The carousel of coaches at the University of Tennessee has taken a toll on the athletic department's bottom line. With the firing of Derek Dooley this weekend, the search is on for a new football coach and new sources of money for the Vols.
One source of cash could already be in the athletic department's coffers. Each year more than six million dollars of UT sports revenue is reinvested in the academic side of campus. That annual donation could come to an end to help the athletic department to stabilize its financial foundation.
UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek's chief of staff, Margie Nichols, said he would not comment on the possibility of changes to the athletic department's reinvestment in academics. Nichols said the lack of comment is simply due to the fact no decision has been made and there are not enough details to comment on at this time. She did, however, acknowledge that there have been discussions for a while about potential changes to the annual reinvestment in academics.
Nichols also said Cheek wanted AD Dave Hart to "do the right thing" and make a decision that was best for the health of the football program without basing the decision entirely on money. Nichols cited the importance of a healthy football program to generate funds for the entire athletic department, including the other non-revenue sports.
Academic and Athletic Balancing Act
The decision to potentially eliminate the multimillion dollar reinvestment of athletic revenue into academics can be a sensitive topic among faculty members at the UT Campus.
If anyone at UT knows about the balancing act between academics and big time college athletics, it is Dr. Fritz Polite. Polite serves as an officer on the UT Faculty Senate. He brings perspective to academics as a former college football player, a graduate assistant football coach at Florida State, and now a national academic leader in the topic of sports management. Polite serves on the national board for the College Sport Research Institute (CSRI) and is the president-elect for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS).
"On the academic side, the University can benefit from having positive athletic programs, but I also think it's a very slippery slope," said Polite. "Sports plays a prominent piece in our culture and our society, but it's all about how we balance those pieces."
Polite said the situation facing UT is a common concern among top academic institutions with high profile athletic programs. He strongly feels that top-notch academics and athletics are not mutually exclusive.
"There is a model out there that has shown you can be a top 25 academic institution and have quality athletics as well," said Polite. "As for talk about changing how much athletic money is invested in academic programs, I do not want to pass judgment without information. Right now I am not privy to those conversations. However, I am confident that our chancellor and campus leadership will do what is best for our students and faculty."
Polite said the lines between investing in athletics and academics can often become blurred because winning in sports can help a school's academic mission.
"Having a successful athletic program, that allows the university to gain really huge amounts of exposure. So you can really kind of highlight your engineering program during a football game or your math program during a basketball game. Some schools like California Berkley made a conscious decision to invest a massive amount in athletics to increase its national exposure and reach to recruit students. Athletics can increase and help us to drive the university toward its top 25 agenda academically," said Polite.
Polite said his students conducted meta-research where they compiled studies on the academic impacts of athletic success. He said the studies showed a "mixed bag" when examining if winning a national championship truly increased student enrollment. The students also examined research on how donations and giving to institutions fluctuates depending on whether the program is winning or losing. While there were some mixed results, Polite said on the whole there are more donations to schools during times of great athletic success.
Donations to the athletic department may be crucial as the Vols attempt to build a stronger financial reserve. Hart said on Sunday the reserve at UT is only about $1.9 million, which is drastically lower than other SEC schools with reserves of $50 million to $100 million. Bolstering the reserves will be a challenge considering the price tag for replacing an entire coaching staff could potentially run up to around $22 million.
Wherever the money comes from, Polite said he is confident an emphasis on academics will remain a top financial priority at UT.
"The thought that academics are going to take a back seat to athletics, I don't think that will ever happen. There are so many great things going on at this campus. The quality of the students coming to UT is amazing. The quality of faculty members we are recruiting to work at UT is incredible. There are new buildings going up everywhere you look on campus. We really have a lot of momentum right now in academics. I strongly feel that athletics and academics definitely can work together."