By Steve Williams
I can’t say they’re the best, because I haven’t been to every collegiate sports venue in the nation and observed the many other fans bases.
But I can say this. There can’t be any better.
Vol Nation was in the spotlight again on Jan. 2 when Tennessee played Iowa in TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.
The turnout of Tennessee fans was tremendous. I heard estimates as high as “40,000 fans” and “80 percent” of the crowd of 56,310 were Tennessee supporters.
“I think the MVP was Vol Nation,” said UT head coach Butch Jones, in his post-game show on the Vol Network, after the 45-28 victory over the Hawkeyes.
In the days leading up to the game, there seemed to be more excitement over this bowl game than any other since the Vols upset Miami 35-7 in the 1986 Sugar Bowl and beat Florida State 23-16 for the national championship in the 1998 Fiesta Bowl.
The fact that it was Tennessee’s first post-season game since 2010 had a lot to do with the Vol fans’ excitement.
The Vols and their fans weren’t use to being home for the football holidays. From 1989 through 2004, Tennessee played in 16 straight bowls. UT finally got to play in its 50th bowl game this year and now ranks in a tie for fourth among all-time bowl appearances.
An impromptu Vol Walk, started on social media, was a special touch in Jacksonville. It reportedly looked like “Peyton Pass” outside Neyland Stadium on a Game Day back home in Knoxville.
That’s Tennessee fans for ya. Don’t think the Vols didn’t notice. It just added to the team’s energy that produced a 21-0 first quarter lead and escalated.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz noticed, too.
“It was a home game for Tennessee,” he said after the blowout. “That happens a lot of times when Big Ten teams come South. They (Vols) have a really excited fan base. They have a good football team.”
Attendance at many of the bowl games this year again was low, and watching on TV, you could see many empty seats behind the action on the field. That wasn’t nearly the case at the TaxSlayer Bowl, thanks to the bowl-hungry Tennessee fans.
Donnie Tyndall, first-year UT head basketball coach, already has discovered how valuable the Tennessee fans are in basketball, too, and more than once has applauded them for their support and making a difference in competitive home wins.
In comparison, The Hump, Mississippi State’s homecourt, looked like it had about 150 fans in it in the second half of Tennessee’s conference opener in Starkville last week, a 61-47 UT win.
A couple of times last week Coach Tyndall tweeted he needed the Vol fans’ help for this past Saturday’s SEC game against Alabama.
“HUGE game on Saturday VOL NATION! We need you there! Let’s pack TBA 20K strong!” tweeted Tyndall Thursday.
Tennessee went into the game with a 7-0 home record.
Holly Warlick, Lady Vols head coach, always acknowledges the fans’ turnout and support after home games on her post-game radio show, much like her predecessor, Pat Summitt, always did. The gratitude is well deserved too, as the UT women’s program has long had the top fan base in the country year in and year out.
The Lady Vols are 10-0 at The Summitt after last week’s 81-58 win over Texas A&M.
When spring time gets her, and the weather warms up for softball and baseball, Tennessee fans will be in the stands to back the orange. Hopefully, this spring Dave Serrano’s Vols will give UT fans as much to cheer about as the Lady Vol softball teams have in recent years.
Tennessee fans. They don’t demand a lot. Just good effort, good sportsmanship and a winning attitude.
They’ll do their part.