Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 14, 2022

Rising Vols football ranking lifts all UT sports

ESPN’s GameDay will be in Knoxville again Saturday with special guest Dolly Parton. - Photo provided

The demand for general admission tickets to watch Saturday’s Tennessee-Alabama matchup at Neyland Stadium has been off the charts. The desire to get passes for recruits is as fierce for UT coaches on campus.

“I think we are probably the worst offenders outside of football. We have more bodies on the sideline than any other sport,” UT baseball coach Tony Vitello says. “I think they do what they have to do to accommodate us. For a game like this though, you probably get some people cut off at a certain point.”

From recruiting to publicity to budgets, the success of football spreads far and wide around a college campus. Big weekends against high-level opponents can help amplify the impact even more.

Other sports at UT try to take advantage of the electric college atmosphere by hosting recruits, meeting donors and boosting attendance to their own events taking place the same weekend.

“Honestly, we don’t have all the resources we have if not for football and their success. Our budget is bigger when football is doing well,” Lady Vols tennis coach Alison Ojeda says. “It helps tremendously. Every single football game, I tell my team you better be in the stands and be the football team’s biggest fans.”

ESPN’s College GameDay will be airing live from Knoxville for the second straight UT home game. Vitello made an appearance on the show before UT beat Florida last month.

He received plenty of text messages from recruits, current commitments and donors in the aftermath of what partially serves as a mini-infomercial for schools.

“All the sports hinge on football and how things are going,” Vitello says. “At flagship schools or schools in the Power Five, the football program is financing everybody and kind of sets the mood. It’s a huge trickle-down effect.”

Ojeda can sense the emotional difference in the last two seasons as the Vols have greatly improved under head coach Josh Heupel.

“It is the one sport that brings all the student-athletes together. The conversations between student-athletes at Smokey’s (Sports Grill) or at Thornton Center the next day is exciting,” Ojeda says. “We all love the other sports here, but it’s just not the same as football. When football does well, it really brings the student-athletes together with that shared pride.”

The UT basketball teams are capitalizing on the increased fan presence this weekend by hosting open practice sessions Saturday. The Lady Vols will scrimmage at Thompson-Boling Arena from 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m. EDT, and the Vols will follow with their own scrimmage from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

“The excitement surrounding a Tennessee home football weekend permeates our campus and the city of Knoxville. We all feel that energy and want to be a part of it,” Lady Vols head coach Kellie Harper says. “The passion of our fans is on display and demonstrates the amount of love and support prospective student-athletes can look forward to as Vols and Lady Vols.”

Although Ojeda, a former UT player, feels strongly about everything the university has to offer potential recruits, football can tip the scales with some.

“Our players say they want to be pros and want to be at a college where the environment is special and the fans are invested in athletics. Once they get on campus and see Neyland Stadium full, it doesn’t compare to any other campus,” Ojeda says. “Even before the game day, it helps us with recruits because Thursday and Friday are electric all day and you can feel the excitement and energy.”

Vitello has witnessed the impact throughout his coaching career while recruiting for and against Power Five programs with a football tradition.

“It can literally sway a kid for a lot of different reasons, and in this day and age NIL becomes a big part of what we do, fortunately or unfortunately. NIL comes from the fan base and I don’t know if there is a more rabid and more passionate fan base than we have,” Vitello says. “It’s easy for me to say because I know it. But our recruits experience it and know it when they leave campus.”

UT baseball has recruits lined up to be at Neyland for the remainder of the football season, including a few potential game-changers that were high on the pass list for this weekend’s top 10 clash of unbeatens.

“We have two of the best players in the country who are both in the same class coming for an official visit,” Vitello says. “It will be a big one for us because you have a big game against a rival with a big crowd.”