By Jimmy Hyams
Danny White stood on the make-shift stage on the field at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.
The Tennessee athletics director was celebrating the Vols’ Orange Bowl win with coach Josh Heupel, bowl MVP Joe Milton, Chancellor Donde Plowman and others.
The field was littered with several hundred Tennessee fans, enjoying the aftermath of UT’s 31-14 victory over Clemson.
You could not have imagined this scene 23 months ago.
In January of 2021, Tennessee’s football fortunes were an unfortunate mess. The Vols fired coach Jeremy Pruitt for multiple recruiting violations, nudged athletic director Phillip Fulmer into retirement, and braced to face a battle with the NCAA over embarrassing compliance issues.
Into that firestorm walked Danny White, the successful athletic director at Central Florida who was willing to accept a monumental challenge.
After interviewing several candidates, White hired Heupel to rebuild a once proud program. Heupel would be without 45 players who left over a six-month period to enter the transfer portal, retire or get released from their National Letter of Intent.
Less than two years later, with regular-season victories over Pitt, Florida, Alabama and LSU, Tennessee was the toast of the town in Miami on the night of Dec. 30.
It capped one of the most remarkable college football turnarounds ever.
And it was one of the most satisfying nights in Tennessee football in over 20 years.
“It was a special experience,’’ White said earlier this week during an interview on SportsTalk 99.1 The Sports Animal. “It was a really cool moment.
“Our fan base was so great and so supportive. It didn’t surprise me at all that so many found their way on the field to celebrate with the team. … I think it was a proud moment for a lot of people.’’
White and UT hope to parlay that 11-2 record and No. 6 ranking into increased season-ticket sales.
Deadline for season-ticket renewals is Feb. 24. In the past, it was April 30. An earlier deadline gives fans more time frame to make payments.
“I’ll be surprised if we’re not sold out on a season-ticket basis for next season,’’ White said. “We’re tracking really well; don’t have many tickets left to sell. Obviously, we still have to go through renewals. We’re expecting our renewal rate to be incredibly high with the momentum we have and how well the team played this year and the direction the program is going under Josh’s leadership.
“I really can’t wait to make that announcement, that we’ve sold out Neyland for the season. And I expect we’ll be in position to do that.
“It speaks to the power of the fan base.’’
White said he marvels at how “passionate’’ and “powerful’’ the UT fan base is.
“So many (athletic directors) in my position across the country are talking about reducing the size of their stadium and struggling to fill it,’’ White said. “And we’re sitting here with one of biggest stadiums in America and we’re talking about selling it out. … We have a phenomenal, phenomenal fan base.’’
Tennessee sold 61,407 season tickets last year. The typical renewal rate is 90% but that figure figures to increase based on UT’s success last season.
The maximum number of season tickets UT can see is about 68,000. It used to be about 72,500 but stadium renovation, student allotment, opposing ticket allotment, campus groups and recruiting tickets have reduced that number.