For most of the night, Neyland Stadium was electric, a throwback to the good old days when more than 100,000 souls squeezed themselves along the metal benches to cheer on their Volunteers.
Then, at the end, what had been a glorious night turned sour as fans frustrations boiled to the fore.
Frustrated with a bad spot.
Frustrated with a former coach on the opposing sideline.
Frustrated with an illegal strategy employed by that former coach to slow down the game.
Frustrated with nearly two decades of a once magnificent program mired in insignificance and futility.
Some of those frustrated fans hurled water bottles, trash and other debris endangering anyone on the Ole Miss sidelines.
The Volunteers have one of the best fan bases in the nation. Last Saturday night, things went too far.
It was embarrassing.
It was unnecessary.
It was inexcusable.
And it shouldn’t be allowed to happen again.
In the days since the game, the SEC has rightfully fined Tennessee and ordered a campaign to find at least some of the culprits and hold them responsible.
Good. That’s appropriate. But it should only be the first step.
The SEC needs to look within itself and develop policies and procedures to help discourage something like this from happening again. In the days since the incident, it would be easy – if you only read national media – to think this was an incident isolated to Tennessee fans.
Of course it isn’t and you don’t have to go back very far for an example involving these two same schools. Ole Miss fans pelted the Tennessee bench with trash during an SEC basketball game in 2019.
Incredibly, there was no fine for that incident.
So we’re glad the SEC is now deciding to take such dangerous activities seriously to protect the athletes, coaches, cheerleaders and more along its sidelines. The SEC needs to immediately mandate that each school develop proper procedures for getting its people to safety if a fan base gets out of hand. A half-filled water bottle from the upper deck of Neyland Stadium – or any other facility – could cause some serious harm. Saturday night, school, game and SEC officials were far too slow in getting people out of harm’s way.
There needs to be a plan in place.
And – just as it has done in cases of storming the field – the SEC needs to clearly outline what will happen if an incident of this type happens again.
Frankly, Vol fans were lucky the game wasn’t called on the spot while the team still had a chance to win.
It’s human nature when the outside world is pointing fingers, mocking our mustard-bottle tossing fans, to circle the wagons and fight back.
What about this?
What about that?
But, we must be bigger than that. If SEC officiating is the issue, we must advocate for change, reform or whatever else through the proper officials. The university and its fans have the power and the voice to be heard without resorting to hooliganism.
What happened Saturday night was wrong. Full stop.
Someone could have been seriously injured.
It was an embarrassment to all Tennesseans, not just football fans.
There is no excuse for fans hurling debris on the field, at a football game, on a basketball court on a soccer pitch halfway around the world.
We have been raised better than that here in East Tennessee. It is goonish behavior and must not be allowed, condoned or excused.
We must be better. We will be better.
The good news is the process is already underway. In the wake of the game Vol fans started a campaign to raise money for Children’s Hospital.
More than $100,000 has been raised.
Those actions won’t draw the same attention as the actions of a few rogue fans Saturday night, understandably so, but they show the true nature of the Volunteer fan base.