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Why Tennessee’s balanced athletic department poised for a championship

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If you feel like you’re the only one that was in Tennessee athletic bizarro world, don’t fret. You have plenty of company.

It’s kind of odd looking at Tennessee’s athletic department now, thriving in multiple sports and competing for championships during the spring after the stalwarts, football and women’s basketball, stumbled all over themselves over the past few months. 

The football team couldn’t find a competent quarterback (until the bowl game) and the women’s basketball team had to fire one of its own to right the ship. Typical? Not even close. Credit Tennessee athletic director Danny White for the change throughout his department.

Tennessee’s former athletic directors took the approach that a strong football program would cure all ills and, in the SEC, it probably would. However, there’s nothing wrong with fortifying other sports teams to better the entire department, which is what White has done. 

If I were Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, I’d take note of the Kellie Harper firing. Even legacies don’t get much leeway with White. In fact, whether he meant to or not, he has showed longtime Tennesseans just how bad UT’s athletic program was set up at different times during its existence.

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Of course, there was the circus-like coup that upended football coach Johnny Majors in the early 1990’s. Then, there was the Phillip Fulmer-Mike Hamilton situation in which the two struggled for power. That was followed by the Lane Kiffin debacle, which led to more trouble on Rocky Top. Hamilton tried to build up the other sports and did so to some extent, but the athletic department never seemed complete for decades. In fact, it was fair to wonder if some programs even mattered under previous athletic directors, like softball and baseball in the 1990’s.

Do you think Tennessee’s athletic department thought much of the Vols’ baseball team when the football team held preseason practice in the outfield of Lindsey Nelson Stadium during the Fulmer years every season? Do you think baseball coach Tony Vitello would have been okay with that? That’s just one example of how the mindset has changed at Tennessee. There are no more preseason practices in the outfield nor treating any athletic program like a substandard entity. Everyone matters, especially the basketball team.

Former athletic director Doug Dickey allowed former Tennessee basketball coach Jerry Green to make mocking statements about Tennessee’s fans because he was winning. That wouldn’t fly with White, who surely has at least five coaches he’s thinking about that could replace basketball coach Rick Barnes as soon as he’s ready to retire. However, there’s no rush. The Vols are championship contenders with some class. Barnes wasn’t White’s hire, but he’s smart enough to ride it out.

Of course, there is one thing that would trump all of this feel-good success: a football national championship. That may well occur one day. However, having so many teams in championship contention is what being an astute athletic director is all about. As long as the Vols keep knocking on the door as they’ve been doing in most sports, they’ll eventually walk into a championship. Maybe it will even be football?

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