KNOXVILLE — Jeremy Pruitt has spent most of his life in Alabama, but Tennessee's first-year football head coach has a pretty clear idea of what it will take to fit in as a resident of the Volunteer State.
"I want our fan base to be excited about our football team," Pruitt said during a radio appearance on "Swain Event" last week. "That's the most important thing. I want them to be excited about the way we play, the way we compete, the way we play together, the relentlessness that we play with, that we never quit.
"That's what I want our fan base to be excited about. I figure if they're excited about that, then I'll fit in just fine."
Volunteers fans will be operating on blind trust in those principles for the season opener against West Virginia in Charlotte on Sept. 1. The athletic department is promoting a "Tennessee takeover" for the neutral-site Belk College Kickoff game at Bank of America Stadium. Tickets went on sale last week.
Fans' first chance to see Pruitt's team at Neyland Stadium will come the following week, when the Vols host East Tennessee State. If a recent trend continues, that could be the beginning of an uptick in attendance at Tennessee home games.
Home attendance increased the year after a coaching transition the past two times the Vols changed coaches. Tennessee went from an average of 89,965 that ranked eighth nationally during Derek Dooley's final year in 2012 to an average of 95,584 that ranked sixth nationally during Butch Jones' first season in 2013.
That followed an increase from an average 99,220 in 2009 during Lane Kiffin's one-year tenure to an average of 99,781 in 2010 during Dooley's first campaign. Even as Tennessee often has struggled in the last decade, it has not fallen below eighth nationally in average attendance.
"There's no doubt in my mind based off our fan base and being around and having the opportunity to coach against Tennessee and play against Tennessee that our fan base is as good as anybody in the country," Pruitt said on "The Erik Ainge Show" last week.
Pruitt has coached inside Neyland Stadium as an assistant for Alabama and as an assistant for Georgia. His lone loss as a coach in the venue came in 2015 when Tennessee rallied from a 21-point deficit to defeat the Georgia team for which Pruitt was defensive coordinator.
Tennessee averaged 100,584 fans per game that season and 100,968 the following year in 2016 before losing an average of more than 5,000 fans per game as the program spiraled downward in 2017 during a season that culminated with Jones' firing and eight total losses.
The Vols' 2018 home slate is highlighted by conference showdowns with Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri. During a recent Big Orange Caravan tour around the region, athletic director Phillip Fulmer implored fans to purchase season tickets, mentioning the number 72,000.
"We're like at 66,000 right now," he told a crowd of fans in Memphis. "I want that number back up."
Pruitt said the reception given by fans during the Caravan was "inspiring." He knows he will need a raucous Neyland Stadium during a tough season ahead.
"Most of the time, you'd like for your team to set kind of the tempo for the game," Pruitt said. "But there's going to be times — there is all over the SEC — when you talk about the rigors of the schedule. You're talking about 17-to-21-year-old men who at some point in time are taking midterms, they're taking finals, it becomes a grind of the season. Sometimes you need the fan base to kind of bring the momentum to the stadium."
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.
Tennessee's average home attendance since 2009
-Seventh nationally with an average of 95,779 in 2017
-Sixth nationally with an average of 100,968 in 2016
-Sixth nationally with an average of 100,584 in 2015
-Seventh nationally with an average of 99,754 in 2014
-Sixth nationally with an average of 95,584 in 2013
-Sixth nationally with an average of 89,965 in 2012
-Sixth nationally with an average of 94,642 in 2011
-Sixth nationally with an average of 99,781 in 2010
-Fifth nationally with an average of 99,220 in 2009