Wiedmer: Mocs want 'super-sized crowd' to roar against Jax State

Wiedmer: Mocs want 'super-sized crowd' to roar against Jax State

September 3rd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Russ Huesman

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

It wasn't exactly a "White Out" or "Get out" ultimatum that University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Russ Huesman issued his fan base Tuesday afternoon. But he clearly believes Saturday night's game against No. 9 Jacksonville State is as much a test for the school's supporters as the 13th-ranked Mocs.

"If they bring 5,000 [fans] and we've got 8,000, that's a shame," the sixth-year coach and alumnus said when asked about the school's "White Out" marketing plan for the 6 p.m. home opener at Finley Stadium. Everyone from the fans to the parking attendants to the team is encouraged to wear white.

"We better at least triple their attendance."

His reasoning is not without objective rationale. And it's not just because this is only the third regular-season game between two ranked teams atop Davenport Field since the facility opened on Oct. 18, 1997.

In one very big way that UTC often prefers not to discuss, Saturday evening is as close to a perfect storm for boosting attendance as the school may ever see. Big brother Tennessee has a noon kickoff against Arkansas State a mere 120 miles up I-75 -- which would give fans of both the Mocs and Volunteers, few though they may be, a chance to watch both programs -- and the Georgia Bulldogs are off.

And Alabama, which is rumored also to have at least a few fans in the Tennessee Valley, also kicks off at noon against Florida Atlantic.

Throw in the fact that this is probably UTC's only chance to make a statement to the FCS playoff selection committee regarding a ranked nonconference foe -- fellow Southern Conference member Furman is the only other currently ranked FCS opponent on the schedule -- and there are multiple reasons for Moc Maniacs the region over to wrap themselves in cooling white for a hot night in Finley.

"We've got to make sure this is a home-field advantage on Saturday night," Huesman continued. "If we can't get them out for 9 versus 13, we'll never get them. We'll just have 10- or 11,000 a game for the rest of our time here."

There should have been several such nights a season ago, what with the team going 8-4 and tying for the SoCon title for the first time in 29 years. But the Mocs laid an egg in their opener against UT-Martin, then watched crowds of fewer than 10,000 show up for three of the final five home games.

"It hurt a little bit," said senior defensive lineman Josh Freeman. "We never got back that super-sized crowd."

Though the Mocs' former home, Chamberlain Field, was much smaller than Finley, Huesman fondly remembers when super-sized crowds were more the norm than the exception for visitors as respected as Jacksonville State.

"We played Tennessee State here my senior year (1981)," he said. "It was a mob scene. People were standing up all along the fences. There were temporary bleachers. It was chaotic, and we won 28-9."

Given that Finley's debut in October brought 22,642 to watch Tennessee State, maybe the Tigers are the key to a super-sized crowd rather than the Mocs.

But that doesn't keep today's UTC players from wanting to feel that buzz that Huesman once felt, especially after last week's determined 20-16 loss at mid-major Central Michigan.

"The crowd plays a huge part in our success," said sophomore running back Derrick Craine. "The bigger the crowd, the better we will be."

So there it is. The challenge for Moc Maniacs everywhere. Massive support both wanted and needed to secure a massive win.

And don't think the UTC players don't feel the need to return the love.

"We feel some pressure to have what it takes to bring people to the games," Freeman said. "You feed off the crowd. Hearing that roar does something to you."

The first start of Freeman's career was against Jacksonville State inside Finley in 2011. More than 12,000 people were there, the ninth largest crowd in stadium history.

"I want this to be the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of at Finley," Freeman said.

Especially if at least 75 percent of it is cheering for the home team.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.