That excitement is also testing the loyalties of area football fans.
“The number of folks with crossing relationships is pretty high,” said Bob Plummer, executive director of the ETSU National Alumni Association. “A lot of them have relationships with ETSU and UT and this is presenting a dilemma to some.”
The Bucs and Vols square off for the first time Saturday at 4 p.m. at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. The game is being televised by the SEC Network, but for many fans, seeing this historic matchup in person is the only way to go.
ETSU was allocated 2,121 tickets and sold the last one Wednesday. Two fan buses are heading to Knoxville as well.
Tickets were still available on Thursday at Tennessee’s ticketing website, www.allvols.com.
The crowd will likely top 100,000 people at Neyland on Saturday. It would take ETSU more than two full seasons to get that many people inside Greene Stadium. The Bucs drew a total of 48,050 fans last year for six home games.
ETSU is receiving $500,000 for the game.
“Everybody is pretty excited,” Plummer said. “Everybody loves an underdog, and we want them to show their colors this week.”
Plummer said the lead-up to the game has made him realize just how much the two schools are intertwined with so many relationships between graduates, fans and employees.
“It’s a different dynamic than most schools making an appearance in Knoxville because of those relations,” he said.
What kind of links?
• ETSU’s new head coach, Randy Sanders, spent 17 years at Tennessee as an assistant coach. He also graduated there after playing football for four years.
• Scott Carter, ETSU’s athletic director, worked at Tennessee for several years after graduating from ETSU.
• Phillip Fulmer, now Tennessee’s athletic director, was instrumental in building the ETSU program while serving as a special assistant to the athletic director for a couple of years.
• ETSU basketball coach Steve Forbes is a former assistant at Tennessee, as is one of his assistants, Jason Shay. Brooks Savage, another of Forbes’ assistants, is a Tennessee grad.
• George Watts, ETSU’s director of track, coached at Tennessee for 26 years.
Those intertwined relationships go for the fans as well. There were a few so-called ETSU fans wearing Tennessee orange when the Vols came to Freedom Hall for a basketball game two years ago.
Plummer has a message for the ETSU graduates who also pull for the Vols.
“You can be a fan of the other school, but this is the place where you got your degree, your step forward in life,” he said. “It makes me proud to see our folks step it up. We know there’s an allegiance for the University of Tennessee from the region’s population and we try to be respectful of that relationship and not make anyone feel unwelcome.”
For Sanders, Saturday’s game will be a homecoming. He’s been to Neyland Stadium before as the enemy, but never as a head coach.
“I’ve been back four times with Kentucky,” Sanders said. “We never were able to pull it off. We came close a couple of times, but were never able to do it. It’s a special place and it’s always fun to go back because there’s so many people I know there. The last time I was there some of the ushers around the stadium and the people working security were the same people working when I was there. It’s always good to see them.”
Plummer was present when ETSU pulled off a big upset in a game like this.
Back in 1987, the Bucs went down to Raleigh, North Carolina, and beat N.C. State, 29-14. It’s still looked upon as one of the biggest football victories in ETSU history.
The late Jim Valvano, then the basketball coach and athletic director at N.C. State, walked through the press box at halftime that day and wasn’t too pleased that ETSU was still putting up a fight.
“He was talking in his typical, outgoing way,” Plummer said. “It was a great moment. He said ‘Which one of you guys is going to take this message down at halftime? There’s an Italian in charge here and we don’t like giving money to somebody when they don’t take the fall. You better go down and get that straightened out before it’s over or they’re not getting the check.’
“That was something I always remembered, to have that brief interaction to take with you for the rest of your life.”
For the record, Valvano, a national championship-winning coach, paid — and then went on to lose to ETSU in basketball a couple of times.
ETSU’s Alumni Association is putting on a tailgate party before the game. It will be held below the Torch Bearer statue at McClung Museum.
The party starts at 1 p.m. and Calhoun’s is providing the food. Tickets are $30 for adults, and kids get reduced-price tickets.
There will be televisions for fans to watch games going on as well as visits from the ETSU cheerleaders and the Marching Bucs band.
IF YOU GO
Tennessee has a “clear-bag” policy at Neyland Stadium. Fans are limited to one clear plastic bag no bigger than 12 by 6 by 12 inches or a one-gallon, clear, resealable plastic bag.
Small purses no bigger than 4.5 by 6.5 inches are allowed.