Advice for Iowa football fans about Tennessee from Vandy fans who know UT too well.


DES MOINES, Iowa, Dec. 31, 2023 – All Iowans know that at midday Monday, New Year’s Day, the University of Iowa Hawkeyes will play the University of Tennessee Volunteers in the 2024 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl football game in Orlando, Florida.

Many of you know that I am a proud graduate of Vanderbilt University.  I am a loyal fan of our Vanderbilt Commodores.  My school, a fine private university located in Nashville, Tenn., is a great rival of “UT,” as everyone calls the state school located over near the mountains of eastern Tennessee.

So, as the Citrus Bowl neared, I consulted with 64 other Vandy fans on an email chain we share. I asked what advice we should give to Iowans who are about to interact with the Tennessee “Vols” and their faithful.

A whole lot of Vanderbilt fans will be cheering for the Iowa Hawkeyes Monday. (Photos by Mary Riche)

Paul Kurtz, a brilliant lawyer and professor in Athens, Ga., said you can learn a lot about a people, like UT fans, by considering the big questions they ponder, like this one: “If two UT alumni are married, and then get divorced, are they still cousins?”

And there’s this one, Kurtz says: “If two Tennessee offensive players are in the front seat and two defensive guys are in the back, who’s driving?” Answer: The sheriff.

My great pal Douglas T. Bates III, the lawyer and sage in Centerville, Tenn., swears to this one:
“A contractor was finishing a home and was going room to room with the owners. As they would leave each room, the contractor would yell out the window, ‘Green side up, boys, green side up!’ As the contractor was leaving the house, the owners inquired what ‘green side up’ meant. The contractor explained, ‘I have a crew of UT boys out there sodding the lawn.’ ”

(Bates said he had other similar insights, “but I fear my saintly sister” Anne Bates Horner, of Harriman in east Tennessee.  She graduated from Peabody College in Nashville – it’s now part of Vanderbilt – and had a fantastic teaching career. Her husband and two children all went to UT.  Anne is a saintly person, all right, but horribly conflicted in the Vandy-UT rivalry. She roots for both schools.)

While it is true that Tennessee leads the football series 78-33-5, our Vanderbilt Commodores have had some glory, too.  Vandy won the first 12 in a row, won seven in a row in the 1920s, and three straight 2016-’18. (And later on, UT had to vacate its victories in 2019 and 2020 after admitting recruiting violations.)

Iowa’a three football faceoffs with UT were bowl games in 1982, ’87 and 2015.  Tennessee won two of the three, which means Iowa’s winning percentage against UT is only slightly better than Vanderbilt’s.

Three games is barely enough to begin figuring out that UT’s anthem “Rocky Top” isn’t such a cute song.

It seems O.K. the first time you hear their big band playing it.  When you realize you’ve heard it 10 times in the first quarter of a game, you begin to realize there may be a problem.

My pal Bates analyzed “Rocky Top” a few years after it came out in 1968.  “It’s all about moonshining and impregnating young women,” he concluded.

Check these lyrics:

Wish that I was on ol’ Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top
Ain’t no telephone bills

Once I had a girl on Rocky Top
Half bear, other half cat
Wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop
I still dream about that

Rocky Top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ol’ Rocky Top
Rocky Top, Tennessee

Once two strangers climbed ol’ Rocky Top
Lookin’ for a moonshine still
Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top
Reckon they never will

Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt’s too rocky by far
That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar

Rocky Top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ol’ Rocky Top
Rocky Top, Tennessee

Good Lord!  That song, which the Osborne Brothers made a hit, has not only become an anthem at the UT games; the State of Tennessee for some reason also made it one of their “official” state songs!

The teasing goes both ways. 

When Vandy fans are making out like UT fans are hillbillies, the UT fans mock us as snobs.   Bates recalls that for years, the public address announcer at Neyland Stadium at UT would derisively pronounce our school’s name as “Vaunderbilt.”

Actually, there’s a lot of kidding between all the schools in the powerful Southeastern Conference, in which both Vandy and UT play.

Remember Steve Spurrier?  A Tennessee native, he was the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner when he played for Florida, then he had a decade as a top pro quarterback.  He went on to become a highly successful coach for 38 years, much of it at Florida and later South Carolina.  In the ’90s, his Florida teams kept edging Tennessee, which would put his Gators in the Sugar Bowl as SEC champs while the Vols would be assigned to the Citrus Bowl as runners-up.  “Remember,” Spurrier said then, “you can’t spell Citrus without U-T!”

Chuck Offenburger can sing both schools’ fight songs.

In additional advice for Iowans, one of Vanderbilt’s all-time basketball greats, Dr. Jeff Fosnes, who has retired now in Nashville, recommends “watching out for flying oranges.”  

You know that Tennessee’s school colors are faded orange and white, right?  Vol fans have long used oranges – the unpeeled fruit balls – as icons. Fosnes and his Vandy basketball teammates recall games at UT’s old Stokely Center, where the lights were turned off for player introductions shortly before tipoff, “and the oranges came cascading down from the rafters.”

That’s happened in football games, too.

“Our junior year, when we played UT in Knoxville, it was late in the game and we were punting,” said my classmate Steve Ernst, now retired in Oklahoma City after a career in sales and marketing.  “I was covering the punt which went into the end zone for a touchback. And so I started pulling back from my 4.3 speed, coasted into the end zone and made a slow turn to go back to our bench.  Right then, something or someone hit me and knocked me to my knees in the end zone. I was stunned, literally, and had a little trouble getting up.  That’s when I could smell the orange. Someone had thrown a half-frozen orange that hit me in the helmet and knocked me down.

“So, Chuck, you may tell the Hawkeyes, keep your eyes peeled for frozen oranges,” Ernst said, “pun intended.”

Even the Vandy and UT marching bands get involved.

Ray Harvey, another classmate who is retired in Nashville after a career in law and teaching, was a leading trumpet player in Vandy’s “Spirit of Gold” band.  For more than 50 years, Harvey has been telling us that members of UT’s “Pride of the Southland Band” attempted to sabotage the Vandy band’s halftime show at the game in the fall of 1966.  The alleged conspiracy, Harvey says, involved the UT band director and some of his players, on the sidelines, unplugging an extension cord carrying power to a sound system critical to the VU band’s show.

Harvey and other Vandy band members have been seeking revenge ever since.

Two stories illustrate my own deep feelings about the importance I place on beating Tennessee.

The first occurred late on the Saturday afternoon of Nov. 19, 2005.  I was on a writing assignment, covering the Iowa high school championship football games played in the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.  When the last game ended, I left the Dome, got in my car, turned on WHO radio’s college football scoreboard show from Des Moines. I was shocked to hear legendary sportscaster Jim Zabel, an old friend of mine, telling the audience, “Here’s an upset alert just in from Knoxville, Tennessee!  Underdog Vanderbilt is mounting a serious comeback against its big rival Tennessee.”  My pulse quickened.

Minutes later, Zabel came back on the show, with an update.

“Oh my! It’s happened in Knoxville!” he yelled. “Vanderbilt upsets Tennessee, 28-24!”

It had been 22 years since Vandy had a victory in the rivalry game.  I was in tears.

I grabbed my cell phone and dialed the direct number I had to the desk of WHO radio’s producers.  One answered, I identified myself, told him to interrupt Zabel on the air, and tell him I was insisting on coming on live and singing the Vanderbilt fight song, “Dynamite!”  The skeptical producer said that probably wouldn’t be allowed.  I demanded he “at least tell Zabel while I wait.”  He did.  In seconds, Zabel punched me on-air live.

And there I was, driving west on U.S. Highway 20 from Cedar Falls, with WHO’s 50,000-watt signal blasting my joy border-to-border and coast-to-coast, singing it loud and proud:

Dynamite! Dynamite!
When Vandy starts to fight!
Down the field with blood to yield,
If need be save the shield!

If victory’s won when battle’s done,
Then Vandy’s name will rise in fame.
But win or lose, the fates will choose,
Vandy’s game will be the same!

Dynamite – RAH!
Dynamite – RAH!
When Vandy starts to fiiiiiight!

I’ll never forget that.

Unfortunately, I’ll also never forget the night of Nov. 26, 2022, at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville,

I was taking my bride Mary Riche, who’s a Hawkeye graduate & fan, to her first Vanderbilt sports event – the UT at Vandy season-ending football game.  It rained all afternoon.  It was cold.  But we’d driven such a distance that we put on our hooded coats, walked through puddles and mud, easily found seats above the 50 yard line in the deserted stadium.  We stayed three quarters, but then left – soaked, freezing and, speaking for myself, humiliated. 

Tennessee 56, Vanderbilt 0.

All of the above are reasons I can guarantee that on Monday, there will be legions of Vanderbilt fans cheering for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

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