Gauging UT's premier sports

The Tennessee football team had a higher finish in the SEC East Division than men's basketball, yet Vol fans are giddy over basketball and glum over football. The Lady Vols win the national championship, yet fewer than seven percent of respondents to a newspaper poll would buy Lady Vols season tickets over men's basketball or football.

The dynamics of Tennessee football, men's basketball and women's basketball are intriguing.

The bar is set higher for women's basketball than the other two sports. How else do you explain some fans saying in March that the game had passed Pat Summitt by because she hadn't won a national championship since 1998. She had won the SEC regular season or tournament title each year since 2000 and made five Final Fours.

Not even football fans have expectations that unreasonable. In a 10-year period, most Vol fans want their team to play for the SEC championship three or four times and win it two or three times. In the past eight years, UT has played for the SEC title twice without winning it. That has fans growing impatient.

In men's basketball, fans are thrilled to see a well-coached team maximize its talent, play an exciting brand of ball, hustle and beat two-time national champion Florida three times in four meetings.

But let's take a closer look at the three premier athletic programs at Tennessee, borrowing some questions raised by John Pennington during his Sunday morning Hall's Salvage Sports Source television show.

Discounting salary, which teams in the SEC would hire Pat Summitt?

Answer: All of them.

Who would hire Bruce Pearl? Answer: All but Florida, with a maybe on Kentucky. Kentucky didn't bother to call Tennessee to ask for permission, but that might have been because Pearl coaches at Tennessee. If Pearl had won 46 games in two years at, say Texas A&M, you think Mitch Barnhart would have been more interested in Pearl?

Who in the SEC would hire Phillip Fulmer?

This is a tough one. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Arkansas would hire Fulmer. You could make a case that LSU might, although the Tigers are 22-4 the last two years under Les Miles while Tennessee is 14-10. The other five – Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina – would not.

With that as a backdrop, what is the market value for Summitt, Pearl and Fulmer.

Considering Summitt is the winningest women's coach in history with seven national championships, she should get the $1.125 million she's paid now.

While Pearl is the third-highest paid SEC men's basketball coach at $1.1 million, he makes less than half what Kentucky's Billy Gillespie is making. Florida is about to bump Billy Donovan from $1.7 million to about $2.5 million. That's too big of a gap between the top two coaches and Pearl. Pay him $1.7 million.

Fulmer makes $2.05 million based on what he accomplished his first seven seasons at Tennessee, not his last seven. His winning percentage since 2000 is .693. Since 2000, he hasn't won the SEC, he hasn't won a BCS bowl game and he's beaten just one top-10 team at home. If you think only five other SEC teams would hire him, then his market value would be less than $2 million – more like $1.8 million.

Remember, entering this season, less than a dozen college football coaches made $2 million a year. In the SEC, Alabama's Nick Saban, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Fulmer make $2 million. Florida's Urban Meyer will top $2 million with his new contract and Georgia's Mark Richt made $1.7 million.

That leads to this question: Where would you rank the UT football and men's and women's basketball jobs in the SEC.

Women's basketball is an easy first.

Men's basketball ranks third behind Kentucky and Florida.

Football ranks fifth, behind Florida, Alabama, Georgia and LSU and slightly ahead of Auburn. While Tennessee has more SEC titles than any other school except Alabama, the state of Tennessee ranks behind the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina in terms of producing major-college talent.

Which program is closer to winning a national title: men's basketball or football?

No doubt – men's basketball. Bruce Pearl's team led Ohio State by 20 points in the Sweet 16 and would have faced a Memphis team it beat earlier in the season, thus enabling Tennessee to reach the Final Four for the first time.

You can win the national title in men's basketball despite finishing third in the SEC East Division. You can't do that in football.

And Tennessee hasn't been to a BCS bowl game since 1999.

Has the turnaround of the men's basketball program hurt Fulmer?

Yes. Pearl has won with modest talent. He's won with players Buzz Peterson couldn't win with. He won with a displaced 6-foot-4 power forward.

Fulmer has a long track record of solid recruiting, but he's in the midst of the second-longest drought in school history without a football title. His team isn't as exciting as the basketball team and it doesn't always play as hard.

Should Tennessee fans be satisfied with the combined level of success of the three main sports?

Yes. The Lady Vols won the national championship. The men's basketball team reached the Sweet 16 by winning two games for just the second time in school history.

The football team's second-place East Division finish wasn't disappointing. But the Outback Bowl was.

While football has a greater following, you can't overlook the success of the basketball programs.


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