UT, Donors' Bottom Line Decision: Which Costs More, Buyout or Empty Seats?

When rumors surfaced about the Southeastern Conference expanding by two teams, the discussion about whether the league ought to expand shifted rather suddenly to a guessing game about which teams it would be, which teams it should be, and which teams would play each other.

Serious discussion about whether the league ought to expand to Texas and Missouri quickly vanished from the conversation.

It cannot be reassuring for Vol football Coach Derek Dooley to hear the current shift in the conversation. Too often these days it isn’t about whether he ought to be fired at the end of the season, but the guessing game and suggestions on who should replace him have already started.

Some time back I wrote a column asking if a $2 million coach can be expected to beat a $5 million coach. In other words, if you want to compete with Nick Saban, why would you hire a Derek Dooley? After that column ran, a former Vol football player e-mailed to say that Dooley isn’t a $2 million coach—given the revenues lost at the University of Tennessee during his tenure, he is a minus $2 million coach.

That is the heart of the issue on a coaching change. Everyone seems to agree that Dooley is a nice guy. He has recruited enough talent so that his offense at least can appear to be competitive in some SEC games. But the decision to replace him won’t be made based on whether he finishes 7-5, goes to a bowl, or beats Kentucky this year.

It will be made based on the bottom line.

A case can be made, and some sports reporters have made it, that Dooley has brought the program up from its lowest point ever and that he deserves another year. That may be true, but it doesn’t matter.

Firing the coaching staff will be expensive. UT is still paying off previously fired coaches, and replacing this staff will cost millions in the coming years. The decision for Athletics Director Dave Hart and the big donors to make is whether that cost can be offset by a big-name coach, a return to SEC contention, and an increase in fan interest.

What cannot be denied is that hiring Dooley was a financial disaster. Add up the buyouts, look at the hit to football revenues, and look at what it will take to hire a big-name coach to restore UT’s fortunes. It’s in the millions.

A large factor in the decision to replace Dooley will be attendance at Neyland Stadium in the coming weeks. How many fans will turn up to watch the Vols play Troy? (Troy?) Or the other home games: Missouri and Kentucky. The answer goes beyond the bottom line of UT’s budget. It also has a direct impact on the Knoxville economy. UT fans from around the state coming to Knoxville have a major impact on the restaurant and hotel business. The difference between 60,000 fans for Troy and 105,000 for Florida is huge.

It is often lamented that Knoxville doesn’t have a destination attraction. But we do. It’s Neyland Stadium for up to eight weekends in the fall. It is important for the university, the pride of the fans, and for Knoxville’s bottom line that UT have a contending football program.

Despite the expense of firing the current staff and the potential expense of hiring a big name to replace them, the question for Hart and the donors (and the fans) is whether they can afford not to pull the trigger.

There are no good choices. The decisions that have been made since Phil Fulmer was fired have put the program in a box—a succession of coaches, buyouts, losing seasons, and decreased revenue are not a pretty picture.

But do we really have a choice?

UT is geared to be (and has the overhead of) a big-time program, an expensive program. It has to have massive revenues to operate. You can’t fund a big-time program if you don’t have a big-time program.

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