For generations the results were one-sided. So was the conversation.
When it came to football, Vanderbilt and its fans desperately wanted to believe that a rivalry existed with the University of Tennessee. The Volunteers and their backers had other opponents on their minds, primarily Alabama or Florida, or both. The Commodores were — at best — an afterthought.
Vanderbilt could talk all it wanted about what was at stake when the teams met at or near the end of every regular season, but Tennessee would not hear of it and certainly did not have much to say. Those whose allegiances lay to the east let the results — numbers such as 45-0, 62-14, 65-0 or even the occasional 29-15, 14-7 or 28-26 — speak for themselves.
Then along came Twitter.
Those short bursts of 140 characters at a time have gone a long way toward engaging both sides to a degree that has not existed previously. They give everyone a chance to have their say but leave enough unsaid to allow for interpretation based on one’s allegiance, and that’s where things get entertaining.
For example, maybe James Franklin was reacting to the decision by highly touted running back Jalen Hurd to commit to UT when he said those who chose not to attend Vanderbilt settled for less than the best. Then again, maybe it was just a random Tweet at what turned out to be an inopportune time.
Volunteers supporters were plenty willing to believe it was the former and thus they were happy to claim victory months before the next game is played, as if that somehow took some of the sting out of last fall’s 41-18 rout at Vanderbilt.
Maybe Herb Hand wanted to stain Butch Jones’ image when he attached the first-year UT coach’s handle to his retweet of a vulgar offering from a Volunteers fan. Then again, maybe he just wanted to co-op the first-year head coach’s following to heap as much shame as possible on a single knucklehead.
Either way, it riled up folks on both sides and had people talking about Vanderbilt and Tennessee football in the same sentence for the better part of a week at a time of year when that normally does not happen.
In short, what Twitter has allowed Vanderbilt to insinuate itself into a conversation from which, for so long, it was excluded.
Franklin is an active, if not always deft participant in social media. Already there have been a couple instances — the maybe-it-was-about-Hurd tweet included — when he has had to answer for, or explain himself with regard to some of his postings.
Everyone knows, though, there is no such thing as bad publicity, and Twitter allows him to beat the drums in a way that did not exist previously. It is a way that UT fans don’t — or maybe can’t — ignore. They seem to be on constant alert for anything he might say that they could consider off-base or derogatory, no matter whether it actually is or not.
In other words, the UT faithful now care about what’s being said at Vanderbilt in a way they never have.
Jones quickly has shown he embraces the idea of social media as well. Both men insist their staff members participate.
Thus the discussion no longer is based on results from last November or any number of Novembers before that. No longer is the history of the series as important as it once was.
The fight for the attention and loyalty of those in this city and state no longer comes three or seven points at a time. That battle is waged 140 characters at a time.
In that regard, Vanderbilt and Tennessee very much are on an even playing field.