I can’t pinpoint when I first noticed it; maybe it’s one of those things that just suddenly existed one day. The type of thing that has only existed for a little while but feels like it’s been around for my entire life. I was completely baffled by this at first because, well, it shouldn’t make much sense on its face. It’s sort of like how Michigan (and Cincinnati before them) adopted a 2019 remix of a 2004 club song, or maybe the St. Louis Blues having their Stanley Cup Final run soundtracked by, of all things, “Gloria”.
I am, of course, referencing the fad known as Swag Surfin’.
That video is from January 2016, which is an HBCU-led rendition of a song from 2009 by a group called the Fast Life Yungstaz. (Please know and understand that I have rarely felt more aware of my whiteness than this exact moment.) At the time, this was a semi-hit: peaking at #62 on the Hot 100, I think I remember hearing it on the radio a time or two. I graduated high school in 2011, college in 2015, and do not remember this song being a part of any sporting event I attended. It’s to the point that until finally giving in and Googling “Swag Surfin'” two weeks ago, I realized that for nearly 13 years I thought this song was by Soulja Boy.
The HBCU portion of this research seems important. All of the earliest videos I’m able to find of this are at HBCUs: Clark Atlanta/Morehouse/Spelman in 2013; Howard University in 2015; Winston-Salem State in 2016. Some on Twitter swear that this is an Atlanta thing first, which makes sense because F.L.Y. were Atlantans. Whatever it may be, at some point, this made the jump from HBCUs and Black culture to American culture as a whole.
Willie Taggart, a Black man who coached Oregon’s football team for precisely one season, brought Swag Surfin’ to Oregon in 2017. Then it made it to Michigan State, then Auburn, and a variety of other football stadiums. I cannot find proof of it making it to a basketball arena until March 2018, when, unsurprisingly, Auburn adopted it. I suppose that over a four-year span, only interrupted by a global pandemic, Swag Surfin’ has ensconced itself as its own pandemic: a happy accident to a 13-year-old song previously only treasured by Atlantans and those who made the song what it is in the first place.
All of this to say that I didn’t get it for the longest time. Admittedly, part of this is because I really did think it was a Soulja Boy song. (I would like to offer a defense for myself here. Soulja Boy has songs titled “Pretty Boy Swag” and “Turn My Swag On”, along with four different mixtapes that have Swag in the title. Call it an accidental hybrid?) But also, this is just age. I am 28 and not 21 anymore. I sit far away from the student section. I am closing in on becoming An Old. I think I know a lot about music, but this entire paragraph is about me mis-remembering a really popular song as being by a different artist.
Crowd participation is a tale as old as time. There is the wave, obviously, but there is “All I Do Is Win”. There is “Let It Be”. There is “Hey Jude”. There is “Sweet Caroline”. Then there is “Swag Surfin'”. At first, I found it a mild curiosity that was more baffling than useful. Tennessee’s in-arena music director, whoever they may be, started playing this steadily in the 2021-22 season. Up to a month or so ago, I would’ve put the student participation for Swag Surfin’ at maybe 40%. I get it. It’s enough effort to stand for two hours; it is more effort to sway on beat to a song from 2009.
Maybe this is me projecting my own feelings and life onto the newfound East Tennessee staple. I did not feel any type of way about it until I watched the young man and his grandfather sway to the song days before my own grandfather passed. Even then, it’s just a unique thing that happened towards the end of a uniquely stressful and depressing multi-month stretch for my brain. The Kentucky game was the first time I can remember it appearing as a somewhat-cohesive unit in the student section.
I was planning on investing a very low amount of emotion into yesterday’s game; it’s just been a hard week and a hard two months. At some point, you just feel really tired. This held pretty well until two specific moments: first, when Zakai Zeigler nailed a shot-clock-beating three to tie the game at 39 in the midst of an 11-0 run. Secondly, when I heard “Swag Surfin'” come through the speakers and watched as the student section put together its strongest performance to date.
I do wish there was a video that included the upper deck, but you get what you get when you’re out of space on your iPhone and refuse to delete old messages. Something about this particular Swag Surf got to me. Something about it just feels right. Fundamentally different. Unusual in a good way. Being well on the way to Old status and on the opposite side of the arena, I did not participate, but I felt it projected onto people like me in a positive manner. Maybe you can project it all onto this team, too.
This is a team that started out hot and cold. I didn’t know how to feel about them for a long time, then in January, I was pretty ready to simulate this season to the finish. You watch them get dressed down by 28 in Lexington and it feels like any number of football beatdowns Knoxville has seen in the last 15 years. You figure the best-case scenario is a Sweet Sixteen. The offense is a mess that puts up a game you call the Act of God then manages to replicate something like it multiple times over. There isn’t much to like. There are no leaders.
This is all Battered Vol Syndrome speaking. It would be easy to keep speaking through that; to say that none of this really matters and that Rick Barnes underperforms in March and that it’s pointless to actually invest in this. There’s plenty of painful losses and annoying evidence to back that side of fandom up, I guess. The lasting postseason memories of the last 11 years have been a brutal overtime loss in an instant classic Sweet Sixteen game and a brutal buzzer-beating loss to a Catholic wizard in the middle of Lent.
But in the same way that Swag Surfin’ is the thing, so is Zakai Zeigler nailing that three and Kennedy Chandler winning (!) a post-up matchup with Jabari Smith. So is holding Walker Kessler to 8 & 5. So is a season where you’ve now defeated #2, #3, and #10 in KenPom all in front of sellout home crowds. The two losses since January 15 are a one-point road loss to a top 20 Texas team and a freak outlier shooting night against Arkansas, a top 20 team in their own right.
Everything else has been good and right and working. It feels different from a year ago, when Tennessee had the top-five defense but three home games and crash-landed with a 5 seed. It feels different from most of the Barnes era in general, where the fans actually grow to love the team more over the course of the season and point out the flaws less.
The players have spent the entire back half of this season saying that this is different. Saying that it doesn’t have to be the same old thing over and over. They’ve gone on the road and handled tricky grounders and line drives. They own three wins over teams that will be among the top 2 seed lines. This is a group that, for basically the entire season, has turned opposing offenses into wet sludge. Multiple players have stepped up to be capital-G Guys who are unafraid of the moment, not scared of the stress. A team full of people born after 2000 has completely changed the image of Tennessee basketball in my head.
A team that was leaderless a month ago now has Uros Plavsic goading Jabari Freaking Smith into a technical foul and Zakai Zeigler dancing through defenses. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who looked completely listless for three months, suddenly appears to be a legitimately good defender. The entire team pumps up the crowd during timeouts, understanding how crucial the home-court heat is after a year without it.
I think that’s the ultimate crux of why the Swag Surf finally wormed its way into my brain beyond repair. A year without crowds; a year without attending basketball games; two years of national and global despair. This is real Protagonist of History stuff, yes, but it is my lived experience that I am reporting on. It is of no small embarrassment that it has taken a crowd largely of youthful whites in orange to get me to understand it, but this is unfortunately common among people like me. I guess if nothing else, 13 years belatedly, it connects.
While very late to the party, I finally get the Swag Surf. I already got most of the Tennessee experience this year – I wrote about how it was all mud, all the time a month ago and that’s only partially changed – but now it’s sort of transcended the original boundaries. The mud is inescapable for opponents in the same way that Swag Surfin’ has become inescapable in SEC basketball. It travels everywhere and infects everyone. If mud can travel to March, this surprising fount of joy could provide some lifetime memories that you look back on fondly. Maybe you can sway to them.