Friday Follies

Tennessee's home-field advantage has taken some lumps in recent years. One X-factor for recovery can be a training program for noise development. First, we need to make Neyland a place where Loud is Allowed.

The 1988 Coca-Cola Classic in Tokyo, Japan was an exciting college football game. Played on December 3, Oklahoma State narrowly defeated Texas Tech 45-42, in a battle of a great passing attack versus an even greater rushing attack. Barry Sanders, who had been awarded the Heisman Trophy in absentia just before the game, totaled 332 yards on 44 carries. All-SWC Tech QB Billy Joe Tolliver (who would go on to have a longer, though less illustrious, NFL career than Sanders) threw for 446 yards. Despite Barry's star power and offensive fireworks galore, the thing most players recall about the game was the crowd.

The Japanese officials who had created and promoted the game, arranged to have the stands filled with "fans". A sellout crowd, almost entirely locals attending their first-ever football game, was assigned by seat section to be fans of either the Cowboys or the Red Raiders. Red streamers, balloons, noisemakers and pom-poms were placed in the Tech sections and orange versions were given to the new Okie Pokie faithful.

The aspect of the game that made it memorable was that the reaction of the crowd seemed to be entirely disconnected from the play on the field. It was eerie at times. College football players are accustomed to noise and, accordingly, every kickoff was accompanied by an incredible din. Japanese fans were allowed artificial noisemakers, so horns, gongs, drums etc were in full force. It was bizarre, almost otherworldly, to have a giant crowd respond to a routine punt and fair catch with overwhelming enthusiasm. A failed fourth-down QB sneak, on the other hand, was met with the sound of whatever is the Japanese equivalent of crickets chirping. Great plays—nothing. Routine plays—Japanese frenzy. The noise was always in response to a play (the higher the ball went into the air the better) but almost never in anticipation of the play. The offensive teams could easily huddle, audible and adjust while the fans patiently and politely awaited the action. Open-field tackle, QB sack, Barry jukes a DB out of his Bike----mild hum. Punt into the end zone or extra point—Banzai!!

I always laugh when I hear an announcer describe a college football crowd as knowledgeable. My mental picture is of a bunch of tweedy, pipe-smoking William F. Buckleys commenting with erudite precision and sharing clever bons mots. Not an image I'd associate with an SEC crowd. College football crowds may be knowledgeable, but there is no way to test that en masse based on behavior at the game. College football crowds are trainable, however, and when well trained they can become a potent weapon for the home team.

Crowd noise is almost certainly the critical element of home team advantage. That means the louder the crowd, the better, but it does not necessarily mean the bigger the crowd, the better. Many times, Neyland fans seem to assume that sheer number assures sheer volume. Although the largest, Neyland Stadium is approximately the fourth loudest SEC stadium I have attended. True, the loudest single football moments I have ever experienced have been in Knoxville— Florida's Collins Cooper's missed field goal in OT in 1998 and Travis Stephens' thing-of-beauty screen pass ramble for a late TD versus UGA in 2001. (Sadly, Vol fans were still high-fiving and dancing while David Greene picked apart the Mustang defense until we learned the meaning of hob-nail boot.) Tennessee fans, though, certainly have the highest noise potential. Crowds exceeding 107,000 within a near-vertical and completely bowled stadium architecture coupled with a favorable meteorological profile help with the physics of noise. Emotional games, old-fashioned southern exuberance and, perhaps, some social lubrication help with the biology.

Overall, persistent, incredible noise, though, is not characteristic of Neyland. Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (aka The Swamp) is louder, LSU's Tiger Stadium (aka Death Valley) is louder, and Auburn's Jordan-Hare is louder. Post-game player interviews usually say that the noise dies away quickly at UT. Even allowing for the usual bravado, you have to listen when conference foes tell us over and over that others are louder. Are Gator, Tiger and Tiger fans just louder per capita than Vol fans? Possibly. The crowds do skew a bit younger than UT's typical game day bunch. There's nothing inherently louder about these fans. There is no genetic basis for it. I think the main difference is that their fans are better trained than ours.

Neyland needs to be a place where Loud is Allowed. I have been shushed and hushed by folks who seem to think they're at a golf match, rather than a college football game. I only thought I had it bad. Recently the Knoxville paper (you know the one) and the Associated Press carried stories about UT fan Victoria Caldwell. Some fellow UT fans tattled on her loud fan behavior to the AD's office and she received a call from athletic department officials asking her to tone it down. There were statements in the stories about the nature of her cheering and questions about how appropriate she was, but the real problem the complainers had was that she was loud and the other fans preferred quiet.

Loud cheering would never be a controversial issue in Gainesville or Auburn. Fans there seem to recognize and cherish the role the crowd ought to play. The Gators would likely give her time after Mr. Two-Bits to help fire up the crowd. Auburn would give her a medal. The Lowder Louder Prize. LSU fans probably wouldn't notice her since every other woman at their games is also screaming at the top of her lungs. I watched the video of Ms. Caldwell. Yep. She's irritating and not very creative, but if everyone else was doing his job, she'd never be noticed. So, she could use some training: her heart is right.

Coach Fulmer sent me a letter after the California earlier this year. (Actually he sent it to many season ticket holders and donors, not just to me.) "It was incredible," the coach wrote, "the energy in that stadium as they supported and encouraged the Vols to victory. I believe it was the loudest I've ever heard Neyland Stadium……..I just wanted to let you know that we appreciate all you do to continue those traditions and especially for your loyal and enthusiastic support!" I think the big man knows what he is talking about. I may bring the letter with me to games to show the next shusher that I have been especially commissioned to be loud.

How can we be louder? Numbers alone aren't the answer. The Seattle Seahawk fans are arguably the loudest and most-disruptive NFL group right now. They even tally opponent's false starts the way baseball fans tally K's for their ace pitcher. They can only get about 67,000 into their stadium, but the ones who make it inside know how and when to holler. They measured noise levels on third downs at Sewahawk games and found them to average 110 decibels. Jet airplane runways are around 120. Imagine a fired-up crowd of 107,000 with even 80% participation by the home fans.

Short of a required seminar with distinguished visiting professors of acoustics and bourbon, here are some suggested points. Consider this training to be a good fan. The list is not exhaustive, but these are a step in the right direction.

  1. Save your voice—During the football season, particularly during home game weeks, don't talk. Your spouse has already heard everything you have to say, anyway. Go the Marcel Marceau route and mime necessary communications, but save the voice for Saturday.

  2. Avoid colds and allergies—If this means you cannot work during the week, so be it.

  3. Lubricate—On game day, imbibe your beverage of choice with all of the usual provisos and caveats. Know your own cheering and drinking style, though. Some folks drink, thinking they'll be louder, but they just get stupid and cheer at the wrong time. My drink is Diet Mountain Dew. It bathes the throat in citrus and the caffeine helps ramp up the volume.

  4. Only invite friends if they promise to yell loudly.

  5. Threaten friends with no ride home if they fail to meet your noise standards.
  6. Be loud during all kick-offs whether kicking or receiving.

  7. Clapping adds little to the noise factor. Whistling is of minor value. Stomping your feet in Neyland is a waste of time. (This isn't Podunk Tech with an aluminum bleacher structure, it is Neyland. It's even named after an Army engineer, and it has as much concrete as the Hoover Dam. Probably.) Your tool is your voice. It is your instrument.

  8. When the Vols are on Offense, this is your chance to relax. Nod approvingly to your pals. Whisper complaints about the play selection (you know you will). For exactly three seconds after any good play, you may clap and cheer, but don't overdo it. (Scoring plays and big first downs require more celebration, of course.) I try to avoid opening food packages or sipping my Coke, just in case a crinkle or slurp might affect the concentration of the offense. Ideally, you should be able to hear Erik Ainge's voice in the upper deck as he sets his troops at the line. The team may need to audible, a great play may have just come in from the booth, so let the boys concentrate. Don't cheer now and for heaven's sake don't do The Wave! (I have submitted a question regarding The Wave to Burt Reynolds and all of those other guys in the Miller Lite commercials. I am hoping they establish a Man Rule moratorium against The Wave in general. While we're on O, especially.

  9. When the Vols are on Defense, we need constant noise. No bystanders. No conversations. The opposing offense is plotting our demise. We can't sit by quietly and just let them! Be loud when their team is in the huddle. Deep inside that gaggle a second string WR is trying to relay the play call to the QB. The QB is then calling the play and the audible sets. If we're loud enough, maybe someone misunderstands. Maybe a tackle is distracted and forgets the snap count. Once they get to the line, get even louder. The QB will often run around trying to adjust the play, the fullback (if they have one) will turn and tell the tailback. It is now the "telephone game" and the more times the story is retold the less likely it is an exact match with what the coach sent into the game. Watch the play clock. If their QB looks hurried or frantic, get even louder. As soon as the ball is snapped, your work is done here. Sip the Coke, criticize the defensive play calling (you know you will), enjoy the outcome and get ready for the next play. If the opposing team calls a timeout, no matter why, cheer loudly and take the credit for it. If they get a delay of game or a false start, know in your heart that it was you who made the difference and that it was you who gave your team 5 yards.

  10. Punts and kicks—There are different schools of thought about punt receiving. Some consider this play an offensive play for us, so they choose to be quiet so as not to interrupt communication between, say, our deep return guy and his upback. Others consider the play a defensive play up until the moment the ball is kicked. This is the preferred answer. Noise should disrupt a punter's thinking and could create shanks. The deep snapper may have very few plays experience, so noise may be just the trick to cause a snap to fly twelve feet high over the punter's head. The deep snapper is part of field goal and PA units, so let him have it then, too. Kickers will often be rattled by a wall of sound ( even I can be rattled by Phil Spector), so don't let up on the guy from the moment he steps on the turf. If he misses the kick, you did that. General Neyland said to "press the kicking game," so good noisy fans will do so.

    Now, I don't think UT fans are as bad as those Japanese fans. No one has loudly cheered a warm-up punt, yet. But I know we never even approach our collective nuisance potential. We ought to be much louder. Home field advantage may be multi-factorial but some factors have certainly been missing. Crowd noise won't cover a multitude of sins, but it might help take up some slack while the other stuff is getting fixed. 2006 has started off better than 2005, so maybe there is hope for the old crowd yet.

    The Vols have a couple of road games and a battle with Open up next, so there's time to train the crowd to be a real weapon. I would like to see Neyland atop the list of most feared places to play. A responsive, noisy crowd could be credited with 10 or 20 yards and a couple of timeouts per game. Media types could even record it in their game stats!

    We'll need to work on this. Practice in your back yard if you must. In case you haven't looked, the next visitor to Neyland is Alabama.

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