Column: Fans are Right Not to Want to Do “Checker Neyland”

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    If you’re a Vol fan, you’ve probably seen online or heard on air the debate this week surrounding “Checker Neyland” for Tennessee’s match-up with Florida next weekend. And chances are you’re in one of the two main camps. Either you’re for fans doing the new tradition next Saturday or you think it should be put to an end for now or maybe even permanently.

    And the fans who don’t want to do it have every right to feel that way.

    Far be it from me to tell fans how they should feel. That’s not what I ever try to do, and that’s not what I’m attempting to do here. If you like “Checker Neyland,” I’m glad. So do I. But if you don’t like it or don’t want it to happen this year, I think you’re justified in that as well.

    Vol fans just went through five years of gimmicks and slogans, and all it got them was heartbreak and the worst season in program history. I can understand fans wanting to move on from the Butch Jones era in every way conceivable, and for them that also includes parting ways with making the checkerboards in the stands in Neyland Stadium.

    But don’t forget “Checker Neyland’s” roots. It wasn’t started by Jones.

    Two Vol fans came up with the idea of checkering Neyland Stadium back around 2013. And that all came to fruition in 2014 when a website was created and a graphic of what it would look like in Neyland started making the rounds on social media. The fan-led movement started around the beginning of the 2014 season and was on full display for Tennessee’s match-up with Florida that season.

    It wasn’t until the fans’ voices got so loud that they couldn’t be ignored that the university finally listened to them and embraced the idea. It was still a fan-led occasion, but UT now acknowledged it and advertised it in the years after.

    And the results were astounding.

    The scene that “Checker Neyland” creates is one of the most unique in college football. Other fan bases have attempted to pattern their fan seating, and those schools have had varying degrees of success. But it’s truly a sight to behold when 100,000-plus Vol fans are all coordinated together and pull off an orange-and-white checkerboard design inside the massive stadium.

    Unfortunately for “Checker Neyland,” it became associated not only with a very upsetting and controversial time in Tennessee football, but it also got associated with losing.

    Vol fans have come together to create the checkering of Neyland four times, and Tennessee’s football team has rewarded fans with a victory just once. The Vols lost 10-9 against Florida in 2014, lost 31-24 in double-overtime against Oklahoma in 2015, and finally won against Florida 38-28 in 2016. But the most recent “Checker Neyland” event was last season during Tennessee’s worst loss in Neyland Stadium history. Vol fans decked themselves out in their best orange or white apparel to pull off the spectacle, but they watched their Vols get pummeled 41-0 by eventual SEC champion Georgia.

    The last instance of “Checker Neyland” has left a sour taste in the mouths of some Vol fans. That alone would make it understandable why Vol fans would want to move on from it. But when you couple that with the fact that UT now has a no-nonsense head coach — a stark contrast from the man previously in charge — and it seems fitting that Tennessee at least skips a year for the new tradition.

    Fans may associate “Checker Neyland” with Butch Jones, and while that may be an unfair association since he had nothing to do with its creation, it’s understandable. Vol fans have been wanting a return to a “no frills” approach to football, and they have that in Jeremy Pruitt. And checkering Neyland, while a wondrous sight to behold, is now associated with the gimmick era of UT football.

    The spectacle that is “Checker Neyland” was trending towards becoming the latest in a long list of traditions embraced by Vol fans surrounding UT football. But it might be the right move to put that “tradition” on the back burner. At least for now.

    Vol fans need a break from the previous regime, and taking a year or two off from “Checker Neyland” may provide the breather necessary for fans to get excited about it again. But now is not the time, and the fans who don’t want to participate in it this year are justified in their reasoning.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.