The booing began even before Jonathan Crompton's final pass of the first half settled in the hands of Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins on Sept. 20. Neyland Stadium, home to some of the nation's most passionate fans, had become the site of a referendum on the future of the Tennessee football program, and as the Volunteers stumbled to a 30-6 loss, some of those fans voted with their lungs.
In the stands sat several dozen recruits who came to see the spectacle and pageantry of the game that, until a few years ago, almost annually determined who would win the SEC's eastern division. That group included a pair of players committed to Tennessee, Upland, Calif., quarterback Josh Nunes and Tampa, Fla., tailback Jarvis Giles. Within days, Nunes reopened his recruitment. Not long after, he joined the monster recruiting classJim Harbaugh is putting together at Stanford. Nunes said then and in an interview Tuesday that the boos had no influence on his decision. Giles, also interviewed Tuesday, believes the boos had to have affected Nunes, who attended the game with his family.
"I think the boos scared Nunes away," said Giles, who remains committed to the Vols. "His dad was real hot about that."
Nunes said Tuesday that distance -- not the strife caused by Tennessee fans upset with longtime coach Phillip Fulmer and first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson -- was the primary cause for his change of heart. [The boos] had nothing to do with it," Nunes said. "I have full faith in the Tennessee coaches."
Even if the boos played no conscious role in Nunes' choice, they couldn't have helped Tennessee's case. A loud volley of boos for the home team has to make recruits wonder if the fans truly support the team. Therein lies the dilemma for the college football fan. In the case of football factories such as Tennessee, most season-ticket holders make serious investments of money and time to support the team they love. But unlike an NFL fan, who can unleash a torrent of boos with no fear of scaring away potential free agents, the college fan voices his frustration at the risk of pushing away the very recruits who might turn around his team's fortunes.
If the booing had any effect on Nunes -- and, just to be clear, he is adamant it didn't -- it helped cost Tennessee a quarterback who has handled this difficult situation with class and grace. If Nunes shows half as much poise in the pocket, then Tennessee has suffered a great loss indeed. And it doesn't stop there. Rival coaches heard about the boos, too. Those boos give the coaches license to plant all sorts of ideas in the heads of other players committed to Tennessee. Worse, even the players who considered themselves rock-solid commitments may find themselves wondering about their decisions.
That's part of the reason why Auburn dean of students Johnny Green sent students an e-mail before the Tigers faced LSU on Sept. 20 explicitly telling them not to boo. The LSU game was the highlight of a prime recruiting weekend, and Auburn didn't want its most valuable prospects to leave the Plains thinking Auburn fans would boo Tigers players.
Tennessee commit Giles said he loves the school and its coaching staff, but he also had questions after the Florida game. "The boos kind of scare me," he said. "I don't want the fans to boo me." Giles said he was somewhat reassured after reading on the Internet that the fans were booing the decisions of the coaches and not the players themselves. Still, he couldn't help but notice that the booing reached its loudest points after mistakes by quarterback Crompton and tailback Arian Foster. Giles has resolved not to worry about that, though. "I'm going to do my thing," he said. "I'm going to give 110 percent so [the booing] doesn't happen to me."
So what's a fan to do? Certainly, Tennessee fans have the right to voice their concern about the direction of the program, but is there a way to register that concern without spooking the players the Vols' need to climb out of their current predicament? Yes, but the more leather-lunged of the fan base won't like it. If you truly want to affect change, vote with your butt and with your wallet. Empty seats and emptying coffers make far stronger points than booing. With Northern Illinois coming Saturday, expect plenty of empty seats at Neyland Stadium. Time will tell whether the current football situation has caused a donation dropoff.
In the meantime, Fulmer knows he faces a no-win situation if he criticizes fans for their leather-lunged devotion. The only thing he can do to stop the booing, he said this week, is put a team on the field worthy of cheering. "You'd really rather not have plays that cause people to boo, but it does affect things," Fulmer said. "It's just something that's part of our world. You have to fight like heck to get better and not put ourselves in a situation where people are frustrated with what we're doing."
Coaches crave positive national publicity, and it doesn't get more positive than a seemingly non-stop loop of highlights of your recent upset on SportsCenter. By Sunday night, hundreds of recruits had seen the key plays from the 31-30 shocker Ole Miss pulled at Florida last week. Rebels coach Houston Nutt knew it because his phone started ringing.
"We got more calls Sunday night -- they were calling us -- since we have been here," Nutt said Monday afternoon. "Monday night is a good phone call night for us after the film study, so I'm anxious to get on the phone. It can't do anything but help. We got a lot of Florida calls this past weekend from Florida athletes, so it's good. It's going to be good. It's going to help us. You can mark that down. That this Saturday, after Florida, is going to help us. No question."
Penn State's white-out this past weekend produced a win against Illinois and two more commitments to push the Nittany Lions' total for the class of 2009 to 18. Southern Regional (Manahawkin, N.J.) linebacker Glenn Carson committed Monday, and Westlake (Waldorf, Md.) receiver Devon Smith followed on Tuesday.
Carson was a known commodity, and he chose Penn State over Notre Dame, Pitt, Rutgers and others. Smith, meanwhile, flew under the radar -- emphasis on flew. With an electronically timed 10.59 100 meter-dash, Smith is one of the fastest players in the class of 2009. Most of the big boys stayed away because Smith is such a little guy, 5-foot-7 and 153 pounds. Before Penn State, he had offers from Akron, Eastern Michigan and Temple.