Vols vs. Knoxville

The Vols haven’t ever gone five consecutive years without a winning season, not since the first team in 1891. Depending on the lads’ bowl prospects, after a 6-6 regular season, this may be the year they break that record.

If the fortunes of the boys in orange aren’t useful to us for bragging purposes, they may be useful for testing an old assumption I’ve heard since childhood from family members, from business owners, from prominent city fathers. That it’s not just a game. That when the Vols lose, Knoxville necessarily suffers, economically, culturally, spiritually.

So we’d damn well better cheer, whether we care about college football or not.

This late unpleasantness isn’t necessarily the Vols’ worst losing jag. It’s close, but there was a spell more than a century ago when UT had four losing seasons in a row—then, after a brief remission, a return of the curse, with three losing seasons in a row.

So from 1903 to 1911, the Vols suffered seven losing seasons out of nine. That includes the execrable season of 1909, when the Vols scored only 11 points in the entire season—all of them in their game against tiny Transylvania U.

You’d think the shame would have been such a burden in Knoxville that it would have clogged the gutters of Gay Street or Market Square. But have a look around 1909, and you don’t see much of it.

The city had two busy new train stations—the still-impressive L&N building was completed during that losing streak–two independent daily newspapers, a comprehensive electric streetcar system, dozens of factories producing marble, iron, furniture, knitted goods of all sorts. In 1909, the year of that worst-ever season, the Bijou Theatre opened, with world-class live entertainment almost nightly. During the theater season, Knoxvillians had a choice of multiple live shows every week.

In 1910 and 1911, both losing years for the Vols, the city launched—and during football season!–its two Appalachian Expositions, progressive fairs that celebrated industry and conservation and invention and drew U.S. presidents, major reformers, and hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the nation. Downtown, Knoxville investors built the city’s first steel-frame-construction “skyscraper,” the Arnstein Building, on Market Square–and then, in still another Vols losing season, topped it with the much-taller Burwell on Gay Street. The city built a new main library during that streak, and established Emory Park, downtown’s first public park. Several hotels went up, especially near the Southern station, which was busy all night. The city witnessed its first airplane flights and motorcycle races. The Nicholson Art League, which included a few impressionists of national reputation played a role in a new Lyceum movement with art shows and musical performances. The era also saw the beginnings of what would become the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. And back then, for every one football game, there were dozens of baseball games.

The city was enjoying a healthy growth rate, about one percent of population annually. New businesses were opening all the time, especially Knoxville’s first car dealerships and movie theaters and soda fountains. New floodlighting on Market Square and later Gay Street made the city look bright well into the night. Some stores stayed open until midnight.

That was what Knoxville was like the last time the Vols lost this many games for this many seasons. I’m just offering that fortifying example of courage under such collegiate athletic humiliation to help us bear these uncertain days.

Of course, most people didn’t follow college football back then. Bleachers at old Wait Field were generally dominated by girlfriends and fraternity brothers.

If a losing team doesn’t necessarily hurt its host city, surely a winning team helps the city, right? Robert Neyland is the namesake of one of downtown’s longest and most traveled streets, our riverfront boulevard. His name is on one of the largest building in the downtown area, where its honoree is also the subject of one of the city’s biggest statues.

Neyland was never an elected official, never an important developer, not a founder of much. He was mainly just a good football coach. During a period when the whole nation was following college football much more than pro football, Neyland put the Vols right in the thick of it. He created Volmania. The football stadium got bigger and bigger to accommodate more and more fans.

The city’s growth didn’t reflect the growth of the stadium. During the 30-year Neyland era, the Vols’ golden years, the city’s growth was stagnant. According to the census, Knoxville was only about five percent bigger in 1960 than it was in 1930.

Knoxville didn’t build much during the Neyland era, either. The Andrew Johnson, a 17-story hotel, was in the works as Neyland first became the Vols’ head coach and started beating Alabama. But after that, throughout the Vols’ glory years, the city never topped that brick skyscraper. It was almost half a century before the city built a taller building.

To make it worse, during the Neyland era, Knoxville got the worst press the city has ever received. Prominent and respected national journalists called Knoxville “the ugliest city in America” and “the dirtiest city in the world.” One European writer described Knoxville as “corrosive.” Many of these impertinent critics didn’t notice, maybe didn’t care, that we had a splendid college football team.

A native son, author Joseph Wood Krutch, visiting Knoxville in 1950, a Neyland championship season. He wrote that “the whole town is shabbier than it was” in his pre-1915 youth.

Have a look at a current display at the McClung Collection, Fortune Magazine’s essay about Knoxville in 1952, during another Vols winning season, and the end of Neyland’s long and successful career as head coach. Remarking on Knoxville’s “drabness,” it makes the city sound dull and dysfunctional. The author concluded, “Almost everyone thinks something should be done, but nobody does anything much.”

But at least the Vols were doing well. In the whole decade of the 1950s, when Neyland was either football coach or athletic director, the Vols enjoyed eight winning seasons, fielded their first official NCAA national championship team, won a couple of SEC championships, and for the decade won 72 games and lost 31.

That should have been great for the host city, right? In the same decade, Knoxville lost 10 percent of its population, in that decade the steepest decline in the population of any American city.

And here we are now. The Vols haven’t had a winning season since 2009. But during that time, downtown has seen daring and expensive new development, from the successful Daylight Building renovation on Union to Scruffy City Hall and the Woods & Taylor building on Market Square to Tailor Lofts, to all the developments on West Jackson, the Standard and Southeastern Glass the Armature, each amazing for different reasons—to big new-construction projects like Marble Alley to ambitious large-scale preservation projects like White Lily.

I’m not sure there have ever been more people who wish they lived in downtown Knoxville.

As festivals like Rossini and Hola have gotten bigger and bigger, the International Biscuit Festival launched, earning national press. The city has gotten raves for its big events and for its downtown redevelopment and for AC’s smart and perhaps globally significant Big Ears music festivals. I don’t think Knoxville has ever gotten more positive press in any five-year period than it has in the last five years. Big-time music critics for the Rolling Stone and the New York Times rave about the Bijou and Tennessee Theatres. Travel writers extol the rare concentrated liveliness of Market Square. Emphasizing our successes with architectural preservation, in 2012 the American Planning Association named Gay Street, alongside New York’s Fifth Avenue, as one of America’s 10 Great Streets, remarking on Knoxville’s “lively cultural scene.”

Is this just an irony that, more often than not, when the Vols are down, Knoxville is up—and vice versa? Is it like King of the Hill? When the Vols are on top, they knock Knoxville off, and when Knoxville’s on top, it returns the favor?

You could almost get that impression, looking at the last 123 years Knoxville has shared with the Vols, but I’m not sure I see the mechanism of that effect.

Surely it’s just coincidence. A winning college football team can’t make a city worse. Even if we do surrender six or seven home-game Saturdays in the fall, Saturdays when we could be hosting more festivals or concerts or fundraiser 5Ks. That’s frustrating to some erstwhile event organizers. But just as you can’t build a whole economy on six or seven Saturdays of hungry fans, those momentary lost opportunities probably don’t make all that much difference in the big picture.

Unless it’s just that a jolly football season can distract us, make us more content than we should be, let us believe that if our favorite team is winning, maybe we don’t even need a real city.

And then, when we’re losing, we think maybe we do, after all.

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