When Memphis, ranked No. 338 in the country, played host to UT, ranked No. 302, in a game people are still talking about almost two weeks later, expectations ran high, and for once, Thunder Road, not Tobacco Road, ran through the center of the college basketball world. Of course, it wasn’t the teams’ respective free-throw-percentage rankings that landed the game on national television. The meeting between then-undefeated and first-ranked Memphis and No. 2 Tennessee constituted just the fifth time a No. 1-ranked team played a No. 2 and both were from the same state. And it was the first time those two teams were from Tennessee.
The big game, along with the UT-Vanderbilt contest that followed closely on its heels, pulled our state's race and class rivalries into view as well—even if the lines aren’t as neat as we sometimes try to draw them. In the simplest terms, the state appeared to break down like this: urban blacks in the west, affluent whites in the middle, country rednecks in the east.
Memphis coach John Calipari, before the game against UT, suggested that this battle of Tennessee was, or could be, symbolic of an actual Battle of Tennessee yet to come. “We should secede and become our own state,” Calipari said. “The state of Memphis.”
Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins couldn’t help noticing a certain tone emanating from the general direction of Knoxville. In a comment posted on a Memphis-UT thread, one Vols fan wrote: “When Calipari builds the wall around Memphis, ask him to make sure it’s strong enough to keep those people inside. We don’t want them in Chattanooga. East Tennessee forever!” Seizing on the phrase “those people,” Calkins asked rhetorically: “Gee, think racism plays a part in any of this?” The irony here is that, though racism may in fact “play a part” in the comments specifically or in sentiments generally, East Tennesseee—which remained staunchly pro-Union in the Civil War—sent a squad of young black men to represent them in this game.
At Memorial Gym the following Tuesday, Tennessee arrived as the newly anointed No. 1. And as ESPN’s commentators pointed to the fact that UT is public and Vanderbilt is private, one Vandy fan held a sign that read, “I Bleed Black and Gold, Not Redneck Orange.” Setting aside for a moment how silly this kind of vein-glorious statement is, the sign itself was telling in its bias: The Vanderbilt mascot, after all, is a rich white guy. But the irony in this case is that the original Commodore was hardly the gentleman-scholar-athlete that some Vandy students might imagine themselves to be. In a new biography, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Edward J. Renehan Jr. describes a young Vanderbilt as “barely literate” and “destined to stay so.”
No matter how the teams’ boosters sought to distinguish themselves from each other, the games themselves were riveting. The Vols survived a flurry of early Memphis three-pointers to hand the Tigers their first home-court loss in 47 games at FedEx Forum. But if FedEx is known for its overnight deliveries, the Vols are not—at least not yet. Barely 24 hours after waking up as the No. 1 team in the nation, UT came to Nashville and was promptly upset by No. 14 Vanderbilt. In both games, the team that led late in the contest watched its starters get blinded by the lights. Instead of looking to take time off the clock, they scrambled to hit the shot that would get them on SportsCenter. For Memphis, the problem with that strategy was that their three-point shooting went cold in the second half. But they stuck with it anyway, wasting shot after shot and allowing Tennessee to come back. The ‘Dores, too, flew in the face of basic game strategy. Players not named Shan Foster repeatedly heaved up long perimeter shots, despite having a lead to protect and a clock that, theoretically, was their friend. Vandy didn’t suffer the same fate as Memphis, though they employed a similarly flawed plan—or lack thereof.
Despite some chaotic play, both games were magnificently energized. Even before the Memphis-Tennessee game began, players from each side jawed demonstratively at each other in the tunnel and were held apart by security. In Nashville, Vanderbilt’s Ross Neltner dove at—and nearly took the head off—UT’s JaJuan Smith as Smith sat on the floor calling for a time out. Smith shot up quickly and strode toward Neltner, but in the end the only thing knocked asunder was Smith’s headband.
Part of the pleasure of college sports is that the players are not yet paid mercenaries—as students, they get genuinely caught up in that fevered, irrational loyalty to their school colors, and are more invested in these types of rivalries than they will ever be as professional athletes. But perhaps they are no more so than their respective fans. Our beloved teams have been imbued with a rich, if often inaccurate, symbolic power, and we imagine that their exploits pit our very identities against each other, clamoring for supremacy.