Butch Jones. That’s who.
Addressing media attending Monday’s Big Orange Caravan stop on the BMS infield, the Vols’ head coach spent his first sentence saying it’s “great to be back in Bristol.” Then he cut to the chase.
“I believe it’s 480 days till The Battle At Bristol,” he said, subsequently adding that his return to BMS makes the game “more of a reality now” than when the event was jointly announced by the schools on Oct. 14, 2013.
The current record attendance for a college football game was set Sept. 7, 2013, when 115,109 fans packed Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor to watch the Wolverines beat Notre Dame 41-30. Bristol Motor Speedway will seat approximately 160,000 for football, so the Tennessee-Virginia Tech game scheduled for Sept. 10, 2016 is a virtual cinch to surpass that.
Jones, whose knack for promotion is unsurpassed, called the Battle at Bristol “an opportunity to make history.” It also provides an opportunity to make hay on the recruiting trail. What prospect wouldn’t want to tell his grandchildren he played in a game that drew the biggest crowd in college football history?
“It’s going to be a tremendous opportunity for our players,” Jones conceded. “You talk about being part of a Tennessee football program that set the world record for overall attendance … that’s very, very special, and that’s what we’re building here at Tennessee.”
Jones, who recruits 24 hours per day 365 days per year, then launched into a full-blown pitch.
“You look at our neutral-site games and everything that is going on here at Tennessee,” he said. “Student-athletes see that we have a great environment, we have great leadership, we have great players. Individuals want to be a part of that. They start recruiting each other because they understand that you get an opportunity to leave a legacy of getting Tennessee football back. If I’m a young man, I would love to have that opportunity, plus play in front of the best fan base in the country. It’s very exciting.”
There’s one hurdle to be cleared before the Vols and Hokies meet in Bristol, of course: That would be the 2015 season. Jones noted that his program has made “tremendous strides” in the past two years but that the Vols cannot get caught up in the hype surrounding the season ahead.
|Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd|
“You can’t worry about all that other stuff,” he said, referring to expectations of a possible SEC East championship and national ranking. “But it is rewarding for them to have excitement around the program. A lot of that is because of our great fan base. Our fans have done an exceptional job, and we feed off their energy. We feed off the positive momentum they’ve helped us create.”
Jones walks a fine line these days. He must convince fans that the program is making strides while simultaneously convincing them that the finish line is still in the distance.
“In terms of the building of our football program, we still have a long ways to go,” he said, flipping the switch with his next sentence. “But I see the leadership. The culture is there. It’s monumental changes.”
Tennessee’s culture appears the healthiest it has been in years. The Vols posted a 2.85 team GPA this semester and a couple dozen players are still in Knoxville – 15 attending mini-term classes and another “eight to 10 more” on campus. Several key leaders appear to be serious about making 2015 a springboard season.
“As a coach, what you like to see is players reaching out to you – calling you, texting you, ‘Coach, it’s been great but I’m ready to get back to work,’” Jones said. “Jalen Hurd even sent me videos of him working out. That’s exciting … to see the excitement in our players’ eyes and feel the excitement in their voices when they call.”
Football fans talk about the hyping of the Super Bowl because there is a two-week lead-up to the NFL’s championship game. Two weeks is the blink of an eye compared to the 480 days remaining till Tennessee and Virginia Tech tee it up on the banked oval in Bristol.
But who’s counting, right?