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Two former Tennessee Vols give Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin a lesson in loyalty

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Tennessee may be strapped for NIL cash meaning the Vols may even have to pass on some great prospects. At least they’re not embarrassing themselves like Ole Miss.

The Rebels lost two former Vols – defensive end Tyler Baron and defensive back Tamarion McDonald – to Louisville. Baron announced his decision on social media on Tuesday evening.

So what happened? Did the Rebels run out of promised NIL funds to Baron or McDonald? It certainly appears that way and it would be far from surprising. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin (you may remember him) has openly urged Rebel boosters to supply more money to spend on transfers, such as Baron and McDonald. Apparently, Ole Miss boosters weren’t able to cough up enough to keep two mid-level SEC players. However, losing the players to the Cardinals is just part of the problem. The bigger problem is the perception that Kiffin can’t keep up his end of an NIL deal. That can have a much more prolonged negative impact than losing Baron and McDonald.

If Baron and McDonald chose to attend Louisville instead of Ole Miss because of NIL money, it means that Ole Miss is either woefully low on expendable NIL cash or someone, perhaps Kiffin, made a financial promise he couldn’t keep. Either would be a big problem in recruiting since opposing coaches will surely use the NIL issue against Kiffin and Ole Miss. This wouldn’t be the first time an NIL issue has caused an SEC program a significant prospect and some of its NIL reputation. Florida was one of the first to tread in such choppy waters.

The Gators reportedly promised quarterback Jaden Rashada some significant NIL payments that they couldn’t make good on when he showed up on campus. Rashada is now a quarterback at Arizona State, which is far from what he had hoped for. Florida handled the Rashada situation so poorly that prospects should be hesitant before signing with the Gators before there’s cash in hand – or at least a contract in place.

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The NIL issues were bound to happen. Coaches have spent their entire lives coaching football, not running a business nor balancing a budget. That should be left to the collectives, which should be able to be in close communication with the coaches. That’s allowed in some states, such as Missouri, but not as prevalent as it should be in other states that have more pressing concerns than paying college athletes.

Tennessee and its collectives deserve significant credit for hiding any NIL issues they might (and likely) have. The Vols had a ton of returning players that were well worthy of NIL cash, such as center Cooper Mays. The Vols also spent quite a bit of their funds last year in a transfer class that has partly panned out. Therefore, the Vols may not have the cash on hand that they’d like. However, they’ve not been embarrassed publicly by the shortage. They’ve surely spent less on incoming transfers than they did last season, but there doesn’t seem to be any hurt feelings. No harm. No foul.

Baron’s loss is significant. However, it’s widely known that he was never keen on defensive line coach Rodney Garner’s aggressive coaching style. As for McDonald, well, Tennessee should have better options at defensive back now that Heupel is entering his fourth season.

While it may be fun to poke fun at Kiffin, it is also a cautionary tale. Style, which Kiffin takes pride in, won’t win NIL battles. Substance, which means money, will. Tennessee may have proven that to a fault last season year when they likely overspent on at least a couple of prospects in the 2024 transfer class. No one wants to overspend. However, having a prospect repossessed is a much worse look.

It’s really not stunning that athletic departments and collectives continue to struggle with NIL management. After all, the concept isn’t even three years old, having been implemented during the spring and summer of 2021.

There will certainly be more embarrassments tied to NIL in the coming years. Like riding a bike, it takes time to learn how to master the NIL art. However, some schools look like they’re trying to ride a unicycle, making things much more difficult on themselves by making themselves a spectacle of how not to handle this NIL era.

Something tells me that Kiffin won’t be bragaedocously tweeting from Knoxville as he did while he was supposedly landing Baron and McDonald. Something tells me he didn’t like getting one-upped by the defensive duo. After all, he gave Tennessee a year. Baron and McDonald gave him a month.

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