By Mark Nagi
Tennessee’s football team is a couple of weeks into spring practice.
Did you know this? You probably did. Maybe you didn’t. I don’t know your level of fandom.
But the odds are you aren’t transfixed on quotes from Vols assistant coaches how wide receiver Dee Beckwith has looked with the offense or if the secondary has shown signs that they can improve.
Tennessee’s spring practice exists. That’s about all you can say about it.
At least that appears to be the overall feeling among Vols fans these days.
There are certainly reasons for this apparent apathy (and we will discuss the danger of apathy later in the article). The Vols are coming off a 3-7 season, one of the worst in program history. The previous head coach, Jeremy Pruitt, was booted after three years due to alleged recruiting violations. The athletics director, Phillip Fulmer, was forced into retirement as well.
The transfer portal was vicious to Tennessee, with their top offensive player (running back Eric Gray), their top returning offensive lineman (Wanya Morris), and their top recruit from the Class of 2020 (safety Key Lawrence) all leaving UT. All three of them will play at Oklahoma next season. Tennessee’s top overall player the past two seasons, linebacker Henry To’o To’o, also entered the transfer portal and is expected to play elsewhere this Fall.
Recently, one player was suspended from the team due to accusations of animal abuse. Four other players, including freshman quarterback Kaidon Salter, were arrested on drug charges in March and have yet to practice with the team.
None of these instances are the type of things Tennessee is going to put on any promotional materials.
You can also include COVID fatigue I guess, but the real issue is the mess that Tennessee football is these days. UT made a solid hire in new athletics director Danny White, and time will tell if Josh Heupel succeeds as head coach.
But in the meantime, Tennessee’s athletics department is in a world of financial hurt. They lost tens of millions of dollars in revenue during the pandemic and appear to be struggling in terms of season ticket renewals.
And here is where the danger of apathy sets in.
Fans that aren’t interested in a team tend to be the ones that aren’t buying popcorn, t-shirts, and sweatshirts. They are also the ones that decide to skip out on their annual donations and ticket purchases.
The thing that college sports can offer much more than professional sports can is nostalgia. So many Tennessee fans grew up supporting the team. They have memories of watching the games in person or listening to John Ward on the Vol Network. Maybe they attended UT or had family members who earned a degree from the state’s flagship university.
But that only goes so far.
As adults, they have to make decisions on what to do with their time and their money. And right now, Vols football simply isn’t a high priority. Making matters worse, the younger generation has no memory of Tennessee being… well, Tennessee.
1998 is getting further and further in the rearview.
So, it is up to White, Heupel, the Vols and the entire Tennessee athletics department to give UT fans a reason to buy in for the 2021 team. As of the writing of this article, there was talk of holding an open practice at Neyland Stadium. That would be a nice touch. It’s been a while since that occurred.
The Orange & White Game is on April 24th. It’ll be interesting to see how many fans are allowed to attend, and how many actually will walk through the gates at Neyland Stadium.