Homecoming games are supposed to be about a relaxed atmosphere where alumni return to campus to mix and mingle with current students and fans of all stripes.
Instead, this weekend’s homecoming game against Southern Miss will see a battle for the heart and soul of the Tennessee fan base play out — with one segment of fans trying their best to fill Neyland Stadium to capacity, and another segment seeking to empty it.
Both sides want to make a statement — just for different reasons, and to different people. But their methods of delivering that statement could not be more different.
Welcome to Tennessee football 2017. Amid a season that has seen the Vols drop to 0-5 in SEC play, seemingly in real danger of losing eight games for the first time in program history, former players are turning on former players (see Erik Ainge vs. Albert Haynseworth), and now fans are turning on fans. Frustration is at an all-time high, and it seems like the actual game — the one being played at 7:30 p.m. on SEC Network — has become a mere afterthought.
On one side is the #EmptyNeyland movement. It is comprised of fans who are disgusted by the fact that Butch Jones is still their coach. If they had their way, they’d ride Jones out of town on a rail — then go back, capture athletics director John Currie, and ride him out, too.
Currie isn’t acting fast enough to satisfy them, so they’re determined to hit him where it hurts. And when you’re the caretaker of the athletics department, your pressure point isn’t hard to find: it’s the wallet. If a boycott effort can convince 20,000 fewer people to attend Neyland Stadium, that’s more than just thousands of dollars lost in ticket revenue. It’s also thousands of dollars lost in sales of $5 Hebrew National hot dogs and $6 liters of water.
On the other side is the #FillNeylandUp movement. It is comprised of fans whose mission isn’t so much to keep Jones — most of them agree that it is time for change — as it is to send a message of support to the players who make up Team 121. It isn’t the players’ fault they appear to be poorly coached, they argue. Besides, what does a half-empty stadium do to recruiting efforts? For that matter, what does a half-empty stadium do to efforts to hire a new coach when Jones is inevitably fired?
Both sides appear to have valid points.
In 2012, when Derek Dooley was fired after a 4-7 start to his third season, Neyland Stadium attendance played a significant role. The only sellouts were Florida and Alabama. No other home game reached 90,000, and several were closer to 80,000.
There were those who argued in 2012 that three years was not long enough for Dooley to build a body of work that could be sufficiently judged. After all, Tennessee’s offense was among the nation’s best in 2012. It’s just that the defense, under first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, the Nick Saban protege who was attempting to install a 3-4 system, was among the nation’s worst. The Vols were competitive in every game they played. A play here, a play there, and things might have been much different.
But fan apathy was at an all-time high. There wasn’t much excitement as the season began, and any excitement that existed had waned by the time the Vols lost to Florida for an eighth consecutive season. Then-athletics director Dave Hart was forced to act in no small part because of the butts-in-seats factor.
Tennessee fans are angry — frothing with anger, in fact — in 2017, but they’re hardly apathetic. Attendance has not been an issue. There have been at least 95,000 fans in Neyland Stadium for every home game this season. Numerous reports have emerged in recent days — from the Chattanooga Times Free Press newspaper, from radio host Jimmy Hyams, from ESPN’s Chris Low — suggesting that Jones’ fate has not been decided; that Currie would like to bring him back.
If that be the case, fan attendance absolutely matters. Sure, every athletics director likes wins and championships, but athletics directors don’t enjoy the luxury of such simplistic thinking. Coaching hires and fires are complicated. And as long as nearly 100,000 people are willing to pack Neyland Stadium on gamedays, as long as recruiting is going well (despite the recent defections, Tennessee’s current class is ranked eighth in the nation and second in the SEC), there’s not necessarily a pressing reason to fire Jones. Because the reality of the situation — part of what makes the decision complicated — is that there’s no such thing as a “home run hire.” There never is. Michigan emptied the bank to hire Jim Harbaugh, and he could easily be on the hot seat by this time next season. As for Alabama, Nick Saban wasn’t even the first choice of the late Mal Moore. The greatest football coach of the modern era only came into play when Rich Rodriguez rejected Moore’s advances.
So fed-up Tennessee fans who are answering the call to arms aren’t wrong when they have the audacity to believe they can help influence the AD’s decision. They just have to hit him where it hurts.
Then there’s the other side.
When Tennessee faced UMass on a hot afternoon back in September, the 95,000-plus who jammed Neyland Stadium under a brutal lunch-hour sun weren’t in a good mood. As the Vols’ offense struggled against a hapless Minuteman defense — and who could’ve imagined that afternoon would bring about the start of an offensive stretch that would turn out to be the worst of major college football’s modern era — fans’ anxiety turned to frustration, then to rage. The boo-birds, as they say, came out en force. They booed Butch Jones. But they also booed quarterback Quinten Dormady. And placekicker Brent Cimaglia.
It was a bad look. Booing refs is almost fun; as much a part of the game as the Pride of the Southland Band and those Hebrew Nationals. Booing coaches is a little low-brow but, hey, those guys are making seven figures to listen to those boos. Booing players, though? It’s in bad taste. And not just because it’s unsporting. In the north end zone of Neyland Stadium on any given Saturdays are recruits — impressionable 17- and 18-year-old high school athletes who are considering playing football for Tennessee. And they have ears. They hear the boos raining down from the fratboys in Section G. They hear the 40-something drunk men cursing the starting quarterback as he’s walking into the tunnel behind the north end zone at halftime.
Moments like that are bad but, believe it or not, there is a worse look. And that’s a half-empty stadium. Recruits don’t want to play for schools where they’re going to be verbally accosted by over-privileged fans, nor do they want to play for schools where the fans just stop showing up when things aren’t going well. Think back to those high school-level crowds Miami has played from in years past. Then consider how their recruiting has gone, even though their school is located in a prime location within one of the most talent-rich states in America. Crowds matter.
That’s to say nothing of the current players. It’s easy to say that those athletes are receiving a free education, and that’s reward enough. Maybe it should be. But playing in front of large crowds stirs the spirit. That’s human nature. If you played high school ball, think back to your own glory days in your school’s uniform. Was it fun playing in front of empty stadiums? Now ask yourself: How can anyone expect players to “give their all for Tennessee” if the fans aren’t willing to?
Besides, who’s to say that those reports from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Jimmy Hyams and others are true? There are other reports that say just the opposite. Most recently, GoVols247 reported this week that Jones’ fate has been decided. There have also been reports that a buyout has been negotiated. It was big news last night. AllThingsVol also reported the same thing two weeks ago.
Both sides have valid points. Neither side is absolutely right or wrong. On one side, there are those who say anyone who boycotts Neyland Stadium isn’t a true fan. They’re wrong. On the other side, there are those who claim the opposite. They even said that those who were cheering for Tennessee against Kentucky shouldn’t have done so. They’re wrong, too.
Here’s the truth: Saturday’s game will feature the lowest attendance of the season. That’s inevitable. The #EmptyNeyland movement will claim victory, but the truth is that many who stay home this weekend have no intentions of boycotting anything; they’re just tired of spending money to watch football that is both uninspired and uninspiring. After all, gameday expenses aren’t limited to tickets. There is parking, gas and those $5 hot dogs. A gameday can easily cost a couple of hundred dollars — with little to show for it except those souvenir cups that accumulate in your kitchen cabinets “faster than kudzu” (to quote an old Eastman Chemical Company commercial — good sports always recycle!).
Will attendance drop to Dooley-era levels? Who knows. Probably not. Tickets are cheap — less than $10 on Stubhub, and even lower-level sidelines can be had for less than face-value, a rarity at Neyland Stadium — which makes for an excellent opportunity for Vol dads on a fixed budget to take their sons (or daughters) to a game they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. The kids don’t care if Tennessee is 3-5 or 8-0. They’re just mesmerized by the experience — and no matter how bad the product on the field is, there’s nothing quite like a Tennessee football Saturday, especially in the eyes of a kid. There will be people in attendance at Saturday’s game who otherwise would not attend a game. And if attendance approaches 88,000 to 90,000, then the #FillNeylandUp movement can claim victory.
Either way, it’s more likely than not that Butch Jones is still Tennessee’s coach on Monday. Maybe one side or the other can claim a small victory, but the real losers are all of us — those who are in attendance at Neyland Stadium on Saturday and those who aren’t. For 99 percent of America, football is supposed to be a pastime . . . something fun. But as Tennessee slips further into SEC East irrelevancy, it’s hardly fun for Vols fans. And that’s true whether you subscribe to #EmptyNeyland or #FillNeylandUp