When Clay Travis got a book deal to cover the 2008 University of Tennessee football team, he had no idea he was about to witness the worst season in the program’s 110-year history. The hapless Volunteers won only one of six Southeastern Conference matchups during their twelve-game schedule, which also saw the firing of coaching legend Phil Fulmer. For Travis, a lifetime UT fan, the losses resonated far beyond the arches of Neyland Stadium, the Vols’ home. On Rocky Top channels Travis’s disappointment into a riveting analysis of what’s at stake in the increasingly mercenary world of college athletics.
Using the 2008 season as a narrative, Travis inserts his personal recollections and analyses along with those of UT principals like Coach Fulmer, athletic director Mike Hamilton, running back Arian Foster and his mother Bernadette, equipment truck driver “Goodtime” Charlie Harris, quarterback Jonathan Crompton, and UT booster John “Thunder” Thornton. With this cast, Travis attempts to reconcile the professional and personal implications of a once-promising season somehow gone horribly wrong.
Of these characters, Bernadette and Arian Foster are perhaps the most vibrant. As her son insists on speaking “Pterodactyl” to journalists (“veeek, veeek, veeek”), Bernadette assaults the Volunteer message boards, defending her son against his many detractors and also—in true loose-cannon style—revealing team strategies and committing other acts of over-disclosure. The Fosters have plenty to lose: By the close of the 2007 season, Arian was rated an NFL second-round draft pick. Instead of turning pro, however, he chose to remain at Tennessee for his senior year. After underperforming in 2008, Arian’s Heisman Trophy dreams have given way to an uncertain future in the NFL where he remains an undrafted free agent. Through Bernadette’s concern for her son, we get a glimpse of the personal toll big-time college athletics can take on a family. “People forget that these are our kids,” she says.
If On Rocky Top has a hero, it’s the coach himself. After taking over head-coaching duties in 1992, Fulmer led the Vols to a national championship and two SEC titles. A brilliant tactician and recruiter, Fulmer’s optimism and generosity are appreciated as much as his mastery of the game. Travis calls Fulmer “the last of the great regionalists — the only coach in the SEC to be born in the state where he coaches or to graduate from the school he coaches.” Coming on the heels of an Eastern Conference championship, the 2008 season promised to be stellar for the then 58-year-old coach. It didn’t turn out that way, and Travis wrestles with his impression of Fulmer: Is he a vital power a little off his game or “a regional relic from a time before the coaching of football became a national business?”
Through Bernadette’s concern for her son, we get a glimpse of the personal toll big-time college athletics can take on a family. “People forget that these are our kids,” she says.
As the 2008 Vols drop games to rivals like Florida, Auburn, Georgia, and Alabama, it becomes increasingly clear that Fulmer is, as Travis puts it, “a coach in winter.” The message boards light up with anti-Fulmer rants, while the backstage wrangling between the athletic director and influential boosters becomes manipulative and disingenuous. Travis sees his own father in the coach’s struggle. Both men are athletic, charitable, religious, optimistic, decidedly Tennessean and, most importantly, humble. When Fulmer’s head finally rolls, Travis concludes that “we don’t live in Phil Fulmer and my dad’s Tennessee anymore.”
In loss, Travis can’t resist the venom of a true fan. Among On Rocky Top‘s villains are Crompton, a struggling junior quarterback with whom he has hostile imaginary conversations, and Florida Coach Urban Meyer, who is, for Travis, the epitome of the new mercenary model. The former (who will go on to start the Vols’ 2009 season) is redeemed by grace in the face of failure; the latter Travis dismisses as “pure evil.”
Finally, the University brass is responsible for the demise of coaches like Fulmer and the ushering in of what Travis calls “the mercenary era of SEC football.” College football in the South is such big business that entire university budgets hang in the balance. “Television owns college football,” writes Travis, and college football owns the University of Tennessee. As proof, he quotes UT mega-booster Bill Stokely: “[G]ive me a winning football team and doors open and wallets open and we can raise significant monies for the university.” But a jaded SEC junkie like Travis can’t stay away for long. While entertaining a question about UT’s future under new head coach Lane Kiffin, a Minnesotan, he muses, “Somewhere, somehow, it’s always football time in Tennessee.”
“Why do I care so much?” Travis asks himself. His answer is that sports provide emotionally stunted men an opportunity to connect with other men. We may shudder at the sexism, but there’s something to Travis’s assertion that, gender issues aside, “a football win or loss is something we feel.” During a televised replay, Travis sees himself on the sidelines during UT’s loss to South Carolina. He’s leaping in the air, ecstatic over a rare highlight during the 27-6 drubbing. At such times, he says, college football has the power to transcend the moment.
Though a must-read for any Vols fan, it’s a mistake to think that football agnostics won’t enjoy On Rocky Top, too. Travis’s self-deprecating style is endearing, and, like a gridiron version of Almost Famous, his backstage account mimics the emotional highs and lows of a good screenplay. In the end, the strength of On Rocky Top lies not in its story, but in Travis’s ability to tell that story. Bottom line: If Clay Travis can make this sports-allergic writer enjoy reading about UT football, he can probably write about anything.
Clay Travis is a practicing lawyer whose previous football book, Dixieland Delight, chronicles the 2006 SEC season, which he navigated without benefit of free bus rides and all-access passes. A regular contributor to the “ClayNation” column on the Fanhouse sports website, he is a former columnist at CBSSports.com and former associate editor at Deadspin.com. His weekly show, also called ClayNation, can be heard on Nashville radio station 104.5 The Zone, Tuesdays at 7 p.m.