There’s no down time in the "spirit world" inhabited by Joy Postell-Gee. As coordinator of UT’s Spirit Squad, she oversees the year-round activities of more than a hundred cheerleaders, dance team members, mascots, Smokey dog handlers and spring sports ambassadors.
"I tell them three things at the beginning," she said. "First, getting an education is always the first priority. Second, you’ve got to love the Big Orange! And third, when you join this squad, you’re getting a new mom."
She notes that some students come to the university with a strong support system, while the Spirit Squad becomes the support system for others.
"Coaching is the easy part," she says, remembering long discussions with homesick and/or heartbroken squad members.
In addition to all the normal pressures of university life, Spirit Squad members appear at hundreds of events each year. They also have three-hour practice sessions four days a week, along with a daily weight training routine.
"We constantly move from one sport to the next," says Postell-Gee, referring to a recent day with three appearances scheduled at the same time.
Postell-Gee has known the demands of the spirit world for a long time. Her father, a football coach, advised her to devote her time to something for which she had a passion. That turned out to be cheerleading.
She had long observed that the SEC schools were among the elite of the spirit world. But she also knew that UT had been mostly a no-show. When she and husband Robert Gee moved to Tennessee, she set out to change that.
At the time, management of the UT cheerleading squad was fragmented. The band supervised all of the travel. The dean of students handled the selection process, and the athletics department handled the budget.
"There was no ‘go-to’ person," she recalls. So she put together a proposal telling the athletics department why they needed her. That was in 1992. Col. Gene Moeller, UT’s assistant athletic director at the time, hired her as UT’s first cheerleading coach. The job has evolved into a full-time position that oversees all aspects of the spirit program, which now includes dance coach/choreographer Kelly Eidenmuller and a new graduate assistant position.
Today, the Spirit Squad consistently competes well on the national level. The dance team is the reigning national champion, and the mascot program was national champion in 2000 and 2001.
"Traditionally, Tennessee is in the top five in all aspects of spirit," Postell-Gee reports. "We are very proud that we’re one of few programs in the United States with success in all three areas: cheering, dance and mascots."
The cheerleading squad consists of 32 students, half of them female, half male. The squad divides the responsibility for every athletic function at the university, which means everyone stays extremely busy. Football season, for example, overlaps with volleyball, soccer, and the men’s and women’s basketball seasons. It’s not uncommon to have a football game plus two other functions in a single day, Postell-Gee says.
The dance team, with 18 members, performs only at men’s athletic events. Five additional squad members serve as mascots: Smokey, Junior Smokey, The Volunteer and understudy positions. Students also serve as handlers for Smokey the dog during public performances.
"I definitely have a passion for this job," Postell-Gee says. "I have a passion for these kids."
She remembers one student in particular, Daniel, a UT cheerleader who took his first airplane ride with the Spirit Squad. He had lived in foster homes from the time he was two years old.
He was once late returning from a halftime break at a basketball game. The consequence was to run a mile for every minute he was late. That meant a five-mile run, farther than he had ever run before.
"He called me to tell me how much he appreciated that opportunity to run five miles," says Postell-Gee with tears in her eyes. "He vowed he’d run it as quickly as he could. He was such a great runner because as a child he had a late-night job sweeping up at a restaurant, and he had to run home at night because it was cold and scary."
Today, Daniel is a physical therapy student at UT Chattanooga. He takes care of his stepbrother, works as a trainer and attends school.
"To witness his progression has been such a blessing," Postell-Gee says.
Working with such extraordinary students is her favorite part of the job, she says. Building respect for their efforts is one of her greatest challenges.
"People don’t always give them credit for their time, commitment and dedication," she asserts. "These young people work numerous hours to be the best at what they do."
For more information on the Spirit Squad, visit www.utsports.com and follow the links to the "Fans" page.
Joy Postell-Gee earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Western Carolina University and a master’s degree in English from UT. She taught school in North Carolina, where she volunteered on the coaching staff at North Carolina State University, and then in Georgia, where she also coached high school cheerleading for seven years. Back in Knoxville, she worked at the Knoxville Gymnastics Training Center and started the first local all-star cheerleading team, the Knoxville Cheer Stars. She and her husband have an eight-year-old son, Robert.