KNOXVILLE — They came from every corner of the state, from Bristol to the Bluff City of Memphis. Flags with the trademark power "T" flying from their cars, wearing orange and white caps and T-shirts, the second-largest group of fans to watch a University of Tennessee spring football game poured onto the campus Saturday.
Renewed hope, as bright as the blue sky under which the game was played, brought more than 61,000 people to Neyland Stadium for the annual Orange and White game. Many came as much for a glimpse of energetic new Volunteers head coach Butch Jones in action as for the game itself.
"To me, he's brought more excitement into the program than any other coach we've had," said Soddy-Daisy resident Thomas Wood, who loaded the family's Toyota Tundra at 6:30 Saturday morning and drove his eight-months-pregnant wife, Katie, and their 3-year-old son, Murphy, to the game.
Wood, who has been attending UT spring games for 20 years, fondly remembers coming with his father, soaking in the atmosphere of fall Saturdays that included the Vol Walk and watching the band play "Rocky Top" as it marched toward the stadium before games. And now, like so many others in the state who pass along their devotion to the Vols like a family heirloom, Wood brings his family to UT home games every weekend.
He even persuaded his wife to switch her allegiance from Vanderbilt to Tennessee.
"Coach Jones is going to turn this thing around," Wood said. "I want my sons to get to grow up knowing what it's like to come to the games and watch the Vols win like we used to. It's just something really special for me, and I want them to get to experience it."
Calling UT his "dream job" when he was introduced more than four months ago, Jones has won over a fan base jaded by three consecutive losing seasons under former coach Derek Dooley and the departure of Lane Kiffin after just one season.
Jones' Midwestern work ethic and positive attitude have given the fans reason for optimism. Unlike either of his last two predecessors, Jones has embraced sacred UT traditions and welcomed former players to watch practice or simply stop by his office.
"The program feels re-energized," said former Red Bank head coach and current Baylor assistant Tim Daniels, who played offensive line for the Vols. Daniels was one of several hundred former players who came back to UT weekend at Jones' request.
"Everyone -- other coaches, current players, former players, fans -- all sing his praises," Daniels said of Jones. "He's pushing all the right buttons. Give him time to get some more four- and five-star prospects on the roster, and I think he will do really big things here. The change in attitude is as different as night and day. It's an exciting time at Tennessee."
In another clear improvement over the previous coaching staff, Jones already has begun putting together a national top-10 recruiting class. In a three-day span two months ago, the Vols landed commitments from two of the nation's top prospects: Knoxville Webb four-star safety Todd Kelly Jr. and five-star running back Jalen Hurd of Beech, the state's top prospect.
Hurd's commitment marked the first time in three years that UT had landed the top prospect in its own state. Last year Tennessee signed just six of the state's top 25 prospects, while 13 others went to rival Southeastern Conference programs.
"So far I'd give them an A-plus in every area," said legendary Alcoa High coach Gary Rankin.
"When new staffs come in, it's like a tidal wave because they want to create some positive buzz for what they're building. Butch's wave is bigger than anybody else's I've seen at UT in a long time, and recruiting is the best I've seen since I've been here because they're more aggressive in going after high-level kids.
"It will take some time to build the depth of players to compete in the SEC, but they're on their way to doing that now."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...