If Tennessee’s football team ever matches the passion of its fan base, the rest of the Southeastern Conference had better watch out.
Most fans wouldn’t drive hundreds of miles to watch a 6-6 team face a 7-5 opponent in a second-tier bowl game. Clearly, Tennessee supporters aren’t most fans because they showed up in mind-boggling numbers to cheer the Vols Jan. 2 against Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
“Our fans have been incredible,” said Chris Fuller, senior associate athletics director for development and external relations, “even when we haven’t lived up to our part of the bargain.”
Fuller, whose duties include overseeing ticket sales, described fan response to the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly the Gator Bowl) as “amazing.” He knew Vol Nation would be well represented but even he was a little surprised at the number of orange-clad fans he saw in the stands Jan. 2 at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.
“The way the bowls do the (ticket) allocations now you really don’t know till you get there,” he explained to InsideTennessee. “We got our original allotment of 8,000, and sold out very quickly. Then we got some more but not a lot.”
Whether Vol fans got their tickets from the school, the bowl organizers or the scalpers, they showed up in numbers that were nothing short of mind-boggling.
“It certainly looked like we had close to 40,000 people there in Orange,” Fuller said.
Thousands of those fans lined the streets 90 minutes prior to kickoff to cheer the players and coaches as they made the “Vol Walk” from the team buses to the stadium.
“The Vol Walk piece of it was amazing,” Fuller conceded. “It was a great sign to see how many fans showed up. It’s a testament to our fan base and the fact they knew what this team had to overcome to reach that bowl game. I think they wanted to honor the team, and they certainly accomplished that.”
Whereas Tennessee’s support of a 6-6 team was over the top, Iowa’s support of a 7-5 squad was about what you’d expect. Vol fans outnumbered Hawkeye fans probably 10-1 … maybe more.
“I would be surprised if they got through the whole (8,000 initial) allocation,” Fuller said. “We had the good fortune of being pretty excited to be in a Florida bowl game on Jan. 2. Even a 6-6 season and bowl trip was trending positive for us.
“For Iowa, I don’t think they were as excited about the season they had. They had much higher expectations coming in.”
That’s true. Iowa started the season 5-1, then faltered and finished the second half 2-4. Whereas Vol fans viewed the bowl game as a reward for a late-season rally, Hawkeye fans saw it as just another step in a late-season fade.
“It used to be that certain schools had a reputation for travelling well but I don’t think that holds up anymore,” Fuller said. “I think you have to look at year to year these days.”
Whereas the TaxSlayer Bowl folks were pleasantly surprised by the huge turnout of Big Orange fans, Fuller says UT's administration wasn’t surprised at all.
“It validates what we already knew about the passion of our fan base,” he said. “They want to get back into contention in the SEC East. There’s still a long way to go to get back in that environment but there are a lot of signs that Coach (Butch) Jones has us going in that direction.”
Indeed. Those signs are readily apparent to the man who oversees ticket sales. Coming off the program's first winning season since the 2009 team also went 7-6, Vol Nation is putting its money where its mouth is.
“We’re already at a higher level on premium seats than usual for this time,” Fuller said. “Out of 1800 terrace seats we have about 70 remaining. Our West club seats are sold out and our East club seats are 80 percent or so (taken).
“This will give us momentum going into next season and will encourage people to come back out and be season-ticket holders again.”