KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Despite the demands of an increasingly restless fan base, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones will apparently coach the Vols against Southern Miss this weekend.
In the aftermath of Tennessee’s 29-26 loss at Kentucky on Saturday, reports emerged that Jones would not be fired ahead of the Vols’ homecoming game against Southern Miss on Nov. 4 (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). Among them were Knoxville radio host and long-time sports writer Jimmy Hyams, who cited an unnamed source’s revelation that Jones will coach against the Golden Eagles.
While many believe Jones will not survive this season, another source told me Jones will coach the Southern Miss game Saturday.
— Jimmy Hyams (@JimmyHyams) October 29, 2017
But as Sunday afternoon turned to early evening, SEC Country’s Mike Griffith reported that UT officials were meeting to discuss Jones’ immediate future, leading to widespread speculation that Jones was in jeopardy of being terminated immediately. There were other reports that UT’s usual Sunday afternoon staff meeting had been delayed.
Late Sunday evening, however, the Tennessee Athletics Department submitted to the press its weekly media schedule, showing that Jones will be available Monday and Wednesday. That is a normal game week schedule for Jones, who holds his game week press conference on Monday and is available via teleconference on Wednesday.
That’s hardly solid confirmation from the top that Jones will be the Vols’ coach for this weekend’s homecoming game, but it would seem to indicate that. And since Tennessee will be a decided favorite to defeat Southern Miss — the Vols opened as 6.5-point favorites — it seems likely that Jones will also be coaching the following weekend, when the Vols head to Missouri. The next two opponents represent the weakest remaining on Tennessee’s schedule before a Nov. 18 visit from LSU. In other words: it seems that Jones may not be headed anywhere just yet. If he isn’t fired now, he may very well be able to ride out the season before the hammer falls.
That’s contrary to the desires of a growing portion of the fan base — perhaps even a plurality of the fan base, at this point — and frustrated fans are now looking to voice their displeasure in a manner that is often associated with apathy: by staying home.
#EmptyNeyland is a hashtag that is being used by fans on social media. It is a spin off of the #CheckerNeyland hashtag, a fan movement that the university adopted in 2015 as a way to decorate Neyland Stadium for big games. Neyland Stadium was last “checkered” for the Georgia game earlier this season.
As one Twitter user — identifying himself as Josh O’Neal — tweeted, “If Checker Neyland can be organized, how about #EmptyNeyland? Protest.”
Generally speaking, nothing gets the attention of administrators more quickly than declining game attendance. Ticket sales provide much-needed revenue to athletic departments. But lower attendance at games also put a hurting on concession sales, and frustrate business owners near campus because it represents lower gameday customer traffic.
Game attendance was a huge factor in Derek Dooley’s departure in 2012, after three years on the job. Fewer than 88,000 people showed up for that season’s home opener against Georgia State, and fewer than 82,000 were there for a visit from Akron. Aside from sellouts against Florida and Alabama, the largest crowd at Neyland Stadium in 2012 was the slightly more than 89,000 that showed up to see the Vols lose to Missouri. It turned out to be Dooley’s final home game, as he was fired after a 41-18 loss at Vanderbilt the following week.
So far, attendance has not been an issue for Jones. While the Vols have sold out Neyland Stadium just once this season — against Georgia — the lowest attendance thus far has been 95,324, against Massachusetts on Sept. 23. In other words, Tennessee’s lowest attendance total this season is higher than the highest attendance total — Florida and Alabama withstanding — in Dooley’s final season.
If you’re wondering why Tennessee has not yet pulled the trigger on a coaching change, chances are that attendance totals are playing into the equation.
Tennessee fans who are endorsing the #EmptyNeyland effort will attempt to change that, beginning with the homecoming game against Southern Miss. As Twitter user @hammered_VOL — who illustrates his frustration by calling himself “Fire John Currie” — tweeted, “Let’s add one last record to Butch’s wall of shame this week: lowest attendance in Neyland’s history. #EmptyNeyland.”
That’s an impossible record to set, of course. While attendance records have only been kept since 1946, seating capacity at Shields-Watkins Field was only a few thousand when it opened in 1921. During that 1946 season, an average of around 31,000 fans attended each game. Saturday’s attendance will certainly exceed that.
Of course, Shields-Watkins Field was not dedicated as Neyland Stadium until 1962. But even then, attendance was somewhere in the 40,000 range for each game — 44,600 showed up to see the Vols take on No. 2 Alabama that season — and this weekend’s attendance will achieve even that.
So can Tennessee fans urge enough of their fellow football enthusiasts to stay home to make a noticeable difference?
That’s hard to say. The 2012 season was a low-water mark for Neyland Stadium attendance in the modern era. However, while the 2012 team was historically bad — losing its first seven SEC games, it did feature an exceptional offense. It is said that offense draws fans while defense wins championships, and this year’s Tennessee offense is hardly exceptional — at least not in a good way.
Still, Tennessee has had some pretty miserable offenses in the past — the 2008 Clawfense comes to mind — and attendance did not drop to the levels of the 2012 season. And in 2012, as previously pointed out, fan apathy was present at the first of the season and increased as the season progressed. So it would take a pretty significant grassroots effort within the fanbase for Tennessee’s attendance for the Southern Miss game to fall below the modern-day record of 81,719 that showed up to see the Vols beat Akron on Sept. 22, 2012.
If attendance were to drop below that 2012 mark — which seems highly unlikely — it’s possible that it could reach levels not seen in more than 40 years. In 1976 — the final year of the Bill Battle era — only 79,161 showed up to see Tennessee beat Ole Miss, 32-6, on Nov. 13. It was the third time that season that attendance dropped below 80,000. It fell to a low of 78,161 when the Vols faced Clemson on Oct. 2.
There’s a lesson there for Jones: Not even a good November could save Battle that season. Growing fan apathy forced a change even though Battle won three out of four games in November. He defeated Memphis State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, while losing to Kentucky, to finish the season with a record of 6-5.
Incidentally, the 78,000 and change who showed up to see the Vols face Clemson in 1976 was still nearly a sellout, as 1976 was an expansion season for Neyland Stadium. The last part of the upper deck in the south end zone had been completed prior to the season, adding 9,600 seats and increasing capacity to 80,250. Average attendance actually increased in 1976 — from 72,683 the year before to 80,703 — but there were more empty seats. So Tennessee fired Battle, brought Johnny Majors — the former Heisman Trophy runner-up who had won a national championship at Pitt — home in 1977, average attendance increased to 83,283, and there haven’t been fewer than 80,000 people to see a game in Neyland Stadium since.
All of that adds up to say this: Saturday’s attendance will almost certainly be in excess of 80,000. And if this season’s attendance to date is any indication, it may be well in excess of 80,000.
With that said, ticket prices — which are usually an indicator of what game attendance can be expected — have plummeted for Saturday’s homecoming game. As of Sunday evening, Stubhub had numerous tickets listed for under $10, sideline tickets for less than $20, and even prime lower-level sideline seats could be had through the ticket-broker for less than $30.
Those are ticket prices not seen since the 2012 season, and are even cheaper than most games at Neyland Stadium that season. Suffice to say, attendance will be down for Saturday’s game. Whether it will be down enough to have the affect those promoting #EmptyNeyland hope for it to have remains to be seen.