Empty seats make a statement to players, too
Sure, empty seats make a statement.
It makes a statement to Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart. It makes a statement to the program’s big money boosters. Derek Dooley probably wouldn’t admit it, but it has to make a statement to him, too.
The statement made by the fans — or lack thereof — is more than fair. Tickets are expensive and the product on the field is bad. To add to that, the economy is worse.
So when 84,189 is the announced attendance — a number that looked around 20,000 more than the number of actual butts in seats — for a homecoming game at a program like Tennessee, the suits are going to sit up and take notice.
It’s a fair statement for the fans to make. It’s an unfair statement being made to the players, though.
Sure, Troy scored 48 points and gained 721 yards of total offense — more than any other opponent in the storied history of Tennessee football — Saturday as the Trojans nearly crashed the Vols’ homecoming.
And sure, Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 defense is nothing more than an 11-man punch line at this point.
But Tennessee’s offense gained 718 yards of offense, too. Of that, 530 yards came from Tyler Bray’s right arm. Both of those are school records. And most importantly, despite trailing, 48-41, the Vols rallied to score 14 points in the final three minutes, 14 seconds to escape with a win.
Fans or no fans, capacity crowd or a generous head count of 84,000, the players clearly haven’t quit.
“Not much to say,” Dooley said after the game, “other than we found a way to win, which is the most important thing.”
Dooley’s players found a way to win. They wouldn’t have had too far to look for a way to quit.
In a season where Justin Hunter has turned more heads because of drops than his circus touchdown catches, he didn’t quit Saturday after dropping a guaranteed touchdown pass on Tennessee’s first drive. Instead, he responded with an acrobatic touchdown catch for a 21-10 lead later in the quarter and streaked open 40 yards for another score on the Vols next drive to make it 28-10.
Hunter, who finished with 188 receiving yards on nine receptions, scored again with just under three minutes left to tie the game at 48-all.
Good thing, at least for the fans that were there, Hunter didn’t have any quit in him.
Cordarrelle Patterson did anything and everything after each of his nine catches — spins, jukes, you name it. One thing he didn’t do was quit.
He had 219 yards receiving, and 275 total yards after you add 13 rushing and 43 on kick returns — making an argument that he alone may be the worth the price of admission.
Marlin Lane, a guy that’s been demoted on the depth chart more times this season than Dooley’s been fired by message board word-of-mouth, didn’t quit either.
Filling in for a still recovering Rajion Neal, Lane finished with 132 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with just over a minute left in the game.
“Great job finding a way to win,” Dooley said, “and we survived.”
Giving up over 700 yards and 48 points to a Sun Belt team is the kind of game that may not let an already-on-the-hot-seat coach survive.
But even if Dooley is fired — today, this week or at season’s end — he’ll land on his feet. If anything, Dooley would be fired on his feet considering the $5 million dollar buyout in his contract.
But if fired, he’ll coach elsewhere, either as an assistant or as the head man at another school. But players only get one chance to play college football, and there’s no multi-million dollar contracts in it for them.
Sure, a big payday and the NFL awaits many on the Tennessee roster. But the NFL is a secondary thought when prospects choose to sign with the Vols. A capacity crowd on a fall Saturday in Knoxville is a primary selling point.
But the lasting statement with two home games left this season — two home games left in some of these player’s Tennessee careers — is surviving a Sun Belt scare in front of 60,000 fans at Neyland Stadium on Homecoming.
But those players haven’t quit — on themselves, on their team on their coach or on their fans.
And maybe, at least after Saturday, the fans shouldn’t quit on them, either.
Grant Ramey is a sports writer at The Daily Times. He can be reached at (email@example.com) or 981-1145. He wrote from Knoxville.