It was not a good Saturday night for the University of Tennessee from a public relations standpoint.
And after a year in which nothing was normal anywhere, much less with the fall obsession of college football in the South, it told us that not even sports is immune from the sometimes chaotic year we were slowly emerging from.
A nationally televised game between two of the top teams this season from the best college football conference in America featured possibly the best known college football coach in the University of Mississippi’s Lane Kiffin.
Neyland Stadium was adorned in orange and white and being featured with 100,000-plus fans under the lights in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was a competitive game and the home team, Tennessee, was rallying to tie or win the game as it was winding down.
Then, a controversial call by a game official goes against the home team and all hades breaks loose.
And, suddenly, college football fans in the South show they can be the same type of fools as others who seem to be showing up more and more at sporting events in this country.
One only needs to be on Twitter for a few days during the NBA basketball season or during the MLB season to see viral videos of fights breaking out in the stands between fans who seem to have had a little too much to drink.
Campus police were working to identify fans who threw trash on the field during Saturday night’s game so they could face disciplinary action, with the possibility students could be banned from attending future Tennessee games.
The visiting team and their cheerleaders were among the targets — making for a dangerous situation during a game between two old Southeastern Conference rivals.
Event officials had to evacuate the visiting side of the field as some of the 102,455 in attendance rained down bottles and more on to the Ole Miss football team and its coaches —most notably, Kiffin.
The debris came mostly from the Tennessee student section and included water and soda bottles, beer cans, pizza boxes, vape pens, liquor bottles, hot dogs and a mustard bottle, according to The Knoxville News-Sentinel.
There was a back story. Kiffin, who spent most of his life in California, was an assistant coach at the University of Southern California during its national championship years of the early 2000s. After a disastrous two seasons coaching the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, Tennessee’s then-athletic director Mike Hamilton fired Phillip Fulmer — after 16 seasons and the 1996 national championship — and hired Kiffin.
Kiffin had never been shy about boasting about his time at USC and must have certainly told Hamilton about his desire to move back if the USC job came open. Nevertheless, Hamilton hired Kiffin and he coached Tennessee for one year in 2008 before going to USC to succeed his former boss, Pete Carroll.
Tennessee fans apparently never forgot or forgave Kiffin for leaving Tennessee so abruptly. The game Saturday night was Kiffin’s first back in Knoxville as a head coach, which, of course, added fuel to the fire.
But after a year in which the pandemic had sports teams playing in front of empty or mostly empty stadiums and rioting broke out nationwide over police shootings, Saturday night’s action was not a welcome sight,
According to the Associated Press, administrators from both the SEC and the University of Tennessee issued strongly worded statements condemning the bottle-throwing scene at the end of the game.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, in a statement after the game, said the “actions of fans at Saturday night’s game were unacceptable under any circumstances,” the AP reported.
“We are accustomed to intense competition every week, but under no circumstance is it acceptable to endanger the contest participants and disrupt a game.”
Sankey said the league would review existing conference policies and the commissioner’s authority to impose penalties and “communicate with the leadership at the University of Tennessee — and all of the SEC’s member universities — to make certain this situation is not repeated.”
Monday afternoon, SEC officials announced Tennessee would be fined $250,000 for fans’ unruly actions.
Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman said she was “astonished and sickened by the behavior of some Vol fans at the end of tonight’s game.”
“Behavior that puts student-athletes, visitors and other fans at risk is not something we will tolerate. Neyland Stadium has always been a place for families, and we’ll keep it that way.”
Booing is one thing. Stopping a game for 20 minutes by throwing potentially dangerous objects at a visiting team and their coach is quite another. And Tennessee fans showed their backside on national TV, giving the university yet another black eye for its athletics department.
The university that produced such class acts as women’s basketball legend Pat Summitt and Tennessee and NFL legend Peyton Manning got an undeserved black eye Saturday night from a few idiots who felt privileged enough after buying a ticket to endanger visitors from another university.
It also should be a lesson to other universities’ students that they face the same penalties if they do the same thing.
Tom Spigolon is news editor of The News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.