Take a breath of fresh East Tennessee fall air.
It’s a Football Gameday in Knoxville, TN, and the Tennessee Vols, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of their passionate fans, will soon meander their way into Neyland Stadium to sing Rocky Top until they lose their voices.
As a North Carolina transplant who now calls Knoxville home after graduating from UT, I can tell you first-hand that there is something different in the air on a Tennessee Home Football game weekend in Knoxville. The Tennessee gameday experience is one-of-a-kind and if you are making the trip down I-40, from I-75, or just riding Kingston Pike to see the Vols play a home game in Neyland Stadium, let me be your guide through it all.
First things first: Parking. Get downtown early, and I mean multiple hours before kickoff early, as some downtown garage parking is free, but the demand is high. Take your time to explore the downtown area. Grab a meal in Market Square, peruse the shops on Gay Street, or even make your way down to the Old City if you have time! Knoxville has no shortage of excellent places to eat, grab coffee, shop, or purchase some UT gear to don for the big game! If you haven’t explored other parts of campus and Cumberland, we’ve got a guide to help you get to know this part of town here.
After filling your belly, having a beer, or doing whatever gets you in the mood for football, you absolutely must make your way down to campus at least 2-3 hours before kickoff. Tennessee is revered as one of the most tradition-based gameday experiences in the South, and it would be a travesty if you missed out on any of it.
As you head down Cumberland Avenue toward UT’s campus, take in the sights: a sea of tailgaters sporting orange and white, footballs and cornhole bags flying through the air, good music, people selling tickets, and a general sense of excitement knowing that in only a matter of hours, the Tennessee Volunteers will soon be taking the field.
If you chose to walk from downtown, catch your breath. When they talk about “down in the East Tennessee hills” in the UT anthem “Rocky Top”, they are not kidding. But you made it to campus! There are two spots for tailgating & fun you need to see:
G10 Parking Garage: Located directly in between Neyland Stadium and Thompson-Boling Arena, this garage is the life of the party on gameday. Head to the top floor and take in the views of beautiful East Tennessee scenery. Look toward downtown and notice the myriad of boats decked out in Tennessee flags. Here is the crown jewel of Tennessee Gameday: The Vol Navy. Not many schools throughout the country have a stadium located along the river, much less a tailgate party on boats (also called “sailgating”) within walking distance to the game. Even opposing fans have admitted how spectacular the Vol Navy is, and SEC competitors are not usually quick to dish out compliments if that tells you anything.
Circle Park: At the intersection of Peyton Manning Pass and Volunteer Boulevard lies perhaps the pinnacle of a Tennessee Gameday. Circle Park, a quiet escape on campus during the week, transforms into a tailgating scene of tents decked out with TVs, good eats, and a whole lot of orange and white apparel. Walk a lap around the park (it is a circle, literally) to see how Tennesseans tailgate, take your kiddos to Vol Village which has tons of family-friendly activities, or perhaps take a picture with UT’s beloved blue-tick coon hound mascot, Smokey!
(I mean c’mon, how can you not be a Tennessee fan with a good boy like this as the mascot?)
You’ve seen the tailgating sights, you’ve probably been told “Go Vols!”, what’s left? Oh yeah, the football team themselves. Roughly 2 hours before kickoff in what is called the “Vol Walk”, Coach Josh Heupel and the UT Football Volunteers will hop off their bus, parade down Peyton Manning Pass to the soundtrack of fans shouting and the band playing, and make their way into Neyland Stadium for the game. Find a good spot on the team’s walking route, and just wait – the screaming fans will let you know when they are about to head your way. Let your kids stick out their freshly sanitized hands and collect a few high fives from some players along the way!
Following this, many fans will make their way into the stadium to warm their seats and get their concessions ready, but trust me, you will want to hold on for the arrival of The University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Marching Band. In one of UT’s newer traditions, beginning in 1994, the Pride of the Southland Marching band will parade through campus, stopping below the large pedestrian bridge that crosses over Phillip Fulmer Way to begin their “Salute to the Hill”. The Hill, as it is commonly referred to, is the highest and oldest point of UT’s campus and is home to the University’s signature building, Ayres Hall. Out of respect for this “hallowed hill in Tennessee”, the Pride of the Southland band will turn and face the hill and play an array of UT’s most traditional tunes before entering the stadium to take their place for the game.
At long last, the players and the band have passed through, it is now it is time to make your way into one of the nation’s premier venues to watch a football game, Neyland Stadium. The stadium is named after General Robert Neyland, Tennessee’s winningest head coach whose tenure featured National Championships, many winning seasons, and even two Army deployments amidst the prime of his coaching career.
Neyland Stadium celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2021, and in 2022 it will feature a new-look. This offseason, our home for college football Saturdays underwent major renovations to include premium seating areas along the home sideline, a new state-of-the-art jumbotron on the north side of the stadium, as well as the return of the retro VOLS letters which were a staple of Neyland stadium from 1966 to 2009 (see below). Despite the changes, Neyland Stadium will still welcome 101,915 fans from around Big Orange Country within its walls each game this season, making it the sixth largest venue of its kind throughout the nation. And trust me, when it gets rocking and the fans get to singing “Rocky Top”, you’ll understand what the hype is all about.
So head on in, grab a Petro’s Hint-of-Orange tea or a cold beer, and find your spot amidst the crowd. It has been a long day of walking, eating, tailgating, and you have earned the priceless view from your seat.
Take a look around. Thousands of Tennessee fans surround you, some who have been here every year of their lives, some experiencing the awe and wonder of their first time in this beloved house of football, and some who never thought they would step foot in a crowded stadium ever again.
The energy is palpable, and Neyland Stadium is clad in Big Orange for as far as the eye can see.
As the band marches on the field, and the players storm through that Power T, one thing is certain: It’s Football Time in Tennessee!
By Caleb Wilson