Costly coaches

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Not long ago I bought a shirt off a clearance rack, thinking I'd made a smart move because I paid about half the regular price. I wore it several times before someone alerted me there was a dime-sized hole in the back of it.

Ultimately, I gave the "holy shirt" to Goodwill, then went back to the store and purchased a replacement — this time paying full price instead of scanning the clearance rack.

Lesson learned: You get what you pay for. Buying "on the cheap" can be more costly in the long run because you wind up paying the discount price for unsatisfactory goods, then paying full price to get a quality replacement.

I hope the University of Tennessee's administration has learned this lesson. The last six hires in the revenue-producing sports have come from the clearance rack, and most have been anything but cost-effective.

Mere hours after firing head football coach Derek Dooley on Sunday morning, athletics director Dave Hart met the press and vowed that his goal is "securing the best coach we possibly can to come and lead the program at the University of Tennessee."

If so, that would represent a departure for a school that has focused more on price tag than athletic excellence the past 15 years. While Alabama has been paying Nick Saban $16 million to win two national titles over the past four years, Tennessee paid Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley roughly $8 million to go a combined 22-27 over the same span. Basketball-mad Kentucky is paying hoops coach John Calipari $5.2 million per year, which is more than the Vols are paying their football and basketball coaches combined.

Will Tennessee loosen the purse strings to get a football coach who can compete with Saban? Based on recent history, the odds are against it.


When head basketball coach Kevin O'Neill abruptly left for Northwestern in March of 1997, Tennessee athletics director Doug Dickey hired an obscure Oregon coach named Jerry Green. His primary attributes were that he knew Roy Williams and he would work cheap. Four years later, having grossly underachieved with the greatest collection of talent in program history and alienated the fan base along the way, Green was relieved of his duties and given a substantial buyout.

Derek Dooley's career as Tennessee's head coach came to a close with a record of 15-21.
(Danny Parker/
Former UT president J. Wade Gilley thought he'd found a real bargain when he hired up-and-coming Buzz Peterson away from Tulsa to succeed Green in 2001. Peterson went 61-59 in an undistinguished stint on The Hill, however, and was cut loose after four seasons. He, too, received a huge buyout as he was being shown the door.

Mike Hamilton had succeeded Dickey as athletics director by the time Peterson wore out his welcome in 2005. Hamilton also passed on big-name coaches, eventually settling on Bruce Pearl from Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Pearl was so happy to be rescued from the mid-major scrap heap that he recruited and coached and marketed like a mad man until he elevated Vol hoops to national prominence. Alas, Pearl violated some NCAA rules in the process and had to be fired.

Buoyed by the overall success of his Pearl hire, Hamilton again disdained the name coaches in March of 2011 and went the mid-major route, tabbing Cuonzo Martin from Missouri State. He stands 22-16 four games into his second season, so the jury is still out on whether he'll be a clearance-rack bargain or another buyout bust.

Tennessee also has made two football hires in the past 15 years. After canning Phillip Fulmer in 2008, Hamilton gambled on Lane Kiffin, who had limited experience as a head coach (20 games, all in the NFL) and a losing record (5-15) with the Oakland Raiders. His claim to fame was that his daddy, Monte Kiffin, invented the Tampa 2 defense.

When Kiffin bolted after posting a 7-6 record with the 2009 Vols, Hamilton rolled the dice on Derek Dooley, another coach with limited experience (three seasons at a non-BCS school) and a losing record (17-20 at Louisiana Tech). His claim to fame was that his daddy, Vince Dooley, won a national championship at Georgia by calling a bunch of running plays for Herschel Walker. Lacking a Herschel Walker, Derek Dooley was fired after going 15-21 overall (4-19 in SEC play) during three nondescript seasons at the Big Orange helm.

Having suffered through Kiffin's and Dooley's growing pains, Big Orange fans are tired of gambles. They want a sure thing — a big-name coach with a proven track record. Unfortunately, these guys are expensive, and Dave Hart painted a dire picture of Tennessee's financial health on Sunday.

Although he said finding a head man with significant coaching experience is "critically important," the athletics director noted that he has access to a $1.9 million reserve and is competing against SEC rivals with $50 to $100 million reserves. Hart vowed that he and school brass "are not going to let that be a detriment" in the search for a championship-caliber football coach but how can being cash-poor not be a detriment?

Bottom line: Tennessee has been plucking coaches off the clearance rack for the past 15 years. Sometimes you get a bargain that way. Sometimes you get a shirt with a hole in it.

Watch as Hart addressed the media Sunday:

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