With kickoff for Tennessee’s season opener against Georgia Tech for the Chick-Fil-A Classic inside Atlanta’s gleaming new Mercedes Stadium less than 40 days away, Volunteers’ officials already have been conducting site tours of the new mega-structure that will serve as the home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and also host the College Football Playoff championship at the end of the upcoming season.
A contingent of Vols’ officials toured the facility within the past 10 days, which included examining the visitor’s locker room where Tennessee is slated to be against the Yellow Jackets for the two teams’ Sept. 4 Labor Day clash.
Although UT is the visiting team by designation, Tech — much like LSU — prefers its white jerseys to its blue or gold colored jerseys, and therefore Tennessee will be in its traditional orange-and-white uniforms.
The Yellow Jackets have sold, at least as it pertains to each ticket office, slightly more tickets than Tennessee.
But there’s a pretty obvious reason for that: Georgia Tech officials included the Vols’ game as part of the Jackets’ season-ticket package. Tennessee has sold out its allotment of approximately 25,000 tickets which included some suite-level selections and overall reflected a price range from $80/ticket to more than $200/ticket. Most tickets available to Vols’ fans were priced at the $80, $115 and $130 entry points.
WITHOUT A TRACE …
Butch Jones’ decision to formally part from longtime agent and friend Trace Armstrong, someone whom Jones had routinely invited to address his Vols’ football teams after Armstrong’s long-running career in the NFL after being a Florida Gators’ standout, sent shockwaves around the college sports community.
One person with intimate knowledge of the Jones-Armstrong relationship and dynamic told me today, “If you had told me 12 months ago, 18 months ago that Butch would leave Trace, I’d have said you were full of (stuff).”
Armstrong has the best college coaching roster of any lead agent out there not named Jimmy Sexton, but Sexton’s CAA division has been making shrewd moves and reasserting its dominance for most of this calendar year. Plus industry insiders point to the Tom Herman-LSU-Texas fiasco as helping get Herman to Texas in the short-term but not necessarily a positive for Armstrong’s crew longterm.
Further muddying waters with Jones and Armstrong is that Armstrong also represents both Bob Shoop and James Franklin, the former Vanderbilt and current Penn State coach whose administration is suing Shoop to recoup buyout money from Shoop’s exit from Happy Valley to Rocky Top in January 2016.
No less than six people this week indicate Jones is expected to land with powerhouse CAA, which truly has separated itself from everyone in sports and entertainment across those representative landscapes.
CURRIE’S KEY HOLDOVERS …
The Vols’ baseball search that culminated with the hiring of up-and-coming Tony Vitello offered a bit of a glimpse into the holdovers on campus who are keys of Currie’s new regime. Both Dr. Joe Scogin, the record-breaking director of UT’s Thornton Center, and Angie Keck assisted Currie in the interview process for the Vols’ head coach and conducted some of the preliminary interviews.
Tennessee still has not released it but Josh Elander is on staff in Knoxville as Vitello’s head of recruiting and fills Vitello’s last, fully funded assistant coach’s position. Elander played at TCU and had been tabbed to potentially replace Vitello at Arkansas, even doing recruiting for the Hogs after Vitello’s exit, but Vitello has been able to add Elander to his staff on Rocky Top.
ROCKY TOP RENDITIONS …
Folks in Georgia this week told me that the Yellow Jackets’ strength and conditioning staff have been frequently playing “Rocky Top” during or at the conclusion of many of the Jackets’ summer conditioning sessions. That’s been ongoing since June.
As for on the field, the Yellow Jackets are replacing their center, quarterback, top tailback and offensive coordinator. So they’ve got some question marks just as much as Tennessee, perhaps a bit more so in some key positions.
The early expectation is that Matthew Jordan will be the Yellow Jackets’ starting quarterback. He started one game due to injury to Justin Thomas last season, and Jordan led the Jackets’ upset of Virginia Tech. Though he completed only 2 of 7 passes for 34 yards, Jordan gashed the Hokies’ defense for 121 rushing yards on 32 attempts with a long of 53.
I’ve noted before that the Vols’ coaches met with or spoke to a number of other staffs as part of their ongoing prep for the Yellow Jackets, with Tennessee’s defensive coaches speaking to contacts at both Clemson and Pittsburgh, as well as Air Force and beyond, for help creating a plan to slow down GT’s unorthodox attack.
CHECKERBOARD NEYLAND …
Nike has released a new University of Tennessee T-shirt depicting a checkered Neyland Stadium (Nike Neyland Checkerboard T-shirt) as part of the Swoosh’s local imagery collection. Preliminary indications are that Tennessee may seek to checker Neyland for its early game against rival Georgia, when the Vols may also wear their Smokey Grey uniforms.
At this moment, per folks on campus, Tennessee does not have plans for its fan-friendly open practice event. A staple of Jones’ first three years on Rocky Top, Tennessee did not have one last year after drawing crowds similar in size to the annual Orange & White Game during the first three years.
Look for a new addition to Tennessee’s football sidelines this season, home or away. After Alabama became the first college team with widespread use of the pop-up medical examination tents, pictured below from the Vols’ Music City Bowl win, Tennessee joined in by season’s end.
Nick Saban’s Tide first made the tents almost as much a part of sideline equipment as benches, but college football is flattery — and paranoia — by imitation.
A PERSONAL NOTE …
I will continue to blog, particularly throughout the course of the season and when I have Vols’ news to share, but I will not be covering Tennessee athletics on a day-to-day basis for the first time in more than 15 years.
My wife, Jessica, and I are both exploring new career opportunities and new chapters of our blessed life together, and I am personally preparing to begin doing some substitute teaching. I’ve been a guest speaker on campus at UT nearly a dozen times the past five or six years, and also have spoken at area schools and civic clubs. It is something I’ve considered for at least two years, if not more, and am excited.
But I will miss writing and telling the stories on a day-in, day-out level. It has been a pursuit of passion for me, and while the negative news reporting comes with the job, my fondest memories stem more from a day of shadowing Eric Berry in summer to his workouts, going to class with him and more as Berry entered his final season at UT; writing about all the health obstacles overcome by an ultimate teammate such as Herman Lathers or Nick Reveiz; Cody and Cory Sullins, Matt Darr and Michael Palardy, James Wilhoit; going to New York to spend time with the phenomenal and amazing Guarantano family; seeing guys like Joshua Dobbs, Cam Sutton, Brett Kendrick, Kyler Kerbyson, Jack Jones and so many more give so selflessly of their time — particularly to light up the worlds of young people. Charles Folger is one of my favorite stories from my final full-time season.
But much has changed in the industry, and I certainly am aware how much of those changes are shared in fault by media. We all have made our jobs harder by feeding the endless news cycle.
Good stories should be told, not controlled.
I no longer have the energy to write what I know, even as I am heavily encouraged not to, and face the backlash or restricted access; likewise, I am fundamentally failing journalism if readers are not getting the full pictures and stories — regardless their positive or unpleasant natures.
I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, to link edicts for covering college football practices as similar to those President Trump insists upon for White House briefings. Except sports are entertainment, and these stories help take away from the pervasive coverage of all this world’s many problems.
I spoke on campus in late-spring to a sports management class filled with double-digit athletes from a variety of sports.
Multiple Lady Vols’ athletes asked me questions about how to let their fans know them, since they are so coached on what to say in press settings.
That stuck with me. It also helped me realize it was time to listen to what God already had been nudging me toward: a change I spoke emotionally and openly about two years ago at a lunch with George Quarles, later with Jonathan King and Tim Miller, and myriad times with my ever-supporting wife.
Now’s as good a time as any.