with Jim Markel
As founder of Swampland.com, I don't often get a chance to step out from behind the scenes. The inspiration to do so came when my sister in law gave me Dixieland Delight by Clay Travis. After reading and reviewing it, I got a chance to look more into the works of Mr. Travis.
Dixieland Delight tells the story of Travis's tour of each SEC football stadium during a gameday over the course of the 2006 season. Travis is a lifelong Tennessee Volunteer fan and wears his orange proudly. He is also a Vanderbilt Law School graduate who is a native of Nashville and still lives there today.
After some initial correspondence, I found that Dixieland Delight only scratched the surface of Travis's love for the South, its people, and its history.
When I proposed to him that we could start a long form "email conversation" with the intent to publish the final version on Swampland.com, Travis agreed. After that we were off.
We ultimately covered many subjects from sports to literature to history and beyond.
Markel: The idea behind Swampland.com is the mindset that our Footprint might be best described by the title of John Shelton Reed's book, The Enduring South. We focus on the culture points within the region that are real, authentic, and enduring.
I want to start with SEC football. It always amazes me how SEC football not only endures, but thrives. This is not the case with "sports" in general.
In the sports world defined by national voices like ESPN, the NFL and MLB are considered "blue chip" properties, but both have had recent challenges to overcome. In the past decade, the NFL has worried about losing young male viewers to pro wrestling while also trying to bring more women fans into their orbit. Major League Baseball has an aging demographic with sliding television ratings.
Unlike other "sports", SEC football has a growing, passionate fan base regardless of gender, ethnicity, age groups, or any kind of demographics. This immense value was demonstrated when the conference recently signed the biggest TV deal in the history of college sports.
When you wrote Dixieland Delight following the fantastic 2006 SEC football season, has it surprised you to see that the cultural and economic significance SEC football has perhaps become even more monumental in just two short years?
Travis: Yes, SEC football has become a national sport pretty rapidly. In Dixieland I wrote about how difficult it was to figure out which station the CBS game was going to be on in Washington, D.C. At that time CBS split the telecast with the Big East and the Pac-10. Now we've reached the point where the top three or four games each weekend are televised nationally. (That will presumably bump up to the top five games now with the ESPN game. High fives all around for Vandy and Mississippi State.)
That makes it easier for Southerners all over the globe to keep up with their favorite team, but it also starts to strip away some of the distinctly Southern nature of our game. For most of our lives we all had to argue that the SEC was the best football in the country. Now guys in Minnesota, Oregon, and Maine are sitting around thinking, "Man, SEC football is so awesome. They're the best, I can't wait for Auburn-Alabama." That's different, much different than the SEC of my youth was. Put it this way, if Auburn has the exact same team in 2009 that they had in 2004. Goes undefeated in the SEC and wins the SEC Title Game, they're playing for the BCS Title. (Which they should have been already.) Why? Because perception has become reality. The SEC is the best not just because it has the best players, but because major corporations are paying so much money for the television rights that it has to be the best.
And what we've seen with this money influx and the increased attention is that the SEC has kind of become the de facto minor league football. I'd even argue, and a ton of people would agree with me, that SEC football games are better than any product the NFL puts on the field. That is, SEC football represents the most entertaining football product in the country. The NFL makes a big deal of parity, but there are 32 teams. Statisically your odds are pretty good of making the playoffs (12 out of 32) and even winning the championship.
Compare that to college football in the SEC. Every fall six or seven teams in the SEC truly believe they can win a national title (Tennessee, Alabama, Florida (twice), and LSU (twice) actually have in the past sixteen years. Auburn has gone undefeated and gotten screwed and Georgia has finished second in the country.) But you have to win the SEC to even get a shot at the national title. (At least so far.) You can't be the second best team and get a shot in the playoffs. It's like sticking the Colts, Patriots, Titans, Chargers, Steelers, and Ravens in the same division and telling them win or else. Then, take a step back and consider that there are 119 or so top echelon teams. And fifty or sixty major teams in big-time conferences. The SEC domination is really quite extraordinary. The relative parity in the league, degree of talent (more NFL draft picks by far than any other conference), and amazing games are really second to none. And that doesn't even take into account the actual fan experience. I enjoy telling people that when the Titans arrived in Nashville and opened up their new stadium that seated 67,000 people, fans sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, "This is it?"
Because the gameday experience for an NFL game did, and still does, pale in comparison to the gameday experience 184 miles up the road in Knoxville where 106,000 people are showing up on the banks of the Tennessee River. It's also because, to me, college football and college sports in general are so much more representative of the American dream than the NFL is. In college, you're watching guys try to become the best they can be. Guys with no money. Guys who haven't made it at all. In the NFL, you're rooting for every player to get even richer than they already are. It's apples and oranges to me, the difference between striving for the pinnacle and having reached the pinnacle. To me that striving to be a success is so much more innately American, so much more interesting. I think the major corporations have picked up on that storyline, have seen the results, have seen what SEC fans have believed all along, that our brand of football is better than any other.
I'd argue that's why to Southerners NFL players are always connected to their colleges in a way that they're never connected to the NFL teams they play for. How many Florida fans know more about Danny Wuerrfel's NFL career than they do about Phillip Rivers'? Or how many Tennessee fans know more about Peerless Price's NFL career than they do about Larry Fitzgerald's? It's certainly not because the former players are better, they most assuredly aren't, but because an awful lot of Southern football fans still root for the guys who played for their college team. We feel connected to them in a way that pro athletes are never connected to their own teams.
I always think it's fascinating when people ask whether the NFL teams are diluting fan interest by the mercenary nature of fantasy football, where guys root for their individual players over the teams themselves. And I think to myself, that's what every Southern football fan was doing with the NFL for my entire life.
Back to your question about 2006, the subtitle of On Rocky Top is A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era. I've talked about a lot of the positives of SEC football coming to dominate collegiate sports, but I think one of the tremendous negatives is that we're all mercenaries now. Phillip Fulmer, love him or hate him, was a native Tennessean and a graduate of the university. That's what the SEC used to be. Come 2006, Florida won a national title with Urban Meyer, a guy who may have vacationed in Florida. May have. He had zero connections to the school. He came from Utah for God's sake. Florida struck out with the old way of hiring a coach, Ron Zook, and I think that Meyer hire, more than any other, represented to me that SEC football is a mercenary's game now. When he won that was the proverbial tipping point for what the future of our coaches would be like.
Follow that up with Spurrier bolting to South Carolina, Nick Saban abandoning the NFL for Alabama, Bobby Petrino jettisoning the NFL for Arkansas of all places, Houston Nutt giving the Heisman to Arkansas and ending up at Ole Miss, and now Tennessee with Kiffin. None of these guys are in love with their current location. None of them dreamed for their entire lives of having the job they have now.
I haven't asked him, but I'd be interested to know if Lane Kiffin could have placed Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville in their correct geographic locations if you'd given him a blank map of the state of Tennessee a year ago. The point is, the money is so strong, that our teams are all helmed by people who aren't like us anymore. They're better at their jobs than we would have been, but they aren't us. To me that's kind of sad. It makes SEC football seem like a large business, a corporation that plays football. Which we know it is, but we used to be able to pretend it wasn't.
Markel: You've covered a lot of ground, and I can tell that you've have some pretty mixed feelings about the SEC growth and success. I think your upcoming book, On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era, is well titled. An era has ended.
An old history teacher of mine once used the phrase "change and continuity" which I believe represents the South and the SEC. I'm reminded of this passage from Dixieland Delight:
Oftentimes, critics rightfully ridicule the South for being resistant to change. But I think, often, the flip side of this issue is not examined. The South has changed more in the past twenty-five years than any other region of the country. Some of the same men and women who rioted against desegregation in 1962 are the same men and women who are embracing Ole Miss's progressive changes in the twenty-first century. That's a pretty amazing transformation and it speaks well for the future of Ole Miss as a university.
I tend to be an advocate for our Footprint, especially positive change. In that regard, I understand that the universities in our region are critical to our future. Not only do they educate people, they bring opportunity through research that create new businesses, jobs, and economic growth. SEC football programs and other sports have become the primary tools in building financial support at these universities.
In a way, you are correct that new coaches are mercenaries in that they are here for the money. However, they are also here because the SEC gives them an opportunity to coach at the highest level, probably even higher than the pros. What that means to me is that the universities and their supporters are in control of the coaches, not vice versa. I think that's a good thing.
I saw this change happen at Florida. Steve Spurrier was a double-edged sword for the University of Florida. On one hand, he made Florida football what it is today. On the other hand, he was hard for the university to deal with because he felt (and probably still feels) that he is bigger than Florida Gator football. From the moment that he went to the Washington Redskins leaving Florida high and dry, giving them little opportunity to hire the right coach (settling on the doomed Ron Zook instead), Jeremy Foley knew that he would never let something like that happen again. He showed his resolve when Spurrier tried to come back to Florida after Zook was fired. Foley, behind the support of most of Gator Nation, said no thanks.
Today, they have two more championships under Urban Meyer, and I doubt they regret their decision to say no to their previous coaching legend.
So, even though the coaches might be mercenaries, they are mercenaries who now understand that they serve the university and its supporters, not the other way around. We might lose some interesting characters in the process, but for everything that is at stake, I'm not sure I will say it's a bad thing.
I guess I also like to see success recognized. Some people are different in that way. Lots of folks hate it when a band they love suddenly becomes popular. I've never felt that way.
With great effort and intent, the SEC has become the premiere conference in college football. The SEC is where every great coach wants not only to be, but to remain long term. (I would guess that both Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan in hindsight wish they had taken the Tennessee and Florida jobs, respectively.)
From your standpoint, I also recognize that Tennessee is going through some of the biggest change of any SEC school because many of its recent coaches (Bowden Wyatt, Johnny Majors, Phil Fulmer) have long, deep histories with the Volunteers. Lane Kiffin is a calculated risk, but he is the right move. Even if he is Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss or Zook at Florida, he will leave the Vols with top talent for a better coach to lead to SEC glory. Throw in the fact that Kiffin has ruffled the feathers of so many people at Alabama and Florida, he's a nice change from Phil Fulmer who too often seemed to take his defeats a little to easily - at least that's how it seemed to me.
I guess my next question would be for you to discuss the idea of change and continuity in the South.
Fifty years ago, many of the South's most famous writers believed that an kind of industrialization would destroy the South inherent character. Yet, in many ways, the South has not only been the primary generator of American culture around the world (music, food, literature, etc), but it continues when you look at how SEC football has both spread beyond the region and captured newcomers to the region, several of whom were mentioned in Dixieland Delight.
What are things elements that you consider to be essentially southern, things that can remain in continuity even as the region undergoes change?
Travis: The other day I read an article that was discussing the extreme blandness of being white in America today. I think it was the four billionth article about Barack Obama ascending to the White House, and it was trying to make a unique point. The basic thesis was that Hispanic, black, and Asian cultures are all more proud of their cultures than white people are. From there the article meandered into examining why hip hop became so popular with white people, why white people buy more hip hop albums than black people do. It was almost as bad as Sports Illustrated’s profile of Obama that used basketball to explain everything about his personality. Stuff like, “His cross-over dribble is indicative of his respect for Palestine.” The blandness article didn't spend much time pointing out that minority cultures have always identified more strongly with their cultures than majority cultures have, but it did get me thinking about being Southern. I don't think Southern white people feel "bland" at all. I think this is because "Southern" has become the default nationality for white people in the South. I think that's also true for many Southern minorities of my own generation.
My wife's from Michigan. When we started dating she asked me where in Europe my family had come from. She explained that her dad's people were German and her mom's were Italian. Many of the people in her grandparent's family still speak Italian. The question sort of floored me. Because no one had ever really asked me that question before in the South. After a little while I just said that I was Southern. Later on she pointed out to me that being Southern is much more important than anything else to people down here. And I think she's right.
But you asked what that means to me and I think that's a great question. The first thing that comes to mind is that you're kind to people when you don't have to be kind to them; there’s a greater awareness of other people during the course of a day. It's a stereotype that everyone in the South is friendly, but it's also true. As a second part of that, I think there's a broader understanding of your family's history than in other places. I had a professor who swore that you could tell whether someone was Southern or not by whether they could tell you a story featuring their great-grandparents or another relative like that who had been dead for two generations before they were actually born. Now this also ties in with another thing that I think is distinctly Southern, an appreciation for stories, but I've found the family angle to be true. So much so that I've become convinced if you walk up to a complete stranger and say, "Tell me a story about your great-granddaddy," and he or she does, then you know they’re Southern.
There's also an understanding of your physical surroundings, the names of trees, animals, lakes, fish; Southerners have a better grasp of place. You can see it in the fiction and non-fiction; I can see it every time my dad goes for a walk outside. He knows every tree, can point to it and tell you characteristics about all the trees. It's a more rural culture. This is fading somewhat, but I think it’s still true.
I think the South allows the extremes to flourish better than other regions do. The men are more masculine and the women are more feminine. If that makes any sense. Yet, at the same time we're all pretty eccentric and we welcome our eccentricities. Crazy aunts and uncles are embraced down here, and everyone who is Southern knows exactly what I mean. It may be a more conservative culture, but, and this is a key distinction, on an individual level I think that people are very tolerant of other individuals. Finally, I think the South is more tribal than other regions. I can be anywhere in the world and if I meet somebody else from the South, I'm predisposed to like them. I went away to college at GW and I can remember that feeling of comfort I immediately felt when somebody elongated their vowels or answer a professor with yes, sir, or yes, ma'am. People from other regions don't feel that way. They're too competitive to feel that way--places like Long Island, islands of commerce that exist, it would appear, only to make sure everyone else believes that you have more money to spend than you actually do, don’t really exist in the South.
I went to public school in the South. I remember being asked at college where I went to summer camp. People thought I was joking when I said, "In a tent in my backyard." To camp? I spent 95% of my summer vacation within yelling distance of my house. A ton of it, actually, sitting on a couch reading.
Now I said in Dixieland, and I stand behind this, that I think the South is much better now than it was twenty years ago. I'm optimistic that we can retain the best of the South and mix it with the best of national progress, but I'm also concerned when I go to Atlanta and I have no idea if I'm in Atlanta or Phoenix. New Orleans, Nashville, and Charleston have done the best, I think, of melding the South with a global world. Now Katrina has screwed up that for New Orleans, but you walk around in any of those cities and you know you're nowhere else, they have the flavor of a unique place. There's nowhere else like them. Many of the Southern college towns have also nailed that feeling. Walk down the street in Athens or Oxford and tell me there's a better place to spend a year. I dare you.
But back to my original point, I've sort of named this feeling of Southern unity Pan-Southernism. Basically it means that when in doubt about who to support, you pick the guy from the South or the team from the South. I think Southerners innately do this. On a political level, certainly, and on a sporting level as well. But I take it a step beyond that. Say I'm at a bookstore and choosing between two novels to read, I go with the guy or gal from the South. Just about every time. Why? Because I feel like I have a connection with them. Like I said, this isn't just a white thing or black thing or yellow thing. It's a Southern thing. And I see people from every race and creed doing the same thing.
Maybe we can bounce into some talk about Southern writers now, who do you read? My list is long.
Markel: I love your answer. I totally agree about the "tribal" comment. That's why we've used tribal on Swampland for our college sports. I also think that it's interesting how the tribes' interactions within the region, in effect, create the region. Here's how I would compare and contrast the dynamic between our region and places above the Mason Dixon Line. In the North, areas were settled by cities first and then filtered out to rural areas. In fact, there's a book on this subject called The Urban Frontier by Richard Wade that demonstrates this dynamic. (Another fantastic example is the HBO show Deadwood, which is built around the founding of a mining camp leading to a town/city in Deadwood, SD.)
In the South, exploration and settling was led almost solely on agriculture. It's an ugly, but sad fact that slavery allowed landowners to quickly bring thousands of acres into profitable agricultural production. This meant that our early cities were little more than tradeports. This is also why our earliest cities were either on rivers (Memphis) or oceans (Charleston, St Augustine) or both (New Orleans, Norfolk). It wasn't until the post-Civil War period that the South began to build cities that were based on manufacturing, finance, or other. Railroads made Atlanta like the steel industry made Birmingham and so on.
This accounts for the differences that you mention in my opinion. Cities in the North had their own tribes, but they were based on neighborhoods largely defined by ethnicity. Immigrants or transplants came to these northern cities for work.
The South's rural character still permeates its sensibility. Although the rural landscape changes each day, it can still live within us. I think that accounts for quite a bit of the South's defining characteristics that you pointed out.
I agree with your idea of Pan-Southernism. The experience across the south is very similar. People from different states and cities might be rivals, but we are rivals over the same things. Some might care about Tennessee football while other care about Alabama football, but they both care about college football.
I also agree with the way you select your writers based on whether they are from the South. I had to spend a little time going over my bookshelves, and I'm sure I still missed a few. What amazes me is how many states have contributed to the group of great Southern writers. Here's my (partial) list:
Of the "classic" writers I love
Robert Penn Warren
Zora Neale Hurston
There are also a group I like to throw into the "pulp" category. I think this group is tremendously underrated. Their books are violent, but no more so than Cormac McCarthy. I don't distinguish them from the group above, but others might.
James Carlos Blake
Finally, I have to throw in Peter Matthiessen, a non-Southerner who wrote one of the great Florida novel that became the great American novel - Shadow Country.
Travis: That's an excellent breakdown of the geographic influences on Southern culture as opposed to northern culture. It also points to the ability to develop eccentricities, without the modernizing influence of the city. Lots of people in the South grew up completely on their own. I used to marvel at the idea of Faulkner's hill people and how isolated they could be from a pre-radio society. They literally could have no idea for months about what was transpiring more than twenty miles from them. Then I read One Hundred Years of Solitude (which I think is one of, if not the best book, of the last forty or so years). I love the opening scene where the city learns of the existence of ice. They didn't even know it existed before! What I'm getting at is how that isolation helps to define the character of a people, make them distinct in a way that they aren’t today. Now we're not as isolated, but I still think that geography matters to us in a way it doesn't to other people. My grandfather lived on the border of Georgia, down in Chattanooga. It was very important to him that he was from Tennessee and not from Georgia. Even though the landscape differences between north Georgia and southeastern Tennessee are not very different at all. My grandmother actually taught school in Georgia because they paid better, but it was important to him in a way that being from New Jersey or Connecticut or New York isn't important to people today.
On to the authors, I think Edward P. Jones' The Known World is the best Southern novel of the past twenty years. And if you really pressed me, I think I'd say it's the best modern novel I've ever read. But what amazes me is the talent that is still out there.
Some of the modern Southern writers I love:
Tony Earley-- I know Tony well, he was my faculty advisor at Vandy on an MFA in Fiction. But notwithstanding that, he's an amazing writer. His story, The Prophet From Jupiter, should be required reading for anyone who ever hopes to write anything. It's amazing.
Cormac McCarthy--I read All The Pretty Horses in 7th grade and then went back and read everything McCarthy had written up to that point. I did this on the recommendation of Shelby Foote who is my favorite non-fiction writer. And by recommendation, I mean I read that Shelby Foote liked McCarthy and I trusted him. I read a book called, Conversations with Shelby Foote, back when I was very young. I admired Foote so much as a writer that I took his word for the gospel; I read whoever he said should be read. I think this did an enormous amount of good for me.
William Gay--Relatively unknown but amazing, truly amazing. Read him if you haven't.
James Lee Burke--he's an amazing writer. His mysteries in southern Louisiana are extraordinary, and I love when someone has the ability to fuse mainstream appeal with extraordinary prose. He's done it better than just about anyone I know.
Ferrol Sams--Again, not tremendously popular, but amazingly talented, with one of the endearing narrators in Porter Osborne Jr. that I've ever read.
Edward P. Jones--I can't recommend The Known World highly enough.
Larry Brown--Love him, just love him.
Of the old guys, of course I love Faulker. Also Thomas Wolfe. And I extend the South and snag Garcia-Marquez because he's fused the South with Latin America. I think he's more of a linear heir to Faulkner than anyone writing great fiction in the South today.
Taylor Branch--his Civil Rights trilogy is the best substantial non-fiction work out there today.
Willie Morris--Particularly The Courting of Marcus Dupree. Every Southern sports fan has to read this book.
The talent of Southern writers is still unequaled by any other part of the country. I argue that has something to do with my great-grandfather thesis. Namely, stories matter more down here than anywhere else. Now all those stories aren't written, but at some point a writer comes along and puts them on paper.
Markel: I couldn't agree with you more when you wrote that stories matter more down here than anywhere else. That same sense of storytelling goes beyond writing to include songwriting, screenwriting, etc. It always amazes me how many TV series today were created by people from the South. They take their stories with them to Hollywood as well it seems.
These stories come from capturing life experiences using that same awareness to the world around you that you mentioned before. This brings me back to football and your upcoming book On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era.
I recently read John Ed Bradley's The Best There Ever Was. Bradley played football at LSU and then he became a sportswriter before he started writing novels. Bradley's experience as an SEC player has given him an insight that few novelists have. After finishing it, I thought it was apropos to our ongoing conversation.
Best centers around a self-absorbed coach, Harold Gravely, who had won a national title very early in his coaching career (clearly LSU but Bradley never mentions it by name) but has now fallen off as a coach most recently bottoming out with a 2-9 season.
However extreme the actual story was, there was something about the situation in the novel that reminded me of your previous mention. You described this particular moment as being the end of an era in the SEC because outgoing coaches like Phil Fulmer played and coached at the same university creating a lineage. That's true. That's also the case with Bradley's Gravely character.
In Best, the scheming Gravely understands his connection to his university and its supporters because he and his championship team represent the recent high point, even though it has been 30 years since that championship season when the book take place. Gravely continually manipulates the school and its supporters by cloaking himself in this history knowing that this history can save him from years of mediocrity on and off the field. Gravely understood that letting go of him was like the fans tarnishing their own memories.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not comparing Phil Fulmer to Harold Gravely. Bradley makes no bones about Gravely being an unethical and compromised person.
I do think that through Best Bradley raises some interesting questions about how that deep connection to a university can cut both ways - how fans and supporters can sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees when a coach represents such a strong image in their minds.
Now that On Rocky Top is reaching or beyond its final editing, can you give me a sense of how it felt for you to be at the center of such a monumental shift at UT, the school you have rooted for your entire life? Did you have a sense after the loss to UCLA that the 2008 season was going to be the beginning of the end for Phil Fulmer at UT? At what point did the fundamental theme of your book - the End of an Era - begin to take root in your mind?
There have to be a lot of mixed emotions on your part, but your experience should resonate well beyond Vol Nation. It seems that all SEC schools have had to let go of legends one way or another.
Travis: Good questions about On Rocky Top. Early on in the book I say that Phil Fulmer is the most recognizable man in the state of Tennessee and that there isn't a close second. I think that's extremely accurate. But even more than that Fulmer looks like he's from Tennessee, has the mannerisms of a native Tennessean. Southerners know what I mean. Even before he speaks, you know where Fulmer is from just by watching how he moves, his mannerisms. I think for native Tennesseans who were close to my own age that's what made this season so tough, Fulmer reminded all of us of our own dads. So seeing him cry was like seeing your own dad cry.
In terms of the book and the access to the end of an era, there's one particular moment that I think sums up the experience. I'm standing on the sideline, just a few feet from Fulmer at the end of the Alabama game, and getting text messages from friends who are saying they want Fulmer gone. Here I am checking my text messages and I feel like I'm cheating on the team, sort of shielding my blackberry so no one else can see what my fellow fans are writing me, and that's the unique position that the book is written from, a fan's access to the team he loves when an era ends.
It was a painful season, every fan knows what it feels like for your team to tank, but I don't think many fans know what it's like to see the tanking from that close. In terms of the book, I had the access of Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink and the fandom passion of Hornby’s Fever Pitch. My goal was to fuse those two books. I'm not sure any book like this has been written before, and it’s a tremendous challenge. Because access books are written by "objective" journalists, but not by fans. So balancing the fandom with the access is at the heart of the story, I think.
As for when i thought, "Man, this season has gone completely off the rails," it was the Georgia game. Tennessee was 2-3 then and 0-2 in the SEC. But if we could have beaten Georgia, the season might have had some hope. Get to 3-3 and you're 1-2 in the SEC, basically even with Georgia, and you can still hope that the team gets on a roll and finishes well. At 2-4 you start looking at the schedule and thinking there isn't any margin for error anymore.
Initially the UCLA loss was ominous primarily because I thought it took the idea of ten wins off the table. Keep in mind that the Vegas over/under on Tennessee was nine wins in the preseason. Before the season started, I thought we'd win 9 games and we'd have three really difficult games that we'd be the underdog in: Florida, Georgia, and Auburn. If we could go 1-2 in those three, I thought we'd get to 10 wins and have a shot at the SEC Title or the BCS at-large. I didn't think Alabama would be that good. (They weren't ranked in the preseason, so I wasn't alone in that belief.) I thought we'd handle USC, Vandy, Kentucky, Northern Illinois, Mississippi State, Wyoming, and UAB pretty easily. We were favored over UCLA by 8. As soon as we pushed the field goal wide left in overtime, I knew we had to go 2-1 in those three underdog games to get to 9 wins. Because we'd just lost a game that I'd already counted as a win.
I never thought that Tennessee would collapse like they did. I really didn't. The season was like Chinese Water Torture, the slow drip of death. But I think as a result, I have the opportunity to tell a really compelling story about a season that won't be forgotten for a long time. I think I've done a good job of that, tried to be faithful to everything, but the editing process is pretty difficult. Like going from playing summer league basketball to the Final Four. My editor's tough on me, she rips me for sentence structure, tone. And I've written a lot of funny stuff before, but this season isn't particularly funny. So knowing when to pull myself out of the story and kill the humor is another challenge. But I think the end result is a book that will speak to Southerners, to a region, not just to Tennessee fans. It's amazing how many rival SEC fans emailed me after Fulmer's press conference and said they found themselves crying and they didn't know why. People from every SEC fan base, many of whom hated Tennessee, wrote me. I think it's because people are starting to realize that Fulmer leaving wasn't just the end of an era for Tennessee, it was the end of an era for the SEC too.