Where is the next generation of Vols fans coming from? Are there enough remaining die-hard devotees of the Orange & White “passing the torch”? Are we losing a generation of Vols fans?
One way to look at “fandom” is in three stages: Shape, Cement, and Invest. The Shape stage is the days of youth and childhood when family and your environment (community, school, friends, etc.) shape you as a fan.
The second is Cement. The decade or so after high school is the time when we begin to take ownership of so many of our beliefs from childhood. Faith, politics, and even the sports team we will follow truly become our own and not just a mimicking of our parents. This is when your team fandom becomes cemented.
The third stage is Invest. At this point, you’ve been “adulting” for several years. You might have a little money to buy season tickets (or buy better season tickets) and are investing that cash into the program you love. Or, you might have started a family of your own and you are investing your fandom in your kids (who are being “shaped” by you).
That’s a lot of rambling to come to the conclusion that Tennessee has a potential fan problem that has been festering over the last 13 seasons. I’ll explain with some personal reflections and some stats.
My Experience as a Fan
Like many of you, I grew up in the shadows of the Smoky Mountains and Neyland Stadium. My environment as a child shaped me into a Volunteer fan even though the team wasn’t that great when I was a little kid. The year after I graduated high school, however, was 1986. The next 13 seasons the Vols were dominant.
123 wins. A .783 winning percentage with only one losing season. Four conference titles. One national championship. This is the experience that strongly cements a fan’s loyalty. Sure enough, I had season tickets for a while and have two sons that have grown up to be fans of the Orange and White. They were just four years old and four months old, respectively, when Peerless caught the 79-yard bomb from Tee as the Vols went on to beat the Noles for the BCS Championship.
Recent Fans…Not So Lucky
So, let’s compare my experience to that of someone who was out of high school in 2008 (Fulmer’s last season). The 13 seasons that followed have brought just 78 wins against 82 losses.
A winning percentage of .488. Zero conference titles, division titles, or championships of any kind unless you are one of the sheep who salute the mythical “Champions of Life” banner from the Butch Jones era. There have been 8 losing seasons in those 13 years.
Try convincing a 5-star recruit that Tennessee is one of the winningest programs in college football history when the Vols haven’t been relevant since they were in preschool. Try convincing a young man or woman to spend their hard-earned dollars for season tickets when all they’ve seen their adult life is losing. It’s a tough sell and it’s only getting tougher.
The One Thing Phil Got Right
Believe it or not, there was one thing that Phil Fulmer got right in his abbreviated tenure as Athletics Director. He correctly stated that Volunteer football performance is graded against Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
The first era I’ve described, 1986 – 1998. Overall winning percentage through those 13 seasons for the Volunteers was a significant positive. The men from Rocky Top were not only comparable to but topped the winning percentage of their three rivals (see the chart below).
Over that same span, Tennessee had a combined winning record of 16-14 against the Crimson Tide, the Gators, and the Bulldogs. While slightly better than .500 might not seem like much, wait until you see how the Vols have faded and fared in that second, most recent era.
Not Just Bad…Embarrassingly Bad
From 2008 through 2020, the Vols’ winning percentage is an embarrassing .488. What’s even more embarrassing is how that compares to the programs against whom you should be graded.
Tennessee does not have to look far to know what the standard is in college football. Nationally, you see it every October when you face Alabama. Within your conference and division, you see it every Fall against the Gators and the Bulldogs. These teams represent the standard. These teams represent what you should aspire to be (again). If these are the teams against whom you should be graded…mom and dad aren’t going to be happy when you bring home this report card.
Alabama has an obscene 163-17 record since 2008. That is more than double Tennessee’s 78 total wins over that same time. Bama has 17 losses since 2008. Tennessee has that many losses since September 2018.
I hope you aren’t standing on the Henley Street Bridge when you read this. Tennessee’s combined record against Bama, Florida, and Georgia in the last thirteen years: 4 wins and 35 losses. That is a winning percentage of .103. Yeah…I just threw up in my mouth a little, too.
Knowing Nothing but Losing
As I said, I have two sons that, despite not living in Tennessee for most of their lives, have grown up to be Vols fans. Thankfully, they don’t hold this against me…yet. They both reached adulthood in the middle of these 13 years of dysfunction (sorry, Mark Nagi…a decade, sadly, doesn’t cover it). This is the generation that has no recollection of the golden age of Tennessee football that I knew and probably took for granted. This is the generation that may be lost as Vols fans because all they’ve seen is losing, poor excuses, and more losing.
This is the generation given promises of singing Rocky Top at the Swamp, proper shower technique, brick by brick, and a closing of the gap. How can they “cement” their fandom to such nonsense? What could their motivation possibly be to “invest” in this program? They’ve never seen a return on what investment of time, money, and emotion they’ve already made? This is the generation that is becoming frustrated and disinterested. Meaning, the next generation of Vols fans we may be losing altogether. Here’s hoping Josh Heupel is the unlikely hero to save the future of Vols football and Vols fans.