About 15 minutes through my Thursday sit-down with Dave Hart, the new Tennessee vice chancellor of athletics issued me a challenge.
The topic at that moment was football and men's basketball ticket sales, looking at it from both a reflective and prospective angle. Neither view looks particularly great these days, and Hart is fully aware of that.
But when Hart steps back and analyzes UT's attendance drop-off from a big-picture perspective, it works to his advantage that his history with the program started in September — not five, 10 or 20 years ago. He has an appreciation for how things used to be at UT, but he also realizes that what the Vols consider a "down" year is what most teams in the country consider "impossible."
"If you were to take your pen on that pad and write down how many athletic programs are capable of placing 18,000-plus in the arena and 90,000-plus (for football)," Hart said, "you wouldn't need a lot of lead."
Well, that's easy enough.
In the 2010-11 academic calendar, UT was the only program in the country to rank in the top 10 in both football attendance (99,781 per game, sixth) and men's basketball (18,952, fifth).
For 2011-12, the numbers aren't looking as good, but they're still in a relative league of their own, competing against just a handful of similarly gigantic programs. Of course, the self-inflicted standards of its recent history are what really contribute to making anything but capacity crowds at UT seem problematic.
Even though the Vols saw football attendance drop by more than 5,000 per game, they maintained their hold on sixth in the nation this season, trailing only Alabama within the SEC and Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Texas nationally. Among those schools, UT's Neyland Stadium seats the third-most with its current capacity of 102,455.
Though the figures haven't exactly passed the eye test, the men's basketball team has averaged announced crowds of 16,044 in its first four games, three of which coming against non-marquee opponents. That figure, as it stands one month before SEC play ramps up, would have been good for 10th-best in the nation last season.
"You'll have some erosion," Hart said. "But I give our fans all the credit. There's not another fanbase, given where we are — and we're struggling competitively in those sports right now — and yet we're still getting those types of crowds. I applaud our fanbase.
"We have the most passionate, and within reason, the most patient fanbase that I've ever been around. They don't get enough credit, our alumni and our fanbase. They don't get enough credit for that. It's very, very impressive."
Exactly how patient are Vol fans? A quick glance at the numbers indicates that Hart is spot on.
Among the programs that finished in the top 25 in average attendance last year, UT and Washington are the only two that have had three losing seasons in the past five. And, really, that's an Apple Cup-to-Big Orange comparison because the Vols drew more than 32,000 fans more per game this season.
Only two others —Michigan and Kentucky — have had back-to-back losing seasons like the Vols have, and there are only nine losing seasons over the past five years to be found among the remaining 21 programs.
UT is one of just five teams in that group that hasn't recorded at least one 10-win season since 2008.
Making it seem even worse is the fact that Neyland Stadium is so enormous. Among SEC teams, only Arkansas averaged more empty seats per game than the Vols. Looking at that same top-25 list, only Washington and Southern Cal had more empty seats per game than UT's 7,813.
"They're a very educated fanbase, which I admire," Hart said. "They've exhibited an amazing level of patience because they're educated. By and large, they understand we are in some rough waters now. We are in a rebuilding mode."
A fanbase as seemingly resilient and educated as UT's can only take so much, though, and that was apparent all throughout the 2011 season. We all know that the announced attendance figures for the non-conference snoozers against Buffalo (87,758) and Middle Tennessee State (88,211) were nowhere close to reality. The lone sell-out against Georgia featured multiple clumps of empty seats.
That might not be officially represented on paper, but you can sure bet it was felt in food, drink and merchandise sales.
When you consider that the Vols lack anything resembling offseason buzz, the fear of a much more drastic decline is real. Unless the Vols put 100 points on North Carolina State in the season-opening Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, it's hard to picture a packed Neyland Stadium for Georgia State on Sept. 8.
It's a challenge, Hart said, that UT is "fighting the fight with a short stick right now."
"If we get 18,000 people in Thompson-Boling and 90-plus in Neyland Stadium, that's not capacity," Hart said. "That's not what we want because we want capacity crowds."