University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones has embraced the phrase "brick by brick" in his effort to rebuild a once-proud program that has fallen on hard times.
In re-creating the foundation, Jones acknowledged this week that reconnecting with the student body must be a priority.
"We're going to need everyone's support in Neyland. It starts with our great fan base, proving that we are united, that we stay together, and also our student body," Jones said. "I have to do a much better job as the head football coach of the University of Tennessee of getting our student body involved. We should sell out our student-body tickets every single home game."
Knoxville isn't the only place where students are lacking these days at SEC games. From the home of the Georgia Bulldogs to the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, students are noticeably absent at home games, with about one-third of student seats empty in recent years.
There likely will be quite a few empty seats in Neyland Stadium today when Jones and the Vols play South Alabama at 12:21 p.m. Average attendance has declined recently, with UT averaging 89,965 in the more than 102,000-seat stadium per home game in 2012. The average crowd at Neyland was 99,781 in 2010.
Tennessee had more than 97,000 fans for the season-opening win over Austin Peay last month, and 86,783 people were in Neyland for the Vols' win over Western Kentucky three weeks ago.
The student numbers through the first two games have been up from last year, when the student average was about 5,000 of the 11,658 tickets allotted for students. More than 10,000 students attended the Austin Peay game this year and more than 7,500 were on hand for Western Kentucky, UT senior associate athletic director Chris Fuller told the Knoxville News Sentinel this week.
"I am going [Saturday] for the same reason I went to the last two home games -- I've bought into the coaching style of Butch Jones and the culture he has brought to the school," UT sophomore and Baylor school graduate Rob Beckett said Friday. "I missed a few games last year, but I plan to attend every home game this year."
Beckett's enthusiasm and the hope of a turnarnound under Jones has helped through the first month of this season, but several factors -- starting times, technological advances in the television-viewing experience, uninteresting non-conference match-ups and expanded TV schedules -- have affected the overall attendance at college sporting events. Plus, Tennessee's recent struggles -- UT was 5-7 last year in the final year of Derek Dooley's three-season run as coach and was 28-34 in the last five seasons before Jones was hired -- also played a hand.
But the falling attendance among students is not just in Knoxville.
Despite back-to-back appearances in the SEC title game, the University of Georgia is seeing more empty seats in sections reserved for students. The Wall Street Journal reported that according to student-ticket scanners, 39 percent of the student section was empty over the past four seasons.
"I stayed for both games [this season] but," said Cole Calfee, a Georgia freshman from Dalton, "unfortunately we were in the minority that stayed.
"I know the whole student body, from what I can see, is really stoked about this weekend [against LSU]. I think we'll have a bigger turnout than we have all year for sure."
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has led the Tide to three national championships in the past four seasons, wrote a letter to Alabama students in "The Crimson White" on-campus newspaper before last week's home opener asking them to continue their support of the Tide.
"One of the reasons we have been able to build a successful program is the support we receive from our fans and especially our students," Saban wrote. "As students, you play a big role in terms of the first-class environment you help create on campus during game weekends."
Despite the Tide's on-field success, 32 percent of student tickets went unused from 2009-2012.
The SEC has noticed the students' obvious sit-out. According to The Wall Street Journal, the SEC has hired Now What, a market-research firm out of New York City, to spend the season traveling to stadiums and towns around the league to gather opinions why people are or are not going to games and what could make the in-stadium experience better.
Regardless of those findings, the newest SEC coach believes he has to recruit students the same way he recruits his student athletes.
"I would say exciting because it's getting them there. It's a challenge. It's educating them. It's an opportunity, I would say," Jones said. "I think it starts when an individual walks in as a freshman and really educating them on 'Hey, there's only one Tennessee,' Neyland Stadium is very, very special and them knowing that we need them, that they're a part of us, that they can directly influence and impact a game. I think the big thing is them knowing that they're wanted and they're needed."
Staff writer Patrick Brown and staff photographer C.B. Schmelter contributed to this report.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...