Ross Nanavati

November 12, 2017

As the saying goes: sometimes you don’t realize what you have, until it’s gone.

Philip Fulmer was the only head coach to bring the University of Tennessee a National Championship win in almost a half century, and one of the best recruiters in the business. Sure, he was starting to slip a little in the 2000’s, including that one season in 2005 when the Volunteers when 5-6 (one of only two seasons in which Fulmer didn’t lead the team to a bowl game). But there’s a reason why the man was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012 (and deservedly so).

And yet, just one year after leading the team to a 10-win season, and finishing as the runner up in the Southeastern Conference, many Volunteer fans were happy to hear that former athletic director Mike Hamilton was pushing Fullmer out the door, and that the 2008 season would be his last in Knoxville.

Now fast forward a decade. The Volunteers haven’t had a 10-win season since Fullmer. After failing to qualify for a bowl game only twice in the 15-and-a-half years that Fullmer was the head coach, Tennessee is in danger of finishing with less than six wins for the fourth time in the last decade.

Tennessee’s first coach in the post-Fullmer era — Lane Kiffin — essentially took Volunteer fans out on one good date, then dumped them to go out with a “prettier” program (USC).  Then, Tennessee tried for the up-and-coming coach who led a perennial loser (Louisiana Tech) to a winning season, and also happened to be a Nick Saban acolyte, in Derek Dooley; he didn’t even make it through his third season, and couldn’t lead the team to six wins in any of them.

After that came Butch Jones, who served under Rich Rodriguez and Brian Kelly, and was supposed to bring the modern spread offense to Knoxville. Currently sporting an 0-5 record in the SEC this season, there will be a party the likes of which eastern Tennessee has never seen when the program finally gets rid of him, too.

As much as Volunteer fans are looking forward to Jones’ firing, if the Tennessee athletic program can’t get its act together from the top downwards, then firing and hiring another coaching staff won’t be much more than re-arranging the furniture on the Titanic.

Hamilton helped push Fullmer off the throne in Knoxville because he got tired of the whispers about how long could or would remain head coach, but also because, like any man in charge, he wanted to leave his own imprints on the program.

Clearly, he succeeded, although not in any way that Tennessee would be proud of. His legacy was so much more than Kiffin’s fling and Dooley’s failure. He basically hit the trifecta of things you don’t want in an athletic director: poor leadership, financial mismanagement, and general obliviousness to how he was wrecking a school with a proud athletic tradition. And, of course, the sanctions levied against the Tennessee basketball program didn’t help either.

Dave Hart, Hamilton’s predecessor, didn’t exactly fare much better. He’s the guy who replaced Dooley with Jones. He’s the guy who replaced Bruce Pearl with Cuonzo Martin and then Donnie Tyndall — the former being another coach who quit on Tennessee, and the latter being another coach who only lasted one season, after an NCAA investigation into violations that occurred while he was the head coach at Southern Mississippi. He’s also the guy who thought it’d be a good idea to re-brand the Tennessee women’s basketball program — one of the two premier programs in the sport — shortly after the legendary Pat Summit stepped down as head coach.

That’s why all eyes are on John Currie, who was hired in 2016 as the school’s athletic director (and Hart’s replacement).

Currie has to come in right the Tennessee athletics ship that’s been led astray by Hamilton’s incompetence and Hart’s negligence.

The school has already suffered from having too many politicians leading the program, they need someone who’s going to approach this position like a CEO, and establish an organizational culture that rivals all the other powerful athletic programs Tennessee has to compete with in the SEC.

That starts with pulling the plug on Jones. There’s no bigger lame duck head coach in the nation right now, and the fact that Jones is still the coach might be putting Tennessee at a disadvantage in the recruiting race; many people are already blaming Currie for five-star recruit Cade Mays’ decision to decommit from Tennessee, because of the uncertain future of the football team. All Currie needs to do is look south to Gainesville, and see what his rivals – i.e. Florida – are doing, when they know their time with the current head coach is up.

And the price they’ll have to pay to get rid of Jones simply can’t be an excuse. UT’s football program was responsible for $107.1 million in revenue for the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Education Equity in Athletics database. Neyland Stadium seats 102,455, and there are plans to expand said capacity. That’s a lot of money coming from butts in seats – with the vast majority of those butts belonging to fans who want to see this program resume its place among the nationally prominent college football teams.

So as great of a move as Jon Gruden, Chip Kelly, Dan Mullen, or some other up-and-coming assistant coach might sound, it won’t mean anything if it’s not part of a greater shift in the culture of Tennessee athletics. Look what Saban did at Alabama, Kirby Smart (another Saban protege) at Georgia, or even Mullen Mississippi State. They’re not just great coaches; they’re leaders who have set an agenda for their program, without dealing with interference and incompetence above their heads.

Top recruits like Mays and Trey Smith want to play for Tennessee, so talent will never be an issue either.  Tennessee’s recruiting classes from 2000-17 were ranked among the top 12 schools in the nation. With the right coach – and the right infrastructure in place – this school should be back where it wants to be in the next two or three years.

But no matter which sport we’re talking about for the Volunteers, the ball is in Currie’s hands. He might enjoy watching his student athletes compete, but it’s his next move that’s going to have enormous importance in the success of those teams.

October 4, 2017

The concept of a “golden parachute” is downright un-American, if you think about it. Why should someone who did not perform up to their job expectations, and perhaps even ruined the reputation of their employer, be somehow “rewarded” with a hefty benefits package and a severance that’s often multiple times their annual salary, in exchange for being relieved of their duties?

While we usually think of the golden parachute in terms of the business world, we’re now realizing that it just as much applies to the world of professional and collegiate sports coaches as well.

Take college football coaches, for example. When a coach takes the position as the head man of his program, he’s usually signed to a contract spanning a certain amount of years, with a certain average annual salary per year. That contract essentially gives him the security of knowing he’ll have a certain amount of time to perform the job he was hired to do — build a winning college football team — and safeguards him from any changing or overreacting whims from his employer.

But if you take this paradigm and look at it from a different angle, you might start to see how this could allow college coaches to hold their programs for ransom, in a way.

You know where this is headed: the current situation with Butch Jones at the University of Tennessee. If there was ever a coach who could be called a “dead man walking,” it would be Jones. There might not be a single head coach at any college program in America who is so unanimously despised as Jones. When Jones finally gets the axe, there’s going to be a party in Knoxville that’s going to look like Oktoberfest, Carnaval, and Mardi Gras, all wrapped up in UT orange.

But Tennessee’s first-year Athletic Director John Currie currently finds himself in the position of deciding whether to placate the desires of his fans and curb the weekly damage that Jones has caused this beloved program, or exercise some type of fiscal responsibility within the program, knowing that firing Jones will empty the program’s coffers, and potentially exacerbate the budget they would otherwise have to hire a suitable replacement.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press previously reported that Jones’ buyout would cost $2.5 million per full year remaining on his contract. Given that the extension that he signed in 2014 secured him the head coaching job through 2020, there’s the possibility that the program would have to pay him a minimum of $7.5 million — and that’s not including any prorated portion of his 2017 salary, if he were to be fired during the middle of this season — if (or when) they tried to dismiss Jones.

In reality, Jones’ agent(s) — Trace Armstrong previously, and now power-agent Jimmy Sexton — didn’t exactly do anything that’s particularly unique or creative with this buyout situation; they’re just following the precedent that’s been set by other big-name college coach hirings and contracts. recently reported that in 2011, there were only 15 coaches that had secured buyout clauses worth over $8 million in their contracts, but by the end of 2016, there are now 33 clauses worth as much. Martin Greenberg, a Milwaukee-based sports attorney who has represented several coaches in contract negotiations, recently told USA Today: “There’s such tremendous pressure to generate revenues and win that basically these universities are sort of bending over contractually to get these coaches in the door.”

After signing an eight-year extension at the conclusion of the 2016, Jimbo Fisher at Florida State University would cost his school a stunning $44 million — or at least $5.5 million per year — in a buyout situation. Ohio State University’s Urban Meyer and the University of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh would cost their schools as much as $27.4 million and $25.5 million, respectively, if they’re canned prior to their contract’s expiration. Now, none of those three are anywhere near close to the situation that Jones and the Volunteers find themselves in, but it just goes to show how the power has clearly in the coaches — and their agents’ — favor.

But not every school will have the luxury of sleeping soundly, knowing that they won’t have to pay those exorbitant buyouts, barring anything catastrophe; after all, look what Currie is going through. That’s why it’s so important for schools to not put themselves in a situation where they’re so desperate to lure in a particular coach that they find themselves at the mercy of that coach and his agent during contract negotiations. This is especially true for whomever the Volunteers go out and try to hire as Jones’ successor.

At the end of the day, it’s up to a program to do its due diligence when making a hire, so that they don’t find themselves stuck in a position where they’ve just paid a coach a certain amount of money in the past, and now they have to pay him even more money to simply go away (and give his soon-to-be-former employer the ability to spend even more on his successor). And that’s also why a school should be very calculated on when they decide they want to offer their coach an extension; we’re now seeing and feeling the ramifications of former athletic director Dave Hart tacking on two more years onto Jones’ contract just two years into Jones’ first deal, after he did nothing more than lead the school to a 6-6 record and an appearance in the forgettable TaxSlayer Bowl.

Of course, what would really send shockwaves through the college football world would be if a school had the gall to sign a coach to a contract that’s 100% merit-based: large bonuses for how many football games they win, bowl game appearances they make, and top recruiting classes they bring in, with little — if any — “golden parachutes” if they don’t perform up to expectations. Given the current football job climate we’re in, with coaches holding all the cards, such an intrepid school would be shunned by almost any worthwhile candidate.

But the system that designed to give a coach some security and leverage in order to do job has now shifted too far in their favor, to where they — and not the athletic program they work for — are the most powerful entity at their school.

September 21, 2017

Shortly after the University of Tennessee Volunteers lost to the University of Florida Gators last Saturday, courtesy of a Hail Mary pass which the Volunteers completely botched coverage on, a Tennessee fan with the Twitter handle “ClimbUpRockyTop” posted a video of him burning a Tennessee jersey that happened to be autographed by head football coach Butch Jones. The video went viral for two key reasons: 1) it captured the disgust and anger that Tennessee fans had losing the game in such a heartbreaking manner, and 2) it captured the disgust and anger that Volunteers fans have for Jones’ job recent job performance.

It’s true that Jones has faced plenty of questions about many of the head-scratching (or inexcusable) decisions he’s made. Why the team refused to give the football to stud running back John Kelly when they were on the 1-yard line will be a question that will haunt Volunteer fans for white some time. But Jones not having his secondary prepared and ready to defend the Hail Mary pass that Florida threw — and completed — as time expired last weekend, was completely inexcusable.

But unfortunately for the anti-Jones crowd, it’s going to take a lot more than a gut-wrenching loss on a Hail Mary to have Jones dismissed. New athletic director John Currie has been adamant about Jones’ job security. He’s still a coach coming off consecutive nine-win seasons, and three straight postseason wins. He will still cost the team as much as $12 million if they were to fire him; that money comes directly from the school’s athletic budget, which they’d then have to give to Jones, instead of the high-profile coaching candidate that most Volunteer fans are clamoring for.

And more importantly: there’s still plenty of football to be played this year. We’re not even through September yet, so writing off the remainder of this season is way too over-reactive, even for SEC fans. 

Junior quarterback Quinten Dormady is only going to get better, even if some of his early-season mistakes haven’t left Tennessee fans with much faith. Yes, Dormady hasn’t exactly looked like the second coming of Peyton Manning so far, but you can’t take away the fact that he’s threw less than 40 passes in his college career before the season started. In other words: he’s still an inexperienced quarterback, so the more reps he gets, the better he’ll play.

The 0-4 Minutemen of the University of Massachusetts should be a “get right” game for Dormady and the Volunteers this Saturday. And while they might be down in the head-to-head tiebreaker with Florida, the Volunteers season will basically be defined between now and the second week of October.  If they cab beat Georgia and South Carolina in the coming few weeks — both of whom have to come to Neyland Stadium — then suddenly, a trip to the brand-spankin’-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta doesn’t seem that far out of the picture.

As crazy as that might sound right now, it’s just as possible to see that set of circumstances take place, as it is to see Jones suffer his first losing season in Knoxville in three years.