Sept. 5, 2009
BY JOSH PATE
More than three hours before Saturday's kickoff, fans in orange stood patiently along Peyton Manning Pass leading down to Neyland Stadium. They were there for a front-row position for new head coach Lane Kiffin's first Vol Walk.
Tennessee's pregame tradition that gives fans an up-close and personal look at their players was scheduled for 10:36 a.m., but at 9:20 a.m. Charlie Wright and his friends were standing on the steps of the Hearing and Speech Center eager to get a glimpse of their new coach before the season's opening game.
"I think it's great. It's revived this program," Wright, a longtime Vols fan from Smyrna, Tenn., said of the start of the Kiffen Era. "It's something new and a change. It seems like we have a lot of energy. He recruits well, and I'm looking forward to it."
Just down the road, closer to the newly rennovated Neyland Stadium, stood Bert Cannon with his wife, Anna, and their daughter, Whitney. Bert has been to his share of UT games. But what made Saturday special was taking Whitney to her first Vols game.
"The Vol Walk is something I wanted her to see and experience for the first time as a UT fan, and I think it's something everybody ought to experience at least one time whether you're a UT fan or not," said Cannon, who is from Maryville, Tenn.
Kathy Dowling brought her daughters, Kristin and Kaitlyn, for the same reason.
"I'm a Vol fan. I don't care who's coaching," Dowling said. "I just wanted to give the girls the full experience with the Vol Walk and the band."
Cannon and family were perched on the rock wall that runs beside Peyton Manning Pass. He said he couldn't imagine the feeling going through Kiffin's head.
"I was thinking to myself, man he must have all kinds of butterflies in his stomach. It's his first game as coach and he's stepping into something that we take to heart," Cannon said. "I think when you grow up around UT sports, you expect the best. I just think this is something people should experience, so I could not imagine what he feels."
The butterflies didn't seem evident.
A slight change in Vol Walk protocol, the team rode the bus to the top of the hill and exited at precise time. At 10:41 a.m., Kiffin in his tan suit and sunglasses led the team clad in black collared shirts and black warmup pants off the bus.
Fans crowded 13 rows deep to Kiffin's right, and 26 rows deep to his left. A barrier was set to give the team breathing room as players walked down the pathway, but eager fans pushed in closer to slap hands with Kiffin and the team.
"It's a new era," one onlooker said.
It was the same traditional Vol Walk, and the sea of orange parted for the team and coaches. But nothing had to be said to note that Saturday was a new chapter for Tennessee.
"I've never seen as much entheusiasm coming into this game," Wright said. "Everything that's being done here, I love it. My blood runs orange."