Visitors driving into my home state used to be greeted by billboards that read WELCOME TO THE THREE STATES OF TENNESSEE. The signs are gone, but the three so-called grand divisions—East, Middle and West Tennessee, each represented by a star on the state flag—are still with us. To understand Tennessee sports, you have to understand how these regions differ.
East Tennessee, where I live and work, is a land of mountains (and mountain music) surrounding Knoxville, home to the University of Tennessee, which dominates the sports landscape. Middle Tennessee, where I grew up, centers on Nashville and the country music industry, loves its NFL Titans and divides its college loyalties among Vanderbilt, Austin Peay and the Volunteers. West Tennessee, where I went to college, sits by the Mississippi River; its main city is Memphis, its soundtrack is the blues, and it has fans of not only John Calipari's Memphis Tigers and the NBA Grizzlies but also Ole Miss, Arkansas and the Vols.
Of course, I didn't have much of a grasp of this when I was growing up on my daddy's tobacco and dairy farm in Henrietta, about 37 miles northwest of Nashville. Everyone I knew worked on a farm six days a week and went to church on Sundays. For entertainment, I played basketball and listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio on Saturday nights. If we heard about college sports, it was mostly those of Vanderbilt and Austin Peay, which was located 16 miles up the road in Clarksville. My brothers, Tommy and Kenneth, played basketball and baseball, respectively, at Austin Peay, and I thought I would play basketball there or at Belmont University in Nashville. But my daddy preferred that I go to college in a rural area and favored UT-Martin, in West Tennessee, so that's where I went. On the drive over, I saw cotton fields for the first time in my life.
It wasn't until I became the women's basketball coach at Tennessee in 1974 that I got the full picture of the state. I discovered that while the historical divisions are huge-East Tennessee (Union) and West Tennessee (Confederate) were on opposite sides in the Civil War—the people are pretty similar. When there is a reason for Tennesseans to come together, they do.
The Titans and UT football and basketball unite the people of the state. Being in Knoxville, I probably see things through orange-colored glasses, but some days it seems as if every person in Tennessee is a Big Orange fan. On days of home football games, I-40 is full of West Tennesseans heading east to cheer on the Volunteers, even though Knoxville is 300 miles from Jackson and nearly 400 from Memphis.
The Lady Vols also have fans from all regions. Our supporters in the Middle Tennessee area seem particularly numerous and passionate, especially when we go to Nashville for a game against Vanderbilt. For all the different allegiances, there aren't a lot of highly competitive in-state rivalries, but Vanderbilt-Tennessee in women's basketball is one. Our orange-clad fans show up hours before the game, and the atmosphere is like that of a football Saturday. When we lost to the Commodores in 1987, my dad told me, "I'd rather you beat Vanderbilt than win the national championship." (When we won the national title that year I think he changed his tune.)
A good example of the loyalty of Lady Vols supporters—and the character of Tennesseans—came in 1990, the year we were hosting the Final Four but lost to Virginia in the East Regional. I did some TV spots and got on the radio to appeal to our fans. I told them, "We're terribly disappointed, and I know we've disappointed you, but we can't let that affect how we support women's basketball." And they stepped forward: nearly 20,000 showed up at Thompson-Boling Arena to watch Stanford beat Auburn for the NCAA title, a championship-game attendance record that stood for six years.
There's a reason why this place is called the Volunteer State.