‘Tennessee has the worst fan base in college football’

Note: This is an editorial by our College Football America Yearbook publisher Kendall Webb. The views are entirely his.

It was another crazy, beautiful Saturday of college football action in Week 7. But, unfortunately, “the storyline” this week is about the non-football action on the field at Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium late Saturday night.

Near the end of a spectacular football game between Tennessee and Ole Miss, the latter coached by former Vols coach Lane Kiffin, the hometown fans littered the field with debris from the stands. The hailstorm of water bottles, beer cans, and anything else that could be converted into a projectile came when game officials marked the Volunteers one yard short of a first down on a desperate 4th-and-24 play near the end of the game. Kiffin appeared to be struck by a yellow golf ball in the melee, and the game was delayed for 20 minutes as the Tennessee cheerleaders, dance team and band were evacuated from the stadium to save them from the actions of their own fans.

The most ridiculous part of the whole scene was the fact that Tennessee had three timeouts and a legitimate chance to get the ball back with nearly a minute remaining. In fact, after order was kind of restored – debris continued to be hurled onto the field and into the bench areas even after the game was restarted – the Volunteers managed to force Ole Miss to punt. They  had a legitimate shot at the end of the game to mount a comeback drive, but even if they had been successful at that point, what would have been a great win would have been overshadowed by the actions of their fans.

So I’ll just say it — Tennessee has the worst fan base in college football. This is the same fan base that ran a successful coach out of town back in 2017 before he could even get to Knoxville. Greg Schiano was set to be named Tennessee’s new head coach following the dismissal of Butch Jones, but a social media campaign that included Tennessee alumni serving as elected officials as well as gubernatorial candidates that year managed to derail the hiring. Schiano, a successful former NFL head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who had previously resurrected the moribund Rutgers program, had his offer rescinded, and the Volunteers ended up with Jeremy Pruitt, who had never served as a head coach at any level.

Schiano is back at Rutgers, now in the Big Ten in part to their success while he was the head coach, and there are early signs that he may be able to turn the program around once more. Pruitt, meanwhile, is already gone from Knoxville after leaving the Volunteers in shambles following a 3-7 in 2020. He and nine members of his coaching and support staff were then fired in January for recruiting violations.

Of course, not every fan at Tennessee is guilty and deserves to be lumped in with the offenders, but that’s how it works unfortunately. When your fan base is college football’s equivalent of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, then you’re going to suffer the consequences, too. It’s going to be a long week in Knoxville and the SEC offices looking at film and trying to determine a meaningful penalty that will have an impact. Banning the student section for the next home game? Probably within the realm of possibility, but also unlikely considering that game isn’t until November 13 and the opponent is No. 1 Georgia. Then again, it needs to be something at that level to even possibly make a difference.

The saddest part is that first-year head coach Josh Heupel is building something special on the field at Neyland with a team that pushed Kiffin’s high-flying Ole Miss squad to the limit for the full 60 minutes. But what’s been happening in Knoxville off the field since around the time Kiffin left Tennessee for his dream job at USC after one season as the Vols coach in 2009 is disgusting. A proud fan base that once packed Neyland to the tune of more than 107,000 passionate supporters on a regular basis turned on itself. Even popular former coach Phil Fulmer took hits from the fans when he was unable to clean up the mess he inherited after he returned as athletic director in 2017 in the middle of a coaching search. The consensus is that Fulmer was in over his head as Tennessee’s AD, but he also settled on hiring Pruitt at least partly because nobody would touch the job after the Schiano debacle. He was pushed aside in the aftermath of Pruitt’s dismissal back in January, but after witnessing the trash in Knoxville – both on the field and in the stands – you wonder if anybody can fix the biggest issues at the University of Tennessee. And those issues aren’t on the field anymore.

Shame on you, Vols fans. Shame on you for not respecting the game. Shame on you for not respecting your opponents. Shame on you for not even respecting your own cheerleaders, dancers and band members. And shame on you for embarrassing your team, your university and your city.

Published by Kendall Webb

Kendall Webb is a sports writer and photographer based in Middle Tennessee. He is a graduate of Kilgore College (A.A., 1992), the University of Texas at Austin (B.J., 1995) and Middle Tennessee State University (B.S., 2000), and is currently a master's candidate (A.L.M.) in Harvard University's extension studies program with a major in journalism.

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