Author and passionate Southern college football fan Clay Travis thought he was getting the opportunity of a lifetime in 2008, when he was given the chance to follow his beloved Tennessee Volunteers for the entire season.
Travis, co-host of the radio show Claynation, and a columnist for CBSSports.com, planned a volume in the spirit of other insider chronicles like John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink or David Halberstam's Breaks of the Game.
Tennessee was picked 18th in preseason polls, and spirits were high coming off a 8-4 season that had earned coach Phillip Fulmer a contract extension. This would be Fulmer's 16th year as head coach, and 34th overall at the university in some role.
Travis, whose grandfather had played for the legendary Gen. Robert Neyland in the 1930s, anticipated crafting the saga of the Vols' triumphant return to glory. As UT opened its season with a nationally telecast game at UCLA, Travis, with almost unlimited access to the team's comings and goings, truly felt he'd temporarily gotten into pigskin heaven.
Instead, he got a backstage pass to a nightmare.
On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat To The End Of An Era (Harper Collins) peels the covers off the sad end of the Fulmer era. As his book shows, the fact that Fulmer had won two SEC championships, one national championship and came into the year only 27 victories away from becoming the all-time winningest coach in school history, meant nothing once things began imploding.
Top programs are expected to win big every year, keep huge stadiums filled and entertain fans with artistic schemes and championship seasons. The 2008 Tennessee Vols not only finished with a putrid 5-7 record, they suffered several ugly losses, including a homecoming defeat to Wyoming, plus dreadful performances against traditional foes like Georgia, Florida and Alabama, not to mention the UCLA opener.
But Travis doesn't just coldly chronicle losses and cite details. Despite bleeding orange like any other hardcore fan, he offers superb game-day accounts and lands incisive, often heart-breaking interviews with the principals. He speaks with hard-luck running back Arian Foster, whose key fumbles seemed to decimate his teammates, and Foster's mother, who goes nose-to-nose on message boards with angry Big Orange supporters ripping her son.
He interviews Fulmer throughout the season-long unraveling of his team, profiling a decent and caring man unable to turn things around and bitterly disappointed that his past achievements mean so little to the current administration pondering his future.
And the author scrutinizes the impact of big money and the importance of football to the entire Tennessee and league structure. With football being the engine that is driving the school's athletic train, empty seats at home games and the cries of ardent fans on sports talk shows that Fulmer must go ultimately spelled his doom.
Travis deftly covers the events that finally convinced Athletic Director Mike Hamilton to make that decision, plus the search that culminated in the hiring of Lane Kiffin. Another key player in this drama was influential booster and Fulmer fan John "Thornton" Thunder, who fought for him until the bitter end.
Fortunately, not everything in On Rocky Top is sad or controversial. There are wonderful, funny stories about Travis' road trips with "Good Time" Charlie Harris, the 65-year-old driver who's been in charge of the UT big rig over a decade. Then there's his long-suffering wife, who puts up with his mood swings and devotion to the team. In addition, he recalls zany encounters and interaction with other friends and fans who also live and die with their team's weekly triumphs or failures.
Like his previously acclaimed work Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top takes readers into the wild, frequently unbelievable world of big-time college football. Travis not only shows everything that makes it entertaining and engaging, but also the fallout that negatively affects good people when predictions go awry and high expectations aren't met.