Originally created 01/11/00

Manning tests Titans' new fan base

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The team ignored as the Tennessee Oilers but beloved as the Tennessee Titans faces the biggest test of its new fan base thanks to the Indianapolis Colts.

It's not the geography. No, it's all the fault of one player -- Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

College graduation and two seasons in the NFL haven't cooled some fans' loyalty to the former Tennessee Volunteer. Even the Titans' fantastic AFC wild-card victory over Buffalo last weekend hasn't convinced people not to switch when Tennessee (14-3) visits the Colts (13-3) Sunday for an AFC divisional playoff.

"I've got a computer program on my TV, and when the Colts come out, they'll be in orange and white," a caller nicknamed "Tennessee Jack" said Monday on a radio show.

The Titans have fought Manning's attraction since moving to Tennessee in July 1997. He was the main focus of attention that fall as he bid for the Heisman Trophy and led the Vols to the Orange Bowl.

The few headlines the then-Oilers got came for having the NFL's worst attendance in Memphis and when former Heisman winner Eddie George admitted he voted for Michigan's Charles Woodson over Manning.

"It wasn't the popular thing, to be a Tennessee Oiler fan around here," George said. "But now the pendulum has changed dramatically."

Since then, the Oilers have become the Titans and have a new stadium. The Titans have been picking up fans over the past year, and drew a record 66,782 to Saturday's wild-card game after setting a franchise attendance record for the season.

Adelphia Coliseum now gets credit as one of the NFL's loudest stadiums. People had been buying up Titans gear over the past few months, but the 22-16 victory over Buffalo has nearly cleared out store shelves.

"We're cleaned out," said Duke Hollingsworth, a manager at the Tennessee Sports Fan store.

On Monday, only six Titans' hats remained at the store, and Hollingsworth said they had to move their Tennessee Vols' merchandise to the back of the store to clear space for the Titans.

Titans receiver Kevin Dyson hopes his incredible play -- a game-winning 75-yard kickoff return off a cross-field lateral from Frank Wycheck -- draws some new fans from around the nation to a team that had been forgotten until now.

"I used to hate bandwagon jumpers," he said. "Now I love them."

But the 1998 national champion Vols have been around much longer than two years and have a strong hold on a state where the campus has a new "VOL" area code. Spots of fans clad in UT orange and white can be seen at every Titans game even though the Knoxville campus is 160 miles east of Nashville.

When the Colts drafted Manning with the No. 1 pick in 1998, Indianapolis sold many season tickets in Tennessee where the quarterback has a street and a ton of children named for him.

Rob Blackman, who hosts a morning show on WNSR-AM in Nashville, made a comment Monday about how tough it would be for Vols fans to see Manning on the opposite side of the field.

"Man, after that the phone lines just went wild," he said.

Manning had his boosters, but the Titans got the edge.

"More folks were like ... `Yeah, we still like Peyton. We're going to be rooting for him, but we're Titans fans first and Peyton Manning fans second,"' Blackman said.

At least until kickoff Sunday.


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