When I started college at Tennessee in the fall of 2007, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I actually had no idea how I was admitted into UT. Quite frankly, I still don’t.
    
On Thursday, I was talking to probably my favorite professor at UT and at one point she said, “I’m getting the vibe talking to you that I care more about your grade than you do.” It sounds crazy, but she was completely right. I don’t advise anyone to take the approach to college I have. In fact, I strongly encourage you not to. If you know me or have had a class with me, you understand.
    
I see myself as the one of the last of a dying breed of UT students. Since the HOPE Scholarship was established, the average incoming student has a 30-something ACT score and a 4.0-plus GPA.
    
There’s nothing wrong with high academic standards. UT should strive to be the best university it can be. But it’s not the Tennessee I came to know growing up in Knoxville.
   
 I could make fun of the #BigOrangeBigIdeas campaign slogan, but I’ll save that for my Twitter. Sure, the branding sounds nice, and no one will argue it’s a reasonable expectation, but a college shouldn’t strive to sit atop academic rankings. There are no national championships for being a top-25 public research university, only recognition, which does help recruiting better students. At the same time, athletics are more often than not the face of a university, and it is at Tennessee. The Peyton Mannings and Tyler Brays who spend three or four years throwing touchdown passes in orange and white have a big impact on Tennessee’s image. Most of the time more than it should be.
   
 I say this because Peyton Manning shaped my view of UT in a greater way than academics did. Luckily for UT, Manning is as good of an ambassador for a university as any athlete.
    
Still, my perspective of UT is different than most. One of my first memories of Tennessee was of students creating pandemonium in Neyland Stadium after beating Florida in overtime in 1998. One of the goal posts is still in the Tennessee River. Those crazy college kids.
    
I grew up living and dying with Volunteers football, sitting with my dad in section AA, row 3, seats 13 and 14. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. My idea of UT was forged from a young age watching Phillip Fulmer coach from the sidelines in Neyland Stadium and Pat Summitt coach from the bench in Thompson-Boling Arena.
    
When Summitt stepped down last Thursday after 38 years as women’s basketball coach, it hit me that the Tennessee athletics I fell in love with growing up with was gone. Luckily, my unhealthy passion for the Vols began to diminish after my sophomore year when I decided to try my hand at this journalism thing.
    
Now, three years later — yes, I redshirted a year — I leave UT with a resume full of experience. Being sports editor at The Daily Beacon for two years as well as having opportunities with the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the Associated Press have been a true blessing. None of the three ever asked me about my GPA or test scores either.
    
But while these opportunities have (hopefully) given me a chance to become a successful journalist in the future, they’re not what I’ll remember my time as a student at UT by.
    
Like Manning was for the childhood me, my perception of UT revolves around people.
    
More than anything else, I’m much more thankful for the friends and relationships I’ve developed over the last five years. I worked alongside two Beacon staffs that embodied what I believe UT should be. There’s too many of y’all to even begin trying to name, but each of you knows who you are.
    
I’ll forever be grateful to Wes Rucker for giving me my first professional journalism experience with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. His willingness to take a chance on me just because I attended football practice every day furthered my belief that showing up is the first step toward being successful in any adventure in life.
    
Interning with Wes also got me a foot in the door with Beth Rucker (no relation) and the AP. This spring, Beth even talked the AP into letting me cover UT’s spring practice after she wised-up and got out of journalism.
   
 I should note that both Wes and Beth are UT J-school grads and former Beacon editors.
    
There have been countless others who have made my UT experience better than I could’ve ever imagined it being when I first began carrying a backpack around campus five years ago with no business being a UT student.
    
When I applied to UT, I wrote an essay on why I should be admitted. My answer centered on my lifelong obsession of Tennessee athletics, especially of Vols football.
    
I never understood why I did that. Admissions should’ve thrown that application away based on that alone.
    
I’d like to say I’ve come a long way since then, but instead I realized I’ve just come full circle after Jimmy Stanton and Derek Dooley asked me to be a guest head coach in the Orange and White game last Saturday. In case you’re wondering, my team won.
    
Growing up I never dreamed of being a coach like Phillip Fulmer. I always wanted to be an athlete like Peyton Manning or Chris Burke. For good or bad, coaches and players are the faces of universities. I sure hope I’m not one of the people who shapes the way some young Knoxville boy views UT like Vols athletes did for me in the 1990s.
    
I just want to write about them.
    
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is leave every place you find, big or small, better than how you found it.
    
Hopefully I’ve done that during my time at UT. If not, let me know. Naturally, I have to take a one-hour PE class this summer to officially graduate.


— Matt Dixon is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at mdixon3@utk.edu. You can follow him on Twitter at @MattDixon3.