KNOXVILLE — On one of the hottest afternoons of the year they stood shoulder to sweaty shoulder, forming a wall of orange that lined each side of Peyton Manning Pass leading to Neyland Stadium.
Row after row of orange-clad fans filled the sidewalks, spilling over onto the grassy hill overlooking the street more than two hours before Saturday evening’s kickoff. They stood on tiptoes, craned their necks and contorted their bodies looking for a clear sightline, all just to get a glimpse of the man who has pumped renewed hope into a downtrodden program.
Butch Jones, the University of Tennessee’s personable new football coach waved, pumped his fist and seemed to soak in the energy from the fans during the first Vol walk of his career.
UT’s eventual 45-0 win over Austin Peay was still more than six hours away, but after three straight losing seasons, a combined 2-14 Southeastern Conference record the last two years and four head coaches in six seasons, Vols fans were eager to feed off Jones’ enthusiasm.
“There’s about 1,000 times more excitement today than there was for any game last year,” said Jody Clapp, a lifelong UT fan decked out in all orange, including his tennis shoes. “I don’t remember the last time I saw this many people packed in for the Vol walk. And it’s all because of Butch Jones.”
In fact, 97,169 not only showed up for a season opener against an outmanned FCS opponent, but many stayed well after UT had scored on its first seven first-half possessions.
That devotion should only build by next Saturday’s game against a dangerous Western Kentucky team.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 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 seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...