Firing a hall of fame coach, as the University of Tennessee did in 2008 with Phillip Fulmer, is never easy, even when it’s the right thing to do.

UT has tried its best to prove that by making two miserable hires on the heels of Fulmer’s firing. Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal after one season, leaving an NCAA investigation in his wake. Derek Dooley never lived up to his pedigree, and was unceremoniously dismissed after a three-year tenure that was the Vols’ worst three-year stretch since joining the Southeastern Conference well over a half-century ago.

But if the attendance at Saturday’s annual spring football game at Neyland Stadium was any indication, UT athletic director Dave Hart made the right decision when he hired Butch Jones away from Cincinnati.
Sure, spring game attendance is hardly a good litmus test of how the upcoming season will pan out. But it is an excellent indicator of the fan base’s enthusiasm and interest in the program. And for a fan base that has had precious little to be enthused about for a lot longer than most Vol fans care to think about, UT fans turned out in droves for Saturday’s Orange & White Game.

The game — which took place with Oneida’s own Dylan West on the roster as a scholarship player, a first for Scott County — went into the books with an “official” attendance of 61,076, third highest among the 14 SEC schools.

That attendance total is an estimate, of course; there were no tickets sold and no turnstiles at the entrances to Neyland Stadium. But, while schools are notorious for overstating attendance (Georgia, for example, reported 45,113 at its spring game; photos indicated otherwise), it appeared to be a reasonable estimate. The lower bowl was near capacity, with a sprinkling of fans in the upper deck of the stadium, which seats just over 102,000.

Credit Jones with the turnout.

Just four months into his new job as Tennessee’s football coach, Jones has shown shades of former UT basketball coach Bruce Pearl in re-energizing the fan base.

Jones has quickly worked to reengage the school’s former players, who were alienated by Dooley. He has reached out to area high school coaches, who were ignored by Dooley. And while Dooley seemed to consider the tedious task of reaching out to fans beneath him, Jones has embraced the opportunity. Using the social media network Twitter, he routinely “tweets” to fans, often engaging with them on a one-on-one basis. Not since Pearl delivered pizza to students waiting to purchase tickets for a basketball game against Florida has a coach worked so hard to engage the fans.

And fans, of course, are what drive any major college sports program.

It isn’t hard to draw a large crowd when you’re having success. See Alabama, which drew a crowd of 78,315 for its spring game on the heels of a couple of national championships. It isn’t hard to draw a large crowd when you’re commemorating something special. See Auburn, which drew 83,401 for its spring game that was coupled with a “final goodbye” to Toomer’s Oaks, the massive oak trees outside Jordan-Hare Stadium that were poisoned by a deranged Alabama fan. It isn’t hard to draw a large crowd when there is a star player on display. See Texas A&M, which drew 45,212 (up from 15,000 last year) for its spring game that saw Johnny Football showcase his ability.

But Tennessee’s 61,076 was its second largest crowd ever for an Orange & White Game. The Vols’ glory years in the mid ‘90s — featuring a team that was annually in the hunt for national championships and a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback — didn’t draw crowds that size. There are no star players on this UT football team. And there has certainly been no recent success. The largest “special event” associated with the game was an awards presentation for ESPN analyst Lee Corso and Texas coach Mack Brown.

And, still, UT fans turned out in droves.

Compare UT’s spring game attendance with Vanderbilt’s. Vandy is coming off its best season ever, and just signed its best recruiting class ever. And only 14,000 turned out. Compare it with Florida’s. Florida is expected to be in the hunt for an SEC championship this season, and is coming off an 11-2 finish last season. And only 10,000 turned out. Georgia, which finished 12-2 last year and a step away from the national championship game, drew only 45,113. Ole Miss, which just signed its best recruiting class ever, drew only 28,000.

It’s too soon to know whether Butch Jones will be a long-termer in Knoxville. Too soon to know whether he can complete the largest job of program-building at Tennessee since General Neyland made Vol football a national brand in the 1930s.

But 61,076 fans believe he just might be.

■ Ben Garrett is editor of the Independent Herald. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.