BRISTOL — When first-year Tennessee football coach Butch Jones was the grand marshal at Bristol Motor Speedway’s Food City 500 in March, his mind started racing.
“As a football coach,” Jones said, “I walked in, I’m like, ‘Wow, what if we had a football game here?”
Of course, it’s a question that has been asked for 17 years around Tennessee and Virginia Tech, and it’ll finally be answered on Sept. 10, 2016 when the Hokies and Volunteers meet in the Battle at Bristol.
A decidedly record crowd in excess of 150,000 is expected, and probably at least twice that many dollars were spent for a press conference officially announcing the event on Monday. Jones and Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer were on hand, as were their respective athletic directors, Dave Hart and Frank Beamer.
Recorded greetings from Tennessee governor Bill Haslam and Virginia counterpart Bob McDonnell played on an enormous video screen. There were fireworks and enough confetti to fill Times Square’s New Year’s Eve air.
None appeared to be happier than Beamer, who grew up in Southwest Virginia and attended his first Bristol race when he was probably a 14 or 15 years old with his brother.
“I sat right over there in those bleachers right there,” Beamer said, “when Junior Johnson and Fred Lorenzen — Fred was driving a Ford and Junior Johnson was driving a Chevrolet, and they kept battling back and forth. … And finally they wrecked, and then all of the sudden we had a fight going. … I love racing and watching it here, and then to be a part of the largest crowd ever to watch a football game.
“I mean, to be one of the two teams to do that, I know our players are gonna be excited. I know our fans are gonna be excited. And the setting’s perfect. Tennessee’s a couple of hours down the road; we’re a couple of hours down the road. Half of Bristol’s Tennessee; half of Bristol’s Virginia.”
Beamer thought he would be competing with Tennessee via then-coach Lane Kiffin at Bristol in a NASCAR Legends race in March of 2009, as he reminded press conference host Dr. Jerry Punch on Monday.
“When they asked me to do this (Legends race),” Beamer said, “I think Jerry was involved, and they said, ‘Look, come on and do this. Lane Kiffin’s already agreed to drive. It’s gonna be great. It’s gonna be Virginia-Tennessee.’ I said, ‘No, I’m out of my element. … I just don’t feel comfortable doing it.’”
But promoters’ persisted and Beamer finally relented.
“So about a week before the race,” Beamer said, “Jerry calls me and says, ‘Look, I’ve got some bad news. Lane said he couldn’t do it, that his wife was concerned about his safety.’ I said, ‘Well, my wife is encouraging me to drive.’”
Beamer chuckled when asked if he razzed Kiffin about backing out when the Hokies and Kiffin’s Vols met in the Chick-fil-A Bowl later that year. He said he didn’t recall giving Kiffin any grief before his Hokies defeated UT.
Beamer appears more impressed with UT's current coach Jones. In fact, Beamer mentioned Jones in his new book, “Let Me Be Frank: My Life at Virginia Tech.” The Hokies lost to Jones’ Cincinnati Bearcats last season at FedExField.
“He’s in the book that just came out that we wrote,” Beamer said, “because … when we played him at Cincinnati I thought he was one of the up-and-coming really good coaches … and I still feel that way.”
Recruiting is the lifeblood of good coaches, and Jones and Beamer were quick to note how much the Battle at Bristol should help on the recruiting trail.
“Butch is always about recruiting, which you have learned,” said Tennessee’s Hart. “His first response was, ‘That would be unbelievable for recruiting, Dave, if we can get that done.’”
Bristol should help Jones accelerate the fast pace he’s already been setting in recruiting.
“Anytime you can be a part of football history,” Jones said, “I think there is a big selling point. … It is a chance and opportunity to be a part of something extremely special that will be with you for a lifetime. … Everything is about appealing to the prospective student-athlete. To have marquee games at marquee venues are critical as we continue to elevate our football program.”
Beamer, who signed Michael Vick, is an adept recruiter.
“We’ve played for the national championship,” Beamer said. “We played in the Sugar Bowl. We played in the Orange Bowl. But this is gonna be a special, special night right here.”
Virginia Tech’s Weaver has pursued the Bristol bash for decades.
“Seventeen years ago I’d just come to Virginia Tech, and I remember talking to Doug Dickey about the possibility of a game,” Weaver said. “And then Mike Hamilton. And then lo and behold, Dave Hart, a great friend for many years, and I engaged in some dialogue this past summer. … And it’s a reality that’s as big as anything that’s ever happened in the world of football.”
Indeed, fans can finally begin gearing up for football time in Bristol, Tennessee.