The screams from thousands of cheering fans send chills up your spine. Almost 350 marching band members are on the field, blaring their instruments proudly in a round of the fight song. A swarm of orange and white completely surrounds you. Mixed emotions of readiness, excitement and anxiety hit you all at once. But you take a deep breath and get ready to run because it's football time in Tennessee.
Those are the moments players and coaches at Tennessee experience every home game during the team’s Running through the T entrance in front of 100,000 fans at Neyland Stadium.
The tradition has become a staple for the football program during the last 50 years and ranks among the greatest entrances in college football.
“It is almost a gladiator type of moment. That’s how I used to think of it,” said Phillip Fulmer, who coached at Tennessee for nearly 30 years. “You prepare for this battle you’re going to have, being introduced and be acknowledged by the fans, led by cheerleaders and the band playing.”
If someone knows how to describe the run, it’s Fulmer, who was a head coach, assistant and player at Tennessee. He arrived in Knoxville as an offensive guard and earned All Southeastern Conference accolades at the position.
Fulmer played from 1968-1970 under Doug Dickey, who eventually hired Fulmer as the Vols’ head coach during his tenure as UT’s athletic director. Four years before Fulmer arrived on campus, Dickey took over the struggling program that hadn’t won more than six games in a season or been to a bowl game since 1957.As part of his efforts to rejuvenate the program and its fans, Dickey implemented many of the traditions Tennessee has become known for from the checkerboard end zones to the Power T helmet stickers.
But his greatest contribution wasn’t until 1965 when he decided to approach the Pride of the Southland -- Tennessee’s famous marching band -- and its director Dr. WJ Julian, who later introduced "Rocky Top" to the Tennessee faithful. The rest became Tennessee history.
“He [Dickey] was a promoter. He was a salesman, a young coach with tons of energy and had a program that had been down and had great history but been down for a while,” Fulmer said. “He emphasized it, totally bought into it. Like I said it’s become an icon.”
Dickey and the team first ran through the T at Neyland Stadium on Sept. 18, 1965 against Army, according to the university. It’s the longevity of the tradition that makes it so special, said Dr. Donald Ryder, the director for the Pride and UT’s band program.
“It is something that everyone shares together. It has special meaning for the band, the team, the fans,” he said. “This past week over 400 VFL alums ran through the “T” and it was still a very special moment for them.”
The Pride of the Southland currently has more than 330 undergraduates marching and has an additional 20 graduate students and staff members. All members have to be in sync on the field, a learning process that starts even before football season begins.
“We learn all of the drills at Band Camp. We keep refining it all season long. There are a couple of intricate moves that occur. Flips and turns that must be precise,” Ryder said.
The formation itself has undergone a few changes in the last 50 years. Originally, Tennessee’s sidelines were located on the east side before Dickey decided to make the change and move them to the west, which allowed the Vols to enter through the T.
The benches would stay on the west side until new locker rooms were built under the north stands in 1983, so the T formation had to adjust. Thus it was moved to form north to south instead of east to west and remains in that pattern today.
While the location may have switched, the ultimate goal hasn’t changed at all. It’s still a chance to demonstrate the unity between all those in Neyland Stadium.
“For those seconds that you run through there and come on the field, in that particular moment, everyone is pulling for each other and centralized on the team. It’s recognized around the country and world as a college football moment," said Fulmer.
As both Dr. Ryder and Coach Fulmer can attest, the first time you run through the T yourself is an unforgettable moment, but it's just as special to watch others experience it for their first time.
“I always enjoy watching the freshmen during their first game in Neyland Stadium. Their faces tell the story. I have seen freshmen cry," Dr. Ryder said. "I have also witnessed graduating seniors cry the final time they march pregame and open the 'T.'"
For Fulmer, he can remember the first time each of his four children ran because it allowed them to feel the intense bond between everyone in Neyland for themselves.
“It was particularly special to me when my children turned 12. My son and my daughters all experienced that with me. My son just about every game, my daughters took turns. They experienced something that most young people don’t.”
Something else not most people can say is that they have ran through the T as much as Fulmer has done. Considering much of his life has been spent on the Tennessee sidelines, it all adds up for Fulmer, but it’s hard for him to name a precise number.
“I probably could if I thought about it. But I haven’t been able to do that. Four years as a player, 30 years of college coaching, how ever many games, it’s a bunch.”