Tennessee's head coach Butch Jones looks on from the sideline during the second half an NCAA college football game against Austin Peay on Aug. 31. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
When Tennessee kicks off against South Alabama on Saturday, there likely will be a large swath of empty bleachers in what would otherwise be prime seating at Neyland Stadium.
But the seats are available only to students. And many thousands won’t be claimed.
Tennessee first-year coach Butch Jones put the spotlight on student attendance this week when he veered off script and exhorted students to support the Vols (2-2) against the Jaguars (2-1) on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.)
So far Jones has chided students only very gently. The comments have not been critical. In fact, he took responsibility for not doing enough to get students involved.
“I have to do a much better job,” he said. “We should sell out our student body tickets every single home game. That’s the expectation we have, and it’s up to me. I’ll do anything and everything for our student body. We need them.”
Through two home games in 2013, student attendance has actually been considerably better than it was a year ago.
The overall student allocation, not including the band, is 11,658. For the opener against Austin Peay, 10,411 students claimed tickets, according to UT senior associate athletic director Chris Fuller. There were 7,590 students for the second game against Western Kentucky.
Last year, the average was about 5,000 per game — and even that total was inflated by big crowds for prime games like Alabama.
Fuller said he’s optimistic about continued growth in the student attendance. He expects more than 7,000 for Saturday’s game against South Alabama, even with the 12:21 p.m. kickoff that typically depresses turnout.
Overall, about 84,000 tickets have been sold.
Fuller sat down with student leaders this summer to share data and craft ticket plans for the future. They’ve already worked out some compromises.
When the Vols host South Carolina on Oct. 19, many students will be out of town for fall break and historical trends show there are likely to be many unclaimed tickets. So some of the student seats will be sold to general public in what is expected to be a high-demand game.
Other changes are more cosmetic. The perception of student attendance may be worse than it actually is because the empty seats are so prominent and noticeable. The least desirable student seats are on the middle level of the east side of Neyland Stadium, easily viewable to television viewers. The location is more desirable to the general public, which is why UT might reclaim that middle level in 2014 and give students more lower bowl seats.
When Jones met with student leaders earlier this month, he said he wanted to give the student section a name that would give it an identity.
At Cincinnati, Jones’ teams often played in front of only 25,000 fans in a 35,000-seat stadium. But the student turnout, he said, was exceptional.
Given that, a reporter for UT’s student newspaper asked on Monday, wasn’t it a bit disheartening to see all the empty seats at Tennessee?
Jones was diplomatic in his response.
“It’s an opportunity, I would say. I think it starts when an individual walks in as a freshman and really educating them on ‘Hey, there’s only one Tennessee.’ They can directly influence and impact a game. I think the big thing is them knowing that they’re wanted and they’re needed.”