The Price of College Football ‘Progress’

By Mark Nagi

This season has not been an ideal one for the Tennessee Volunteers.

They started strong, then didn’t win a game for over two months. They lost six straight games for the first time since 1988. 2020 was worse as each of those defeats were by double digits.

The progress that the Vols appeared to have made in 2019 was gone.

This put head coach Jeremy Pruitt on the hot seat, bringing back memories from 2008 and 2012 and 2017, when Phillip Fulmer, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones were dismissed as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers.

I’ve been saying for months that unless the Vols went 2-8, Pruitt’s job was safe if for no other reason that Tennessee simply couldn’t justify paying a $12.8 million buyout during a pandemic.

Well, I am probably naive.

South Carolina will pay Will Muschamp $13.2 million not to work. Vanderbilt is paying millions to Derek Mason to go away (as they are a private school, we don’t have confirmation on an exact amount but we are certainly talking seven figures).

And then came Auburn. Gus Malzahn was fired last weekend.  Malzahn won an SEC title, nearly won a national championship, and he beat Nick Saban twice. He was 68–35 overall and 39–27 in the SEC in eight years at Auburn.

And they will pay him $21.4 million to turn in his key card. Half of that amount is due within thirty days so yes, I bet it was a Merry Christmas in the Malzahn household.

I know that Malzahn didn’t want to be fired. No one does…

That said… $21.4 million! To not work!  That’s the American dream.

By the time you read this, Pruitt’s fate could be publicly known. He might get the dreaded “vote of confidence” from athletics director Phillip Fulmer. He might get his walking papers after a loss to Texas A&M. He might resign and start managing an Applebee’s. Who knows!  It’s 2020. I’m not discounting a darn thing.

The reality is that we don’t really have a gage on the mood of the fanbase. If you listen to the call-in shows, it is all doom and gloom. If you look at the Rock on the UT campus, the messages are bold that Pruitt should be canned.

The best way to know if there is indeed fan apathy is whether or not they show up on gameday. Empty seats at the end of the Dooley and Jones regimes proved that the fans had moved on from both guys. But in 2020, with stadiums opening at limited capacity, we can’t get access to that gage. The idea behind this being that if the fans aren’t showing up (and the donations to the athletics department are slowing down), Tennessee couldn’t afford to keep Pruitt, even though the buyouts for him and his staff would near $16 million.

College football is a business… a business that is run by a lot of people that know nothing about business. If they did, they’d never hand out these absurd buyouts.

Tennessee AD Phillip Fulmer gave Pruitt a raise and a contract extension earlier this year. That decision could wind of costing UT millions in extra buyout money. It was an unnecessary move. Yes, I know the Vols finished 2019 with six straight wins, but what school was knocking on their door to acquire Pruitt?

UT failed when they had a miniscule $800,000 buyout in place for Lane Kiffin in 2010 (which Southern Cal paid with loose change they found in the aisles at the L.A. Coliseum), and they’ve failed in allowing agents like Jimmy Sexton to call the shots. Dooley’s $5 million buyout was the worst of the bunch. Think he would have turned down the Tennessee job without that in his contract? Nah. Me either.

I’m waiting for the day when schools like Tennessee refuse to be held hostage.

Guess I’ll be waiting a bit longer.

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