Look closely next time the Tennessee football team runs through the Power T before a football game. At the front of the pack, there will always be a familiar canine leading the charge.
"He loves running through that 'T'," says Earl Hudson, owner, caretaker and provider of UT's mascot, Smokey. "And after we score a touchdown, he runs back and forth across the south end zone."
Hudson chuckles. "He loves the attention."
Smokey, the lovable Bluetick Coonhound mascot of the University of Tennessee, has represented the Volunteers on the sidelines during football games since 1953. After the Vols' 1951 national championship under the legendary General Robert Neyland, diehard fans began to yearn for a mascot to better illustrate the new success of the Tennessee program.
"In 1952, people got to thinking, 'Here we are as national champions, and we don't even have a mascot.'" Hudson says.
At first, the original mascot idea didn't stick.
"People said, 'What about a Tennessee walking horse?'" Hudson recalls. "But how would he have made personal appearances, that type of thing? So next on the list was the Bluetick Coonhound."
In 1953, the UT Pep Club hosted a community-wide contest soliciting all hound owners to bring their dogs and try out for Tennessee's new mascot. According to Hudson, 19 dogs were judged in the contest, and his brother-in-law, the late Rev. Bill Brooks, brought along his prize-winning Bluetick named Blue Smokey.
The hounds were presented at halftime of the Vols' first game in 1953 against Mississippi State. The dogs were introduced to the crowd one-by-one. When Blue Smokey made his appearance, he howled loudly. And the crowd went wild.
"The more they cheered, the more he howled," Hudson says. "It was just a love fest."
The dog's popularity clicked with the university. The athletic department called Rev. Brooks the next week and pleaded with him to bring Blue Smokey to campus for the next game. Thus Blue Smokey became the new official mascot of the University of Tennessee.
Not long after, the dog's name was shortened to Smokey, which it has remained since 1953.
Brooks took care of Smokey until his death in 1986 when his wife, Mildred, took over. Hudson, Mildred's brother, assumed the role in 1993 and has held the post since then.
Hudson jokes that while he was one of Mildred's four brothers, he was the only one who showed the slightest interest in the Vols.
"After I retired from the pharmacy business, I told Mildred, 'Why don't you let me take over?'" says Hudson, a 1950 graduate of UT. "She agreed. She brought (Smokey) over here, and it's been going on ever since."
Hudson cherishes the responsibilities of watching over Tennessee's beloved canine. Smokey IX, the current dog in the long line of Smokey mascots, serves as Hudson's home companion when not patrolling the sidelines of Neyland Stadium.
For Hudson, he has his own criteria to find the perfect Smokey. "I always get a show dog, one with fine breeding," he says.
Though Hudson serves as Smokey's owner, some UT students continue a rich tradition of helping out with Smokey on game days. Each year, two members of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity serve as official handlers of the team's mascot.
"In 1977, the fraternity asked the athletic department if they could designate two brothers as Smokey handlers," Hudson says. "They elect new Smokey handlers every year, and it's something they always compete for because it looks good on a resume."
The handlers transport Smokey from Hudson's house to campus each home game day, allowing time for any of the mascot's special pregame appearances.
Smokey IX has been running through the 'T' since 2004 when he was introduced as UT's latest mascot at the 2004 Peach Bowl. Despite his fame, the dog's demeanor allows for plenty of fan interaction.
"He really likes people," Hudson admits. "But if someone bothers him, he's a guard dog, too. He loves kids; they can play on him; crawl on him. He never complains.
"There's a bit of claim to it: people on my street love living on the same street as Smokey does," Hudson jokes. "People want appearances with Smokey, and that's satisfying."