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UT fans unhappy with Vols' sluggish start

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee student Kristin Childrey just assumed she and her friends would attend every home football game last season.

That's not the case this year.

"It's not a priority anymore," said the 19-year-old sophomore who's been to two of three home games. "If you've got something else to do, you just skip it."

She's not alone as the Vols have started 2-3 with an embarrassing loss to Southeastern Conference rival Florida and unconvincing wins over UAB and Northern Illinois at home.

The average fan attendance at Neyland Stadium through the first three games was 97,194 - a few thousand below capacity - and down by nearly 4,000 people from what Tennessee averaged through the first three games last season in a similar start.

The comparison isn't perfect. A more sluggish economy, weather and regional gas shortages have played a role this season. Also for the first time, students have to pay for their game tickets at the cost of $15 a game or $90 for the season.

The student section is responsible for 70 percent of the drop so far, with poor turnout for the UAB and Northern Illinois games.

"It's almost like a boycott," said Evan Baddour, a 21-year-old senior who skipped Saturday night's game against Northern Illinois because of a prior engagement. "At first, it was kind of rebelling against having to pay for tickets, but within my group of friends, (coach Phillip) Fulmer is really the source of what people see as the problem."

Fans began calling for Fulmer to be fired, much as they did last season after the Vols suffered big losses at California, Florida and Alabama. They said the dean of the SEC coaches was past his prime.

Tennessee responded last season by winning the rest of its games and earning a spot in the SEC championship game before losing there. Fulmer was rewarded with a new contract worth an average $3 million annually over the next seven seasons with built-in raises each season, raises for an SEC championship or BCS bowl appearance and an automatic one-year extension for every eight-win season.

He also has a pretty hefty buyout: Getting rid of him this season would cost the Tennessee athletic department $6 million.

At that price, fans say Fulmer shouldn't have so much trouble winning big games and blowing out mediocre non-conference opponents.

Athletic director Mike Hamilton said that kind of passion comes with the job at Tennessee.

"The good news is, that by being at a place like Tennessee, you subject yourself to both sides of that equation," he said. "When we're doing well, they're going to cheer extra hard. And when we're struggling a little bit, they're going to let us know about it. I think that's one of the good things about being at a place like Tennessee."

Vols wide receiver Denarius Moore has noticed more empty seats at Neyland Stadium, but he's been trying to persuade his teammates not to worry too much.

"I was telling some of the wide receivers that just consider fans like a tree," he said. "Sometimes you're going to kind of lose some of the leaves. Sometimes you're going to lose some tree branches, but you're always going to have some strong roots."

Hamilton acknowledges the next month is critical. Tennessee travels to No. 10 Georgia on Saturday with a trip to South Carolina and hosting Mississippi State and No. 2 Alabama in that stretch.

Tennessee's play on the field isn't the only worry.

Concessions have taken a slight hit so far this season - not enough for Hamilton to be concerned but something that could hurt the athletic department if the trend continues.

Fans' attitudes also have taken a toll on local businesses who depend on strong sales during football season to survive when students are away during the summer.

Katie Campbell, an assistant manager of McAlister's Deli near the campus, said sales at the restaurant were down about $1,000 the day the Vols beat Northern Illinois.

"Normally on a game day, we're busy all day long," she said. "We actually ended up closing early on Saturday because the place was empty."

Baddour noticed it too when he went out on the town after the game with friends. The crowds at the bars were much thinner than usual after a night win. He thinks students have lost interest in Fulmer and the Vols after seeing the excitement and success in Tennessee's basketball program under energetic coach Bruce Pearl.

But Baddour thinks Fulmer still has a chance to earn back support if he can lead the Vols to upset wins over Georgia and Alabama.

"It would show he still has some fight in him and can overcome adversity," Baddour said. "He has to do that. It's do or die for him."

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