Alabama and Tennessee have always waged one of college football's most intense interstate rivalries. The game is so anticipated throughout the South that fans used to refer to it simply by its spot on the calendar: The Third Saturday in October. The rescheduling of the game to the fourth Saturday in October -- and the Volunteers' recent dominance in the series, winning eight of their past nine meetings -- has done nothing to lower the passion on either side.
In fact, as the teams prepare to play for the 87th time tomorrow in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 107,000 fans at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, the rivalry might have reached its boiling point -- and it has nothing to do with what has happened on the football field. Over the past several months, the storied rivalry has been played out in federal lawsuits, a criminal case and a congressional hearing.
Alabama's football program is on NCAA probation for multiple rules violations, most of them involving the recruitment of players. A prominent lawyer in Montgomery, Ala., claims Tennessee football boosters and coaches manufactured the NCAA's case against the Crimson Tide, which led to Alabama being placed on five years' probation, including a two-year bowl ban and a large reduction in football scholarships. There's at least one shred of truth to the lawyer's accusations: Evidence shows Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer was a confidential witness in the NCAA's case against the Tide.
Fulmer, a former Tennessee player who has a 9-2 record against Alabama, refused to appear in Birmingham in July for the Southeastern Conference's preseason news conferences. Attorney Thomas Gallion, who represents two former Alabama assistant coaches in their $60 million defamation lawsuit against the NCAA and six other defendants, threatened to serve Fulmer with a subpoena if he crossed state lines. So Fulmer stayed home, and the SEC fined him $10,000 for not appearing at the media event.
This week, Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton took out advertisements in local newspapers urging fans to be on their best behavior. But on the Tennessee athletic department's Web site, the school is selling T-shirts commemorating the game, and on the back of the shirts are the words: "Always bad blood."
Despite Tennessee's recent dominance, Alabama (5-2, 2-2 SEC) has been more than competitive in the past two games. The Tide ended a seven-game losing streak to the Vols in 2002, winning 34-14 in Knoxville. Last year, the Vols won 51-43 in five overtimes at Alabama. Tomorrow's game could be the 11th-ranked Volunteers' (5-1, 3-1) stiffest test left as they try to win out to secure a spot in the SEC championship game.
"To me, it's kind of one of the greatest things in college football," Fulmer told reporters this week. "The orange and white. The crimson and white. The third Saturday in October. It's fun to be a part of."
But the rivalry hasn't been as much fun for Fulmer since notes from his interviews with NCAA enforcement director Rich Johanningmeier were released by a federal judge earlier this year. According to Johanningmeier's report, Fulmer called him twice, on May 23, 2000, and Aug. 7, 2000, and told him about wrongdoing by Alabama booster Logan Young. Young was the key figure in Alabama's infractions case, as he was accused of paying a high school coach $150,000 to ensure that all-American defensive tackle Albert Means of Memphis signed with the Crimson Tide.
Young was indicted in October 2003 by a federal grand jury in Memphis on charges of conspiracy, crossing state lines to commit racketeering and arranging bank withdrawals to cover up a crime. Young pleaded not guilty, and his trial is scheduled for Jan. 10; he faces up to 15 years in prison and a $900,000 fine if convicted.
The federal lawsuit Gallion filed on behalf of former Alabama assistant coaches Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams is scheduled for trial in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on June 5. Among his charges, Gallion claims that the NCAA ignored violations committed by Tennessee in exchange for Fulmer's testimony against Alabama. Since 2000, the Volunteers have been cleared of allegations of academic fraud and paying a player, and the NCAA accepted the school's self-imposed slap on the wrist for a recruiting violation.
This week, Fulmer said he wasn't concerned about the legal circus surrounding the game.
"I have paid very little attention to any of that," Fulmer said. "I'm trying to do a job. We focus on what we can do something about."