20 Sep 1997: Quarterback Peyton Manning of the Tennessee Volunteers looks to pass the ball during a game against the Florida Gators at Florida Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. Florida won the game, 33-20.
Tennessee Volunteers hero Peyton Manning chose not to play for the local pro team. Vols fans seem fine with up and rooting for the Broncos. What's going on here?
If you're not from the South, you probably don't understand the Southern sports fan. You've seen some Florida Gators fans rooting for the Broncos against the Dolphins, certain Georgia Bulldogs fans doing the same for Matthew Stafford against the Atlanta Falcons, and so forth. And then there's Lil Wayne, who roots for the Packers. Nobody knows why.
Now, thanks to Peyton Manning, many Tennessee Volunteers fans have already taken over Broncos rooting duties, relieving Florida supporters of the responsibility.
But shouldn't UT fans root for the Tennessee Titans no matter where Peyton Manning plays? Rooting for an alum is fine and all, but what about doing so at the expense of the home team? Is Knoxville a bad sports town? Should Tennessee have to send its NHL team to Atlanta, where it can be expertly packaged for a relocation to Canada? Do you blame Kenny Chesney somehow? Can't Tennessee learn a lesson from the Red Sox somehow?
It doesn't really work like that around here, and it makes sense that it doesn't. The St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Redskins have deep fan bases in the Southeast, thanks to being the nearest pro teams in their respective sports until the late 1960s. The Vols have been playing football in Tennessee since 1891. The Titans showed up more than a century later, during Manning's last college season. The pro team has a strong fan base that extends into Alabama and Mississippi, but it will always rank second in Tennessee.
Will Shelton of SB Nation's exquisite Vols blog, Rocky Top Talk, says, "I'm a Titans fan and a Manning fan, in that order. But that's the minority opinion among our readers and, I'd think, most of East Tennessee."
Last year, the Colts ranked as Rocky Top Talk's favorite NFL team, beating Tennessee's own Titans 43 percent to 31 percent.
"This probably means around 43 percent of our readers are now Broncos fans," says Shelton.
For Titans fans, it was a big deal that Peyton chose Denver over Nashville. But for Vols fans, it's just another shade of orange.
Likewise, it was a big deal all throughout the Southeast when Manning didn't follow his father to the Mississippi Rebels. Archie Manning met his wife at Ole Miss. His first son, Cooper, probably would've been a Rebel if not for an injury. His youngest son became perhaps the best player in school history. But Peyton chose the Vols, thanks in part to accomplished quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe.
Manning would win every major college football award except the Heisman itself, lead the Vols to three straight 10-win seasons for the first time since 1972 and become the presumed No. 1 NFL Draft pick two years in a row.
It may explain something about SEC fans to note Manning's surprising Heisman loss to Charles Woodson is still a sore wound in Tennessee. Chris Fowler still isn't welcome in parts of Knoxville. Manning is the closest thing Tennessee has ever had to a Heisman winner.
A street leading to Neyland Stadium and the building's locker room are both named after Manning. NFL broadcast maps have routinely showed Colts games in Tennessee, and more of them than you'd otherwise expect, even considering they're the local pro team's rival.
Joel Hollingsworth, also of Rocky Top Talk, said, "When I have time to watch the NFL, I watch Manning. I'm not sure that many of us really distinguish between 'Manning fan' and 'team-Manning-plays-for fan.'" Hollingsworth also says his "second favorite team is Eric Berry," which tells us everything we need to know here.
Vols and Vols products come first for most Tennesseeans. That's not to say there aren't fans throughout the Mid-South who place the Titans first. You'll note Titans fans at Music City Miracles are not at all conflicted about Peyton turning down the Volunteer State and are instead just mad about free agency time going to waste. Sports are complicated!
But did Manning actually reject Tennessee? He'd all but settled on his final suitors when Titans' owner Bud Adams put him on the spot, publicly betting that Manning wouldn't risk his reputation in the state that made him famous. Now it all seems as if Manning humored the team, so as not to be rude to Vol-Titans (George O'Learyism) fans, but should he have felt an obligation to return?
Shelton works through a tangled nest of emotion in a post, finding most of the blame for whatever backlash is going on outside of Knoxville is largely due to Adams:
Many in the state of Tennessee have been walking a fine line for the last 14 years. Unified by a common love for the Vols and their favorite son, some Tennesseans have found themselves cheering for both the state's professional football team in Nashville and the quarterback who played for that team's biggest divisional rival. It's even easier to do if, like most in the South, you care much, much more about Saturdays than Sundays ...
Bud Adams created a no-win scenario when he made a public cry for Manning. If Peyton didn't visit at all, people would've still overreacted. The Titans are an organization with a solid veteran and a promising second-year player already in the stable at quarterback. The Titans didn't need Manning, plain and simple.
Titans fans have every reason to be upset that their team's free agency plan looks like a bunch of eggs in one basket, but it's not at all fair to assume Manning owed Tennessee anything more than what he'd already given it. He chose Tennessee over Ole Miss in the first place. Kind of silly to assume he has to keep choosing Tennessee items over non-Tennessee items for the rest of his life because he did that once as a teenager. Might as well have asked him to take it easy on the Titans while piloting the Colts.
Manning's return to Tennessee would've been a great story. It'll be a great story when he eventually returns for some sort of position with the Vols, though, whether that's as the world's least empathetic quarterbacks coach when he's 40 or as an old guy with some sort of long title when he's 80.
The most important thing to note is that, no, it will never get old to point out that by knocking Tebow out of Denver's depth chart, Manning has finally beaten Florida.