Mendenhall counting on fans to recreate home-field advantage

uva football fans
Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

I was one of the relative few allowed into Scott Stadium last fall for football games, only because I’m a media member, and I can vouch, it was surreal.

For the first game that I was able to attend, the Abilene Christian game in November, I counted 174 fans, and I’m sure it was 174, because I counted twice.

A hundred seventy-four people in a 60,000-seat stadium is a rounding error.

Whatever we get in terms of the thousands that are expected for the 2021 season opener Saturday night could very well be culture shock if you’re not ready for it.

For a lot of folks in the stands, it might be their first time in a big crowd in a year and a half.

Could even be a bit of a shock for the players.

Makes you wonder if UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall did anything to get his guys ready for their first game in front of more than friends and family in a couple of years.

“I think I won’t need to do anything. They’re just thrilled that there is a possibility that fans will be in Scott Stadium, and our 4th Side will be present,” Mendenhall said Monday. “I think that might be the thing they’re looking forward to most. As we show film from a year ago, and sometimes the camera pans, and there is just nothing there, it’s just, wow, what a challenge.

“I think, right, and we’re hopeful and optimistic, and I know there are still setbacks that could occur with the virus and et cetera, but I think there is a general sense of excitement and feeling fortunate that we get to play with our 4th Side there again and fans present,” Mendenhall said.

Yes, Mendenhall referenced it, the recent uptick in COVID cases from the delta variant, which has pushed numbers to where they were in the winter, though there hasn’t been any sense offered that we’re going to go back to where we were then in terms of social (read: “physical”) distancing.

“Regarding fan engagement, wow, so, I don’t know yet,” Mendenhall said. “I’m not following things much outside of our building and getting our team ready. But do I know that there are so many administrations across the country trying to consider who gets to come to the games or what is basically proof they have to show, and is it vaccination or proof of a negative test.

“And so as I get more clear on that prior to Game Day, then possibly policies, you know, I’ll make it clear to the team what I expect. I just haven’t gotten to that point yet in terms of fan engagement on Game Day, so that’s kind of where I am.”

Virginia has been dominant at home the past three seasons, going 17-2 in Scott Stadium, including 5-1 in 2020.

You’d like to think that the success is at least in part due to the home crowd, right, except that, we didn’t have a lot of folks making noise last year.

“So, do fans matter? Absolutely. Does our 4th Side influence the game? Absolutely,” Mendenhall said. “With the emphasis we’ve placed on playing at home and all the messaging that’s inside the locker room and how we built the narrative, that also has been intentional, and so we’re counting on it always being an advantage for us.”

That’s on you, Wahoo fans.

You’re going to need to bring the noise.

“Man, I hope it is back to normal,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t think any of us know how normal it will be. I hope it is exactly normal, right? I hope that all the protocols necessity for people to have an amazing Game Day experience and be sage are in place, and I hope people can unite and celebrate and enjoy rooting for their team and keep all the same traditions and bring those back.

“That’s my hope. I don’t think any of us know for sure what that will look like, but that’s what I’m certainly hopeful for,” Mendenhall said.

Story by Chris Graham

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