Visitors driving into my home state used to be greeted by
billboards that read WELCOME TO THE THREE STATES OF TENNESSEE.
The signs are gone, but the three so-called grand
divisions--East, Middle and West Tennessee, each represented by a
star on the state flag--are still with us. To understand
Tennessee sports, you have to understand how these regions
East Tennessee, where I live and work, is a land of mountains
(and mountain music) surrounding Knoxville, home to the
University of Tennessee, which dominates the sports landscape.
Middle Tennessee, where I grew up, centers on Nashville and the
country music industry, loves its NFL Titans and divides its
college loyalties among Vanderbilt, Austin Peay and the
Volunteers. West Tennessee, where I went to college, sits by
the Mississippi River; its main city is Memphis, its soundtrack
is the blues, and it has fans of not only John Calipari's
Memphis Tigers and the NBA Grizzlies but also Ole Miss,
Arkansas and the Vols.
Of course, I didn't have much of a grasp of this when I was
growing up on my daddy's tobacco and dairy farm in Henrietta,
about 37 miles northwest of Nashville. Everyone I knew worked on
a farm six days a week and went to church on Sundays. For
entertainment, I played basketball and listened to the Grand Ole
Opry on the radio on Saturday nights. If we heard about college
sports, it was mostly those of Vanderbilt and Austin Peay, which
was located 16 miles up the road in Clarksville. My brothers,
Tommy and Kenneth, played basketball and baseball, respectively,
at Austin Peay, and I thought I would play basketball there or at
Belmont University in Nashville. But my daddy preferred that I go
to college in a rural area and favored UT-Martin, in West
Tennessee, so that's where I went. On the drive over, I saw
cotton fields for the first time in my life.
It wasn't until I became the women's basketball coach at
Tennessee in 1974 that I got the full picture of the state. I
discovered that while the historical divisions are huge--East
Tennessee (Union) and West Tennessee (Confederate) were on
opposite sides in the Civil War--the people are pretty similar.
When there is a reason for Tennesseans to come together, they do.
The Titans and UT football and basketball unite the people of the
state. Being in Knoxville, I probably see things through
orange-colored glasses, but some days it seems as if every person
in Tennessee is a Big Orange fan. On days of home football games,
I-40 is full of West Tennesseans heading east to cheer on the
Volunteers, even though Knoxville is 300 miles from Jackson and
nearly 400 from Memphis.
The Lady Vols also have fans from all regions. Our supporters in
the Middle Tennessee area seem particularly numerous and
passionate, especially when we go to Nashville for a game against
Vanderbilt. For all the different allegiances, there aren't a lot
of highly competitive in-state rivalries, but
Vanderbilt-Tennessee in women's basketball is one. Our
orange-clad fans show up hours before the game, and the
atmosphere is like that of a football Saturday. When we lost to
the Commodores in 1987, my dad told me, "I'd rather you beat
Vanderbilt than win the national championship." (When we won the
national title that year I think he changed his tune.)
A good example of the loyalty of Lady Vols supporters--and the
character of Tennesseans--came in 1990, the year we were hosting
the Final Four but lost to Virginia in the East Regional. I did
some TV spots and got on the radio to appeal to our fans. I told
them, "We're terribly disappointed, and I know we've disappointed
you, but we can't let that affect how we support women's
basketball." And they stepped forward: nearly 20,000 showed up at
Thompson-Boling Arena to watch Stanford beat Auburn for the NCAA
title, a championship-game attendance record that stood for six
There's a reason why this place is called the Volunteer State.
Basketball Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt has won 788 games and
six national titles in 28 seasons at Tennessee.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO