Butch Jones didn’t win a championship in his first year as Tennessee’s head football coach. He didn’t even win half of his games. He managed to win back a lot of fans whose enthusiasm was waning, though, and that’s no small feat.
Exhibit A: Attendance was up roughly 6,000 fans per game, even though Tennessee posted the same record last fall (5 wins, 7 losses) as it did the previous fall.
Exhibit B: Student attendance grew by roughly 40 percent from 2012 to 2013.
These impressive numbers come straight from the school’s associate athletics director for development and external relations.
“We went up on average about 2,000 (students) per game,” Chris Fuller told InsideTennessee. “We averaged close to 5,000 per game in 2012, and we went up to about 7,000 per game in 2013. Considering our home schedule and how many noon kickoffs we had – and the fact the South Carolina game was played during fall break (with few students on campus) – that (bump) is probably a little understated.”
Although their tickets cost just $10 each, many students stopped attending games during the Derek Dooley era. That trend was reversed last fall in dramatic fashion.
“I think it’s a couple of things,” Fuller said. “Primarily, it’s Coach Jones. I think the students feel a real sense of optimism about this staff and what they’re going to be able to do here. Also, we’ve worked hard with student life and student leadership to find out what’s important to them in the game-day experience.”
One move involves shifting some student seats from the upper level to the lower level of Neyland Stadium. That’s just one step in the process, though.
“We still have some things to do, as far as improving the process,” Fuller said. “We’re working on that. I think it’s the combination of Coach Jones and developing a strong relationship with (dean of students) Jeff Cathey. He’s been great and (student body president) Jake Baker has been great to work with. The student leadership changes from year to year but we have a high degree of trust, and I expect that to carry forward into the new leadership group.”
Butch Jones may have gone 5-7 on the field last fall but he was near-perfect on National Signing Day, landing a class ranked No. 4 nationally by Scout.com. That has fans buzzing about the future.
“I think everybody knows that recruiting’s the lifeblood of the program,” Fuller said. “Any time you have a coaching change you don’t really know how that staff will perform from a competitive standpoint and from a recruiting standpoint.
“It did not take us long to figure out that Coach Jones and his staff will be relentless in recruiting, will be creative in trying to find the right way to communicate with prospective student/athletes.”
With the student body energized and the talent base galvanized, Tennessee’s future is a lot brighter than its recent past. After consecutive seasons of 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 5-7 and 5-7, fans see a reason for optimism.
“I think moving forward people are excited about the signing class we were able to complete,” Fuller said. “They’re already seeing the staff secure commitments for 2015, 2016 and beyond. I think there’s a lot of excitement for that.”
Fans are especially pumped about the 2014 signing class because of the number of potential difference-makers it features.
“Some classes are more exciting than others,” Fuller noted. “When you look at some of the kids who could be real playmakers in this class it’s exciting – Josh Malone, Von Pearson, Jalen Hurd, Todd Kelly Jr., Dillon Bates, the Berrys. And, of course, the legacy connection in this class helps.”
Even before Tennessee reeled in its heralded signing class, however, Tennessee fans were jumping on the Butch Jones bandwagon. That says a lot about the loyalty of this fan base.
“I thought our fans were tremendous last year,” Fuller said. “We were unproven. We did not have a particularly compelling schedule. We played a lot of noon games and didn’t win a lot of games. Yet, our fans kept coming.”
With a better home schedule and a better product on the field, Tennessee should see a better turnout for games in 2014 than it had in 2013.
“I feel real optimism around Coach Jones and his staff – outside (the football complex) and inside the building,” Fuller said. “You hope that translates to more people in the stands but our fans have held up to their end of the bargain, even in some lean years.”
If Vol fans are right about Butch Jones, those “lean years” soon may be coming to an end.
Jones after NSD, per the university