Five years ago, when the West Virginia and Tennessee football teams officially agreed to play in the 2018 Belk College Kickoff Game, Will Webb saw some obvious positives: two strong programs, with strong fan bases, who had never played each another.
But the executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation never could have guessed what happened next.
In the years since those contracts were signed, the Charlotte area saw the rise of Will Grier, a star quarterback at Davidson Day School. Grier threw for 4,989 yards and 77 touchdowns as a senior; racked up multiple awards including Parade National Player of the Year; and committed to Florida.
But after a year-long suspension for violating the NCAA’s performance-enhancing drugs policy, Grier transferred to West Virginia. He sat out the 2016 season, returned in 2017 as a redshirt junior and threw 34 touchdowns in 11 games before a season-ending hand injury.
Now, the stage is set for an intriguing homecoming. Grier, who is drawing significant Heisman hype and even more for the 2019 NFL draft, will open his final season just 30 minutes from home.
“It may be exceeding our dreams …” Webb said of the Sep. 1 matchup in Bank of America Stadium. “You’ve got a hometown boy at quarterback. Things went well.”
Webb spoke on Thursday morning at the Quail Hollow Club, along with West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen and Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Here are three more things learned from a news conference previewing the nonconference game during college football’s opening weekend.
Change in Knoxville
In the words of Pruitt, Tennessee is starting over.
After firing Butch Jones during the 2017 season, Tennessee went through a tumultuous search for its next head coach. It included an attempted hire of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, which was met with massive backlash that convinced Tennessee to drop the idea; failed attempts to chase coaches such as David Cutcliffe (Duke), Dave Doeren (N.C. State) and Mike Leach (Washington State); and the firing of athletic director John Currie.
The search came to an end on Dec. 7, when Tennessee pegged Pruitt, Alabama’s defensive coordinator at the time, as its choice. Pruitt continued to coach for Alabama through the postseason, and finished off his career with a national championship win.
Now, he inherits a team that went 4-8 overall last season, and 0-8 in the SEC. The Volunteers haven’t finished in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 since 2001. In the best football conference in the country, Pruitt has a culture change to make and a program to turn around.
That's no small task, and Pruitt’s coaching debut adds another layer of interest to the season opener.
Both coaches see the value of the game beyond its final score. With so much football talent in Charlotte and the surrounding areas, a game in town is a natural way for each program to promote its brand and attract recruits.
“The more times I come down here … the more I realize the strong connections between Charlotte and West Virginia in general,” Holgorsen said. “The old joke is that it’s a tank of gas away — it’s pretty true. The more recruiting we do down here, the more we realize this is a special place.”
Pruitt noted that over the history of Tennessee football, and under former coach Phillip Fulmer in particular, a number of Charlotte athletes have made their way to Knoxville. During his career as an assistant coach, Pruitt was known as a strong recruiter — and he seems ready to focus on the state of North Carolina in his new position.
“We’re playing a great program,” he said. “What Dana’s done at West Virginia, in the period of time he’s been there, has been tremendous … but we’re obviously excited about it and excited about being in the city of Charlotte.”
Tickets don’t go on sale until June 5 at 2 p.m., but Webb said demand already has been strong — the waiting list for those tickets currently sits around 2,000.
With both schools relatively near Charlotte (about six hours from Morgantown and four from Knoxville), Webb and both coaches expect a bowl game-like atmosphere. Each of the previous two College Kickoff games have seen strong attendance, but it’s worth noting they featured schools much closer to Charlotte than West Virginia and Tennessee.
In 2015, around 51,000 fans showed up for South Carolina’s 17-13 win over North Carolina. And last season, around 50,000 were in attendance for South Carolina’s 35-28 win over N.C. State.
The pregame country concert is narrowly tailored toward Mountaineer and Volunteer fan bases, too. The show will feature Brad Paisley and the Davisson Brothers Band, both from West Virginia, and Tennessee native Kane Brown.