We often talk of the similarities in Tennessee’s historical football and basketball DNA when it comes to our biggest rivals: no one has beaten Alabama football or Kentucky basketball more than the Vols. In nearly 30 years of divisional play, the Vols fell into a similar pattern with Florida in football: always within reach, grasped just enough to make you believe it can happen each time. (Apparently that’s true at Rupp Arena now too.)
I think I’ve always leaned into this idea because it somewhat mirrors the dynamic between Alcoa and Maryville in football. And those of us who double as Braves fans know much of the “good enough to believe you can win every year” DNA. You don’t win every year, of course. Being close means being invested, and being invested means losing hurts. But the payoffs, when they come, are incredible. And they happen just enough to make you believe it can happen again this time.
But there’s one other, much more enjoyable trait of being a Tennessee Vol: we tend to get the last word against our greatest villains.
Bear Bryant won 11 in a row against Tennessee from 1971-1981. The Vols broke that streak in Knoxville in 1982 with a 35-28 victory, in what became Bryant’s final season.
Steve Spurrier caused more pain for Tennessee football than any individual in my lifetime. But the Vols sent him out of The Swamp with a loss, 34-32 in December 2001, the greatest individual football game one of my teams has ever played in. Thirteen years later, Josh Dobbs rallied the Vols from down 14 with less than five minutes to play to win 45-42 in overtime, the last time Tennessee faced him at South Carolina.
Peyton Manning is our favorite hero, and his story was always best defined by its villains, including Spurrier. But the longest of those relationships belong to Tom Brady. And, in 2015, Manning got the last word in the AFC Championship Game.
So my first thought yesterday, even before trying to picture Brady in one of those creamsicle uniforms? If your Venn diagram, like mine, includes the Titans as well?
I’m sure Alabama and Florida and New England fans enjoyed all those wins; I know how little I enjoyed the losses.
But getting the last word? I enjoy that very much.