day; he went down with the big ship before the Vols had ever beaten Vanderbilt.

Now the street's named Peyton Manning Pass, and though its namesake never won the Heisman or national championship we all hoped for, we can expect the name will mean something to UT freshmen 10, even 20 years from now. It may even mean as much as the name "Hank Lauricella" means to UT students today.

But now a much-longer and more prominent street, Stadium Drive, will be renamed for Coach Phil Fulmer. It's not like it's the first time this street has changed its name. In 1886, when this was still west of Knoxville's official city limits, this was called Clifton Street, I don't know for whom. Later, it became the south half of Seventh Street. Later still, it was the south half of Fifteenth Street.

Finally, in the 1960s, when Stadium Drive got its name, it became one of the few streets in Knoxville whose names made sense. There are no Walnut trees on Walnut Avenue, and I'm told there never have been. There is no lake on Lake Avenue. There's no Forest on Forest. There's no university on University. There are no Cherokees on the Boulevard. But there is indeed a stadium on Stadium Drive, and a pretty impressive one. It's a good, solid name even newcomers driving by on Cumberland can understand.

Of course, Neyland Drive is a much bigger road, and it's also named after a football coach, one who led the Vols to another rare national championship.

By the time Neyland Drive was built, Gen. Neyland was already retired, 26 years after he'd taken over as head coach of the Vols; his career would produce one national championship, but also nine undefeated teams. That's not to mention his military and civil-engineering career, capped by his work in Calcutta supporting the resistance to the Japanese war machine.

By the time Knoxville named anything at all for Gen. Neyland, he was a 60-year-old man with a serious heart condition and a secure place in history. He was a legend. The stadium was named for him only years after that.

Phil Fulmer, by contrast, is still in his 40s. Sure, after his first six years as a head coach he's the winningest active coach in the NCAA—but he probably has most of his career as a football coach ahead of him. Football coaches' mercurial careers can make Pop Star seem like a stable vocational choice. Coach Fulmer will have a different team every year, of course, and he may field a Team of Destiny every year. He may not. And even if he does—well, he seems sincere when he says he wants to keep coaching at Tennessee. But what if, in, say, 2013, Florida offers him millions to come replace Steve Spurrier? How will the band feel about marching down Phil Fulmer Avenue to watch the Vols struggle against Fulmer's Gators?

If that's blasphemy, I hope you can forgive me. I was at an impressionable age when Doug Dickey did the same thing.

If you want to immortalize somebody, maybe naming a street for them isn't the best way to do it, anyway. Mulvaney Street's a prominent thoroughfare, the address of the Civic Coliseum. But a few years ago, some historians attempted to discover who Mulvaney Street was named for, and they came up empty.

Even when you include the honoree's first name on the street sign, a practice that's more common in rural communities, it doesn't always achieve its desired effect. I used to live on a street in West Knox County called Bob Gray Road. It was a pretty lane when we lived there, several miles long, with a sheep farm in the middle and a big black bull in a pasture at one end. Anyway, I couldn't help wondering who this Bob Gray was, whether he deserved being remembered every time I wrote my return address. I asked my neighbors; even the old-timers weren't quite sure. I made up my own myth of Bob Gray as a Celtic poet-warrior who died valiantly, leading a charge of axe-wielding clansmen against Hadrian's Wall. Or maybe he was a real-estate man.

And, of course, there's old Clifton Street. Oblivion probably won't be Phil Fulmer's fate. I don't want to use the word jinx—I'm a college graduate, after all, UT '81, and I know better. But it seems to me there's something spooky about having a conspicuous street named after you when you still don't have any idea how your name will sound to people next year.