It's the vibrant hue that adorns the athletes Volunteer faithful adore. It's the conspicuous cast that hangs in a typical Tennessee fans closet like game jerseys in UT's dressing room. It's a color that has a magic all its own. For instance: It's a tinge of orange that can't be missed, unless it's turned into a uniform number, in which case it can't be seen.
Where it is most visible is in the stands at home or away, in good weather or bad, in the best of times and the worst of times. It is the banner that the fans proudly wear and defiantly display in hostile conditions, in hospitable territory and at neutral venues.
Sure there are instances that the masses are restless, or repulsed, or outraged, but there's never any doubt about their allegiances nor apathy about the outcome of any contest.
The career of Tennessee players are seemingly over in the blink of an eye, but a fan wears the orange for a lifetime. A head coach's tenure may last two or three decades. A fan at age 10 could equal that number and just be hitting his stride when a the coach is headed into retirement. A franchise recruit that is lost is long forgotten before his playing career ever reaches it's zenith. A sportscaster can reach legendary status, but long after his voice is silenced the fan will still be cheering. The best sportswriter can't find the words in countless stories to equal the impact of that single letter "T" on the side of the Vols' helmets or at the center of Shield-Watkins Field.
As much as so many outstanding players, coaches and administrators have contributed to the greatness that is Tennessee football, the most enduring element of its success is its fans. They are the ones that sign the check for the finest facilities in the nation and provide the energy that drives the program to ever greater heights.
Sure fans change over time, but in so many other ways the spirit they bring to the game remains the same and their numbers continue to grow. Being a Tennessee fan is something that's passed down from generation to generation. When you grow up in a family of Tennessee fans, you quickly learn what it means to be one and teach your children the same.
The fans are what keeps Tennessee football viable when the team has all but vanished. For instance: there have been a lot of comparisons drawn between this season and 1988 when the Vols got off to an 0-6 start, including 0-4 at home, and the wheels had seemingly come off the program. Some experts opined that the talent level at Tennessee had deteriorated to such at point that it might take four or five years to rebuild.
As understandably upset as they were, the fans remained steadfast in their support. After going 0-5 Tennessee still drew 98,000 for game six against Alabama which resulted in a 28-20 setback.
The next week Tennessee went on the road to Memphis and the fans followed. The Vols rewarded their loyalty by putting together a 38-25 victory that ended the anguish of the longest losing streak in modern UT football history.
Tennessee followed with wins over Boston College, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt to close its 1988 campaign at 5-6. In 1989, the Vols defied the dire predictions about the direction the program was headed by posting an 11-1 campaign and winning the SEC Championship. In 1990, they won their second consecutive league title.
From the time the Vols stood at 0-6 in 1988 and seemingly at the edge of disaster, they rebounded to go 20-1-2 in their next 23 contests and captured back-to-back SEC titles for the first time in 50 years.
That's reason enough for Big Orange fans to rejoice when they hear this is the worst football season since 1988, because any football program that gets the type of fan support Tennessee does is sure to remain successful.
It is a formula that has withstood the test of time and lives and all kinds of seasons.