All the excitement in the world can’t take away from the major advantage Tennessee football continues to lose with the news surrounding renovations to the new Neyland Stadium. Approved by the board and revealed last Friday, there’s certainly a lot to like about the stadium.
Rocky Top adds a jumbotron to the north end zone. They add WiFi Stadium, an updated sound system, and nice new plazas and lounges. Most notable, however, is the restoration of the VOLS letters on the stadium, which will be arranged as they were before 1998 rather than grouped together on a jumbotron.
Many fans consider this change, which began in 1999, and the eventual removal of the letters more than a decade later, to be the supernatural force behind Tennessee football‘s downfall. They are wrong. The real strength is much more tangible, and these renovations prolong the stakes: the fall in the stadium size rankings.
Following a report by Mike Wilson of the Knoxville News Sentinel, Wes Rucker of GoVols247 noted that a source has confirmed that the renovations will reduce the stadium’s capacity from 102,455 to 101,915. a spot in sixth place in the nation, just behind the LSU Tigers’ Tiger Stadium.
You can point to many reasons for Big Orange Country’s slide over the past two decades, which hasn’t included an SEC championship for 23 years now. However, their fall in the national rankings in terms of largest college football stadiums coincides more with this than anything else.
In 1996, with the addition of the North Zone Upper Deck, Tennessee football had the largest stadium in the nation, surpassing The Big House, where the Michigan Wolverines play, for two years. They won the SEC championship in 1997 and 1998, and the national championship in 1998.
That year, Michigan again surpassed the Vols in stadium size. From 1999 to 2001, they still had two top 10s and one top five in three years. However, in 2001, Beaver Stadium, home of the Penn State Nittany Lions, expanded to overtake Neyland, pushing him to third overall. UT has yet to finish in the top 10.
Neyland’s upgrades forced it to reduce its capacity in 2006 by over 2,000 seats, only its second reduction in the first by over 150 seats. The Ohio State Buckeyes then edged them out by growing Ohio Stadium to 102,329 in 2007, and that happens to be the last year the Vols won the SEC East or won 10 games.
It’s not a supernatural curse. By allowing the Stadia to overtake them, the Flights lost a huge recruiting advantage they previously had. It’s no coincidence that every year they slip up in the rankings happens to be the last year they accomplished something.
Just as they were falling, other schools were rising to make Tennessee’s football advantage tinier. UT and Michigan entered the century as the only two schools with stadiums that could accommodate more than 100,000 fans. They are now one of eight schools with this profile.
Penn State joined in 2001, Ohio State joined in 2007, and Texas A&M and LSU joined in 2014. To make matters worse, the Alabama Crimson Tide, which played its alternate home games in Birmingham from 1927-2003, including every home game vs. Flights from 1932 to 1997, expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Finally, focusing solely on this stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama allowed them to push its capacity to over 90,000 in 2006 and over 100,000 in 2010. Finally, the Texas Longhorns pushed the Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin to over 100,000 in 2009. .
Add to that the Georgia Bulldogs pushing Sanford Stadium to over 90,000 in 2003, and there’s a reason the 2010s are the worst decade in Tennessee football history. It was a huge perk that Vol fans appreciated, and it’s completely gone.
You can trace this back to 1980. In that year, under Johnny Majors, Rocky Top increased their stadium size to 91,249, which remains their biggest net gain in any expansion. This made Neyland the second largest at the time, joining Michigan as the only schools with a capacity over 90,000.
Well, after 1980, the Vols were about to begin a period in which they bowled 23 games in 24 years and won five SEC championships and a national championship during that span. The only time they missed a bowl was in 1988, ironically a year after the only other time they downsized their stadium slightly.
Simply put, despite the stadium upgrades, the Vols need to find a way to move Neyland up the table. Danny White does a good job of staying one step ahead of things, but you can only get benefits from updates for so long unless you keep doing it forever.
If the size of Neyland’s stadium won’t be the significant advantage it once was for Tennessee football, especially in the SEC, White needs to find a more permanent advantage. Maybe it’s zero money. However, the stadium’s reduced capacity and Neyland’s position in the table doesn’t bode well based on history.