Justin King: Orange and White game will be 'a show'
Colleague Mike Strange has no trouble remembering Tennessee’s most popular spring football game.
His daughter, Alice, was born on the same day, April 26, 1986. She was delivered by C-section at 5:55 p.m.
“I think the doctor wanted to get to the game,” Mike said.
So did almost everyone else. When the Orange and White Game kicked off at 7 p.m., Tennessee had an NCAA-record crowd of 73,801 on hand.
A representative from the Guinness World Records was even there to confirm what was the largest crowd ever to attend a spring game.
Other schools have drawn bigger crowds since then. In fact, Alabama has had three spring-game crowds in excess of 90,000.
But Tennessee hasn’t come close to matching its 1986 crowd. And no matter how revved up fans might be about new coach Butch Jones, don’t expect Neyland Stadium to be three-quarters full for Saturday’s spring game.
The 1986 game had more going for it than an enthusiastic new coach.
“Feelings for Tennessee were at an all-time high,” former UT publicist Bud Ford said. “And Pilot (Corporation) bought a bunch of tickets and disseminated them to the fans,”
Mark Dyer, UT’s director of promotions at the time, came up with the idea for the record-setting promotion. He also got Guinness involved.
You don’t draw a crowd of 73,801 on promotions alone. You need an attraction.
Tennessee’s attraction was the 1985 football season. The Vols won their first SEC championship in 16 years, upset Miami 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl and finished fourth nationally.
Saturday’s spring game doesn’t have quite the favorable buildup. UT hasn’t won an SEC championship in 15 years and has had three consecutive losing seasons. Moreover, its next team will be projected to finish closer to the bottom than the top of the conference.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t draw a crowd.
In the spring of 2009, UT was coming off a 5-7 season. Longtime coach Phillip Fulmer had been fired and replaced with Lane Kiffin. Yet the Vols drew a crowd of 51,488, their second largest for a spring game.
The fan base seems as excited now as it was then. And that’s not just because Jones keeps telling Tennessee fans how great they are. He and his staff are building momentum in recruiting, which isn’t that easy to do in the SEC after 21 losses in three seasons.
Scores of recruits will be in the crowd Saturday. UT fans can impress them by showing up.
That might be incentive enough to draw the second-largest spring crowd in school history.