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Free the Vols

A daydream about a less-hypocritical football league

by Jack Neely

When you look back at the early days of UT football, there's one big difference that strikes you right away. You notice it first when you look at those old black-and-white photographs of the team. It's not that they're not wearing helmets, or that their pads, which most of them sewed into their own jerseys, are lumpier.

What you notice is the players' size. The first several decades of Vols looked like normal, healthy, young guys. Look at the team of 1900. Some look like teenagers, some look like grown men. But none of them, not even the linemen, are particularly huge. They could as easily be a tennis club.

If you can't find that picture, have a look at the blow-up of Nathan Dougherty on the mezzanine of the brewpub downtown. His strap-on noseguard dangling from his neck, he looks earnest and bright, but not very big. You'd figure he was a quarterback or maybe a kicker, but he played as both guard and tackle for the Vols around 1906.

The reason all these long-ago Vols aren't especially sizable is that they didn't spend several hours a day in the weightroom or the practice field. That's because they were, mainly, college students. They were skinny guys with homework.

They're all dead now, and we'll never know for certain whether the athletic department hired shady tutors and bent rules to keep them eligible for the football program. I suspect they did not. You might know that intrepid tackle named Dougherty was later Dean of UT's College of Engineering. (Does that ever happen anymore? Do football stars ever get to be deans of colleges? We should look into it.)

It's not that they were lightweights or anything. Football was, in many ways, a tougher game a century ago than it is today. Helmets were inadequate; some formations, like the Flying Wedge, were literally murderous. In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt famously threatened to outlaw football after a series of gridiron deaths. At least one Vol died as the result of a game in 1915.

Still, the guys who played the game then didn't have to be supermen to stand a fighting chance to win, because the guys they played against on the gridiron were also, mainly, college students. The opponents were skinny guys with homework, too.

Times have changed. We no longer start with college students and find the best football players among them. Now we start out with football players, train them for years, spring and fall, to be bigger and faster, and then, for four years between high-school ball and the NFL, we tell them to sit still in a classroom and pretend they're college students.

You've got to hand it to Coach Fulmer and his staff: finding the best potential athlete and the best potential college student in one person is a challenge. Sometimes the two coincide in one human being. More often, they don't.

That's been a perpetual dilemma at UT. For years, we've heard rumors about athletes getting special treatment in classes. Students complain about it; professors complain about it. They say it's frustrating to have a two-tier system, to have certain students they can't fail without repercussions.

Surely it's frustrating for players, too. You spend your life hearing what a great football player you are, and then you get onto the football team you wanted. And right away they hand you a notebook and hammer you with calculus and Newtonian theorems and the Treaty of Versailles. Why, they must wonder. When someone offers to write a term paper for them, a 19-year-old player whose only reason for being at UT is football must feel only relief and gratitude.

Maybe it's time to recognize UT football for the independent, non-academic phenomenon that it has become. Maybe the Tennessee Volunteers have outgrown the University of Tennessee, that hovering mother outside Neyland Stadium that insists players make passing grades and do their own homework. Maybe, like an ungainly teenager, the Tennessee Vols have gotten too big for UT. Maybe it's time to let them go their own way.

We could still call them the Tennessee Vols, of course. We could let them keep "Rocky Top" and the color orange and even Smoky the dog, if they'll take good care of him. They could get themselves a big place near I-40 and the Pellissippi Parkway, with surface parking all around. Be sure they take their new toy, the Jumbotron, with them. All most of their fans would miss would be the alma mater at half-time. And the U in UT Vols, which has been fading from use for the last 30 years or so, anyway.

Wouldn't it be great? They could recruit players without having to worry about academics at all. No more tutors, no more scandals. They're clearly ready to take care of themselves. Judging by attendance, the Vols are more popular than any pro team in the nation.

One of the best things about this arrangement is that the best players wouldn't have to leave after four years. Just think: if we just took the U out of UT and the C out of NCAA we could still have a team with Peyton Manning and Peerless Price and Little Man Stewart and Jamal Lewis, all wearing orange in the same game.

The diciest thing is whom they'd play. The NCAA would probably find some technicality to disqualify the Vols from playing Vanderbilt and Notre Dame and the rest of the actual college teams.

Maybe we could form a league of the other less academically inclined universities in the SEC, start a national movement, a new pro football league of former university teams who'd go head-to-head with the whole NFL for the Super Bowl.

And then, back here in town, of course, we'd still have a university. And maybe some of the students who had decided to attend that university might want to start a football club. Just like they did a century ago.