The Tennessee Vols haven’t been able to bring in more than 83,000 fans in the first two games of the 2021 season, though it doesn’t take an expert to figure out why attendance has been down. But as we navigate through these times of uncertainty here are a few things to keep in mind.
First off, try not to put this on Josh Heupel, he’s trying to rebuild a program that’s looked upon as mediocre at the moment. Sure, Heupel wasn’t the sexiest option for head coach, but I didn’t see anybody else taking the job. One might look at the situation and think that AD Danny White went the easy route by hiring his former coach at UCF. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists out there, this can easily be debunked. White tried to lure a few coaches to Knoxville, but he ultimately went back to the guy he trusted from his time in Orlando.
It’s almost similar to the piece that was written a few days ago on the Dan Mullen search. Scott Stricklin didn’t want to gut Mississippi State of their football coach, especially with his ties back in Mississippi. But in the end, it was the hire that made the most sense. Heupel was the guy that Danny White thought could get the Vols back on their feet after a recruitment scandal sent Jeremy Pruitt packing.
Heupel brings the type of offense that Tennessee fans have been clamoring for, one that can actually put up points and not look foolish in the process. As one person inside the program told me about Heupel, "You definitely know what you’re getting and the surprises will be minimal." See, this fanbase has been through a decade of broken promises and misguided coaches, the latter of which has left Tennessee dealing with NCAA issues. Now, the fans have reached a breaking point, especially when it comes to spending their hard-earned money.
As much as some folks would like to put all of this on the fans, I don’t know how you could. All the fans have done over the past decade is sell out a stadium every week, even after they lost at home to Georgia State — the worst loss in recent memory — to open the 2019 season. Those same fans showed up the next week in droves, and they watched BYU make things even worse.
When people look at Neyland Stadium the past few weeks and wonder why the upper decks have been almost empty, they should look no further than the previous administrations. Athletic Director Danny White is trying, as he looks for ways to bring back that excitement, while also enhancing the game day experience. It’s hard to do right now, especially with what we’ve all gone through over the past 18 months. Folks are tired, and they don’t want to shell out the insane amount of money it takes to attend these games. It’s not that the fanbase has completely given up on their beloved Vols, they’re just tired of spending money to see the same old thing. I sure don’t blame them, not with the way things have been handled in recent memory. But making Neyland Stadium a bit more modern, while also keeping the traditions in place, will only help in the future.
When was the last time Tennessee truly had 102,455 in the stands anyway? I am not talking about the attendance figures that they give out midway through the third quarter either. Decreasing that capacity just a bit for upcoming renovations will not hurt the allure of Tennessee football. Heck, when is the last time you could actually make a phone call inside the stadium or get some updated scores from around the conference? My point is, this administration has two means of pulling the fans back in: start winning or start thinking outside the box. That is exactly what Danny White is trying to accomplish.
Now, there hasn’t been much to get excited about regarding the play on the field in quite some time. You can go back to 2019 if you like, which the Vols capped off in front of almost 30,000 of their own fans in Jacksonville. But the problems you’ve seen on the field over the years are not going to change overnight. It will take some time. I won’t use the word patience, because if you’re a Tennessee fan, it’s practically a curse word by now. So now it’s up to this coaching staff to put a product on the field that’s worth paying for. Scoring a bunch of points, getting into shootouts with Ole Miss or playing tight with Georgia in November are all things that the fans can build off of. Just be competitive in all areas, including the game day experience. The administration knows it’s much easier to grab a drink out of the fridge, have the privacy of your own bathroom and actually be able to talk with a friend not sitting next to you during a game. This isn’t lost on the folks making the decisions now, even if they were lost on those in administrations past.
It is not like fans forgot how much fun they have at Tennessee games. Trust me, I hear about it almost everyday. "Hey Trey, remember the crazy atmosphere during the Oklahoma game?" Yes, I remember taking off that weekend and enjoying the madness that is college football. So, if you’re sitting at home and not wanting to fully buy into what’s going on right now within the football program, I don’t blame you. If you pay for a product, you’re hoping to get the best return you possibly can.
I don’t think Tennessee has reciprocated its end of the deal over the last number of years. That’s pretty obvious. But, don’t give up on them yet, as there are folks working to bring that flair back to Tennessee football and Neyland Stadium.
Every Saturday morning during football season, I know those emotions still come over you like a tidal wave, just waiting for a return to pandemonium. It used to happen a lot, so give it a little more time, you’ve already come this far. Maybe one day soon you’ll find yourself thinking of John Ward after the Vols cap off a huge victory and chaos reigns all over the stadium.
I know, they know, everyone knows that the Vols haven’t been what they ought to be. The past results are not what should define Tennessee in the future, but they’re gonna have to prove it to you first. So, when things start to return to normal, you know the fans will as well.