In 2017, it was easy to be an Alabama fan. It was easy to be a Georgia fan. It was easy to be an Auburn fan. Hell, at the end of the season, it was easy to be a LSU fan and a Missouri fan.

But it wasn’t an easy year for Tennessee fans.

This inaugural award doesn’t go to the Tennessee fans who started up the #EmptyNeyland campaign, aimed to show fans’ chagrin at Butch Jones. It doesn’t go to the people who jumped on the ‘No Schiano’ bandwagon, like my former priest, who claimed not to care about Tennessee – or any college football for that matter – because he was ‘too busy with kids, but managed to whack a sermon of Facebook telling everybody who would listen: ‘I don’t know who runs the decision making at the University of Tennessee, but this is a travesty. I’d never let any of my sons anywhere near a coach like this”, adding: “I’m absolutely appalled the University of Tennessee would hire anyone who was anywhere near that kind of horrific culture. It’s completely tone-deaf, and a giant middle finger to ethics, integrity, and wise program-building”. It doesn’t go to people who painted the rock with hate about former AD John Currie, Butch or Greg.

It goes to the Tennessee fans who stayed.

It goes to the Tennessee fans who kept going to games, even when they knew it wasn’t going to end nicely. It’s the fans who didn’t leave even when Georgia was up 42-0 with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter. It’s the fans who went to both home and away games, and kept rooting for their team, despite the carnage on (and off) the field, led by the likes of Clay Travis, ESPN and Twitter (including yours truly, who really thought Butch Jones should have gone last season).

It goes to the Tennessee fans who didn’t sign up to the #EmptyNeyland campaign. Those Tennessee fans who said: “Hell, I don’t know who’s gonna be coach next year, but it doesn’t really matter, but I’m going to be rooting for them anyway”. Those Tennessee fans who care about the team that they were willing to take the verbal barbs from the Georgia and Alabama fans at work, because whether their SEC brethren liked it or not, they were gonna keep supporting their team.

The Tennessee Fan Who Stayed Around deserves to be supported, given a round of applause and a pat on the back. We hope for the Tennessee Fan Who Stayed Around that times will be better under new coach Jeremy Pruitt. While some Tennessee fans will demand an 9-3 or 8-4 year at the worst in the first two years of Pruitt’s tenure, the Tennessee Fan Who Stayed Around will acknowledge that some things take time, like the brewing process of the moonshine he had after hunting deer in the Appalachians.

And most of all, it goes to the Tennessee students, who stayed around to say that they still believed in the team at whatever cost. Whether the fanbase likes it or not, the students have to suffer, because random SEC fans will tell them over Thanksgiving or Christmas: “Tough Year”. They won’t be talking about Grandma’s illness or even the retirement of Dale Jr, but they’ll be talking about the football team. This is the Tennessee student who’s still got three years to go, because it may not be the easiest wearing orange.

Happy Christmas, Tennessee fans, you’re our fans of the year.

Note: Vanderbilt fans came close, and then we remembered that Vanderbilt’s win over Kansas State as well as eviscerating the Vols made them the second most-suffering fanbase in the SEC. 

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