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Tennessee’s apathy, not coaching, is what is killing the Lady Vols

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The Lady Vols greatest challenge has nothing to do with who they’ll play on the court now or into the future. Apathy is the most significant foe.

Tennessee’s fan base has always been split between college football and women’s basketball. Often times, it’s been quite contentious, mostly from jealous football fans. Sure, there are some Tennessee fans that root for both, but most have a heavy favorite they’re pulling for. While football fans always outnumbered Lady Vol fans, there were still plenty of hoops aficionados that kept the Lady Vols on a national stage – of which they’ve slipped off of.

The Lady Vols, who are 16-10 and 9-5 in the SEC, are now projected as a No. 10 seed in the upcoming NCAA Women’s Tournament. Other than a losing season, it’s hard to imagine Tennessee falling any further into the abyss. Can that be fixed? Yes. Do those in charge really care if the Lady Vols are elite again? That’s debatable.

Tennessee had a long run of respecting women’s basketball thanks to Pat Summit, who transcended her sport and became a national treasure after countless hours, days and years of building up the Lady Vols. We didn’t know it at the time, but Summit stepping down and her eventual passing may have been the end of one of the most recognizable teams in college sports.

The Lady Vols had over two decades of support from its previous athletic directors, such as Doug Dickey and Mike Hamilton. Very few other schools had that kind of internal framework to make women’s basketball work. That support waned when former UT athletic director Dave Hart tried to kill the program completely by chucking the Lady Vol logo as if it were a post-it note. Whether he meant to or not, Hart sent a message to Lady Vol fans: check yourself or kick rocks.

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Chucking the logo was dumb, but several financial decisions that Hart made helped UT’s athletic department become more solvent after paying buyouts for enough coaches to fill up a section in Neyland Stadium. Now, with the athletic department in tip-top shape, UT athletic director Danny White could get the Lady Vols to a championship level, but why should he? After all, the Lady Vols’ basketball team has never made money and never will.

First, White has no connection to the Lady Vols fan base and its past glory. There’s no way he can truly realize what Summit and the Lady Vols meant to Knoxville for nearly two decades so he’s probably willing to let it slide as long as the Lady Vols don’t lose too much money. With their fan base, that doesn’t appear likely anytime soon.

There was a time when the Lady Vols’ games were an incredible three-hour commercial about the University of Tennessee. Those days are gone since streaming took over and audiences splintered to pursue other interests. White could get all that back, but why would he?

There’s simply never going to be the same buzz around the Lady Vols that was constant when Summit was the coach. Sure, White could throw a ton of money at a proven coach, perhaps with Lady Vols’ ties, but would that really help? At best, White could hope for an occasional Final Four run and perhaps a national championship, but that’s much more difficult nowadays compared to when one great player could win a championship. Expectations should be lowered everywhere, but especially with the Lady Vols who had such incredible success. Eight championships? That’s not going to happen again.

The most frustrating aspect for Lady Vol fans is there no light at the end of the tunnel. Since Summit’s departure, the Lady Vols have just wandered around with her proteges. 

White doesn’t seem intent on changing coaches, the entire women’s game continues to improve and the Lady Vols will likely get just enough favorable treatment from selection committees to stay relevant, but is that what Lady Vol fans really want? More importantly, is that what the entire Tennessee fan base really wants? Well, when it comes to money, that doesn’t really matter.

It makes absolutely no financial sense to back the Lady Vols with more funding than they already have. There are three coaches, LSU’s Kim Mulkey, UCONN’s Geno Auriemma and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, that make over $2.5 million per season. Does Tennessee want to compete against that?

Let’s also keep in mind that there is a finite amount of money at Tennessee even though it comes out of different pockets, and much of that money is going to football for NIL payments. Would you rather have a competent, mildly successful women’s basketball program or a five-star receiver if they cost the same prize? The answer, for most, is the latter. That’s not just wanting to be great at football. That’s apathy settling in.

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