BRISTOL, Tenn. -- In four days, Tennessee will host an important SEC football game against 11th-ranked and once-beaten South Carolina.
On Monday, however, most of the focus shifted two hours northeast of Knoxville to a football game that's three years away.
Next to an asphalt infield lined like a football field, Bristol Motor Speedway executives and the athletic directors and football coaches from Tennessee and Virginia Tech officially announced something that's been an idea for nearly two decades.
The Volunteers and Hokies will play at the popular NASCAR track located halfway between the two campuses on Sept. 10, 2016, in what's being called the "Battle at Bristol."
"We knew that this had been talked about for a long, long time, but we really wanted to make it happen," UT athletic director Dave Hart said. "We were going to do all we could to bring it to fruition within reason. Any time you're in negotiations of this magnitude, it does take a long time to get it finalized, because we just finalized all this within the last 10 days.
"There were consistent and intense efforts to get it done."
Some of the speedway's executives, led by general manager Jerry Caldwell, visited Knoxville in late February or early March, Hart recalled, and pitched a plan to hold the game on the infield of the half-mile track, which is estimating a capacity of 150,000 for its first football game.
"The individuals at Bristol were very serious about it, and they had a great plan," first-year Vols coach Butch Jones said. "They came to Knoxville, we met with them and we liked what they had. We had some areas that needed to be addressed, and they were able to be addressed. There's a lot of effort, a lot of thought, that's gone into this.
"We made it a reality."
Jones had questions regarding the field and its conditions, locker rooms and housing for his team and its staff and fan accommodations. There's a large tower standing right where the midfield logo would be. The game is scheduled for two weeks after the annual August night race, so it'll be a quick flip for Bristol's staff.
The game, already dubbed "college football's biggest ever," has a title and logos, and including the fireworks, confetti guns, video messages from the governors of the two states and special-edition NASCAR cars, there was no lack of fanfare for Monday's official announcement.
Asked about his expected attendance for the future game, Jones replied, "We expect to break the world's record. It's going to be the biggest ever."
Added Hart: "You want to be a part of this. You want to say, 'I was there. I was there when that all-time record was set.'"
Michigan Stadium set the single-game attendance record (115,109) last month when the Wolverines hosted Notre Dame.
Hart said both schools will get a "significant guarantee" -- in the $4 million range, according to one source -- in addition to incentive-based bonuses.
"I think the exposure is priceless, because people talk about them all summer long," said UT's third-year AD. "I think from a coaching perspective, it gets the players focused. I'm a big fan of neutral-site games, and we've talked to other cities as well.
"There won't be a venue as spectacular as this."
Hart said he's been in discussion with six other cities -- all of them likely not far from a fertile recruiting base -- about playing a neutral-site game, though he declined to name specifics.
He's also been in continuous contact with the athletic directors at the schools with which the Vols had prior scheduling obligations. The home-and-home series with Nebraska, set in 2006 and scheduled for 2016 and 2017, has been pushed back a decade. The Cornhuskers replaced the UT series with games against Oregon.
The biggest question in regard to future non-conference scheduling is the SEC and its possible move to nine league games.
"We've got to see what we're doing in our own league," Hart said. "We've got to see where we're going in the SEC relative to whether we are going to play nine games, is the most important component of that. I've been in conversation with people we have on the schedule.
"We're going to play Oklahoma [in Norman next season and in Knoxville in 2015]. We're going to play that two-game series, but beyond that I've been in conversation with my counterparts at those institutions, just explaining our position and that we want to have some flexibility based on what we do."
Asked directly by the Times Free Press if he thought the SEC would move to a nine-game schedule by 2016, Hart said, "You know where I am on that, but I'm one person. I'm a very, very strong proponent of nine games, and I think it's important for all of us that we know what we look like from '16 on. That's why we've left flexibility.
"Until I get to the next meeting," he added, "I don't know exactly where everybody else will be on that."
Jones hopes to have the struggling football program firmly back on track by the time he coaches a game at a speedway.
"I think it adds to the momentum," he said. "I think already people see around the country we have a lot of work to do, but they can see the progress that we're making in all areas, with our current players, recruiting, anything and everything. It's an illustration of where we're going at Tennessee."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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