Sept. 22, 2012
By Brian Rice
Situated on the corner of Volunteer Boulevard and Pat Head Summitt Street, The Rock has been the keeper of the pulse of the University of Tennessee student body through the ever-changing painted messages that adorn its surface.
As its name suggests, The Rock is, indeed, a large rock that was unearthed in the 1960's during excavation of the area that would become Fraternity Row on the west side of campus. It was pushed to its original home, where students began expressing their feelings via paint can. Initially, the University had employees sandblast the paint, but officials soon got the message, and a Tennessee tradition was born.
Over the decades, the messages featured on The Rock have covered every topic imaginable, from birth announcements to memorials, break-up messages to marriage proposals (as a UT official once said, who could say no to a rock that big?), protests of war to messages of peace, celebration of Vol victories to expressions of, shall we say, disappointment. On occasion, a rival player or coach's cell phone number has appeared, filling someone's voicemail with what were surely positive and encouraging words.
Tennessee teams also have many traditions that include painting The Rock. Lady Vol soccer has painted The Rock the afternoon of the Florida match for more than a decade. The swimming and diving teams paint messages during their winter break training. Lady Vol basketball managers traditionally paint a design featuring the team's postseason motto prior to leaving for or hosting the NCAA Tournament opener.
Perhaps the most widely-known traditional painting comes on football Saturdays when members of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band and friends paint a weekly "It's Gameday" message for all to see. The unique gameday designs have featured opposing mascots, the trademark Tennessee checkerboards, old-school logos and even an impressively accurate likeness of head coach Derek Dooley and his father Vince when the Georgia Bulldogs came to Knoxville in 2011.
When construction plans for the new Student Health Center were announced for the site of The Rock in 2009, many feared that the tradition's days were numbered. But during the summer of that year, UT officials announced that The Rock would move diagonally across the intersection to its current home in front of the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center. Plans for the center, currently under construction, were drawn to include a small courtyard around The Rock.
During the 275-foot move across the intersection, The Rock was estimated to weigh more than 80 tons. Much of that weight can be attributed to the thousands of layers of paint that have coated its surface and slowly increased its size.
Many days, the message painted on it changes more than once, but the tradition and the legend of The Rock at Tennessee endures.