Ultimately, UT brass can't afford to be overly cost-conscious. Consider:
- Vol football is no longer a sport; it's a million-dollar business. When fans stop donating, stop attending home games, stop buying concessions and souvenirs – as happened this fall – profits are lost that already had been pre-budgeted and earmarked. That's why a coach who keeps fannies filling the seats and donors writing checks is worth his weight in gold (see Alabama's Nick Saban).
- As Tennessee's cash cow, football foots the bill for all of the non-revenue sports (men's and women's). When UT has a competitive slump on the gridiron, the other sports face a financial slump.
- Hiring a bargain-basement coach is risky, particularly in a revenue sport. Counting lost profits due to poor attendance and the buyouts paid to Wade Houston, Jerry Green and Buzz Peterson between 1990 and 2005, the Basketball Vols probably could've spent the same money on Rick Pitino ... and won a heck of a lot more games.
- The Vol Nation is upset with this administration right now. The people who support Phillip Fulmer are mad that he was forced to resign with three games left in the season. The people who don't support Fulmer are mad that the administration let him stick around long enough for the Vols to sink to their current depths. Given the low approval rating for UT's administration, it MUST hire someone who will excite and unite (at least temporarily) the fan base. Otherwise, some of the administrators may be joining Fulmer in the unemployment line before long.
All of that said, however, I see no one out there who's worth a Saban salary – $4 million per year – including Butch Davis, the North Carolina coach who supposedly was UT's top target from Day One. I do think Tennessee would be willing to go $3.5 million to get Davis ... mostly because he is a proven winner with a solid resume'.
After Davis, the Vols might have to go $3 million to get Texas Tech's Mike Leach or former Oakland Raider head man Lane Kiffin. All of the other names being bandied about – Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, Tulsa's Todd Graham, etc. – should be available for $2 to $2.5 million.
Certainly, $2.5 million is still an obscene amount of money to pay a football coach. Still, that's a small price to pay when you consider that Tennessee will be giving Phillip Fulmer $6 million NOT to coach the Vols in 2009.