Reclaiming Rocky Top

Tennessee's basketball team drew inspiration in the form of a pre-game pep talk by Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning on Tuesday and have received the unwavering support of UT head football coach Phillip Fulmer during Bruce Pearl's dynamic makeover project.

With the laws of reciprocation clearly established by basketball legend and Chief Cheerleader P.H. Summit, Tennessee's football players should be inspired from their basketball brethren's perfect 16-0 run this season at Thompson-Boling Arena. They should also tale note that by going 29-2 on The Summitt in two years, Pearl & Partners have not only reestablished home venue advantage, they have reclaimed their fan base and re-ignited its passion.

Undoubtedly, defending their home turf with all due diligence and dominance is the first step to restoring the Vols' status among the country's college gridiron elite. Of course, attracting a crowd to Neyland Stadium has never been a problem. Finding seats for all that want one is a different matter.

The point is that such dedication should be rewarded, and Tennessee hasn't had an undefeated season at home since 1999. In fact, the Vols had a 23-game home winning streak in Knoxville that stretched from a 25-29 loss to Florida in 1996 to a 27- 23 loss to Florida in 2000.

The overall numbers are even more indicative of the Vols dramatic reversal of fortune on hallowed Shields-Watkins Field. Over Fulmer's first seven seasons — including his two-games as interim head coach in 1992 — the Vols were 42-3 in Neyland Stadium with five unbeaten campaigns.

Over the next seven seasons the Vols posted a modest 34-12 mark at home with no undefeated seasons and four multiple-loss slates. During one stretch that started in 1994 and ended in 2000, UT was a remarkable 34-1 in the House that Bob Built.

Here's another way to look at this disturbing decline in battles fought before Big Orange faithful. The Vols have lost more home games in the last three seasons under Fulmer than they lost in his first decade (1992 to 2001) at the helm. They have gone 24-10 in the last five years at home and 13-6 over the last three seasons.

Consider this: UT has lost its last home meeting against SEC opponents LSU, Auburn, Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt as well as its last three home games against Georgia.

Conversely, UT has won its last road game at LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and the last two over Georgia in Athens. Additionally, the Vols lost to Miami at home in 2002 a year before beating the Canes in Miami. They've won three of the last four games over Florida in Gainesville, while losing three of the last four against the Gators in Knoxville.

Since winning on the road is generally regarded as more difficult than winning at home, it's problematic to blame the flame outs in Knoxville on coaching alone. Clearly it takes a different mindset to win on the road than it does to win at home. The Vols simply need to attain the latter. And the sooner the better.

As gratifying as it is to win on the road, it's absolutely essential to win at home. That is where the true Big Orange believers gather at the river to renew their spirit. For many of those UT fans that don't live in Knoxville, it is as much home as the communities they left behind; likely the result of a strong familial feeling. And when you have 100,000, or so, interrelated souls it becomes the largest family reunion on the planet. It even has tons of potato salad

There are neighborhoods in and around Neyland City made up of orange-blooded residents that get together six or seven times a year to support and celebrate their school, their team, their passion. Basically, it's a whole lot of good people sharing a single purpose — cheering their beloved Volunteers to glorious victory. However if their favorite sons can't consistently deliver in the biggest games, playing before the most impassioned pack house, those fans begin to lose faith. Or even take it a little personal. That's understandable since they are the ones that pay the bills and, by way, are the ones have to be pleased.

There's no better way to please the masses than by winning at home. That's why Tennessee's basketball extravaganza against Florida on Tuesday provides excellent object lessons for the football program. When the 24,000 UT fans in attendance think of the 2006-2007 season, they won't remember the Vols lost six or seven SEC games on the road, they'll remember the night they knocked off the defending national champions, and Summitt's Rocky Top serenade. Likewise they will remember that UT went 16-0 on its home floor, beating Memphis, Texas, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Alabama and LSU in the process. Tennessee couldn't pay for as much positive publicity as was generated by Tuesday's showcase. Additionally, both the men's and women's programs have valuable recruiting selling points along with some fantastic footage for the highlight reel.

More importantly, it will be a boost to season ticket sales, home attendance, fan expectations and vocal support next season. Two years after UT men's program appeared to be on life support it is rapidly becoming the hottest ticket in town. The reason is simple, Pearl & Partners have put an entertaining product on the floor and played outstanding basketball at home.

UT football has never had a problem drawing crowds. The challenge is to keep them happy. The moral? If you don't defend your home turf, the teeming masses at the turnstile can turn into barbarians at the gate.


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