Great expectations

I had just finished off a bacon ranch salad and Diet Coke from McDonald's when I learned that the University of Tennessee will be paying Phillip Fulmer and Bruce Pearl a combined $5.29 million per annum over the next seven years.

Fulmer's cut is $2.99 million per year, Pearl's is $2.3 million. Incentive clauses could push both into even higher tax brackets. I'm guessing they won't be dining at McDonald's anytime soon.

Obviously, people who cover Tennessee football and basketball don't make the kind of money that people who COACH Tennessee football and basketball do. I accept that. Thousands of people make huge donations because they enjoy watching Fulmer and Pearl do their thing. Conversely, no one pays to watch me hammer away at a computer.

That's OK. This essay isn't about finance. It's about expectations.

When Fulmer assumed the reins of the UT football program in the spring of 1993, the Vols had gone 53-17-4 over the previous six years under Johnny Majors. That represented a 74.3 winning percentage, and fans expected that Fulmer would maintain that level of success.

Instead, Fulmer raised the bar. Between 1993 and 2001, his teams went 91-20 – a winning percentage of 82.0 – and picked up a national title.

Expectations skyrocketed, and so did Fulmer's salary. Tennessee's record, however, did not keep pace. From 2002-2007 the Vols went 52-25, a winning percentage of 67.5.

As a rule, coaches who win two-thirds of their games do not make $2.99 million per year. The fact UT just gave Fulmer a $940,000 annual raise and an extension through 2014 suggests the administration is expecting the next five years to be better than the previous five.

Rather than saying to Fulmer, "What have you done for me lately?" his bosses essentially are saying: "Here's a pile of money. Win us a championship."

Whereas Fulmer's success level and approval rating have slipped a bit since his blazing start, Pearl's popularity continues to soar. Even so, expectations are at the root of his raise, as well.

Pearl's first three UT squads went 22-8, 24-11 and 31-5. Last year's team won the program's first outright SEC title in 41 years, enjoyed a week atop the national rankings and earned a third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.

Moreover, Pearl has unified the fan base. He has put fannies in the seats. He has recruited well. He has given Vol basketball national visibility and credibility. He has done just about everything UT could ask except advance beyond the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. To justify making $2.3 million per year, he probably needs to do that at some point.

Like Fulmer, Pearl raised the bar. Like Fulmer, Pearl is being paid mega-bucks as an added inducement to meet the heightened expectations he created.

Of course, I have expectations, too. Right now I expect to enjoy the two baked apple pies I have left over from my visit to McDonald's.


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