The traditional hierarchy at our fine institution is football first, Pat Summitt second, and then everything else. There are some programs that have a long history of excellence in Knoxville, most notably track and swimming, but because they are olympic sports they are never fully able to break through to the mainstream UT fanbase. The flip side, of course, is the more popular the sport is, the better chance it has to find overall success. Under Bruce Pearl's watch, I think most would say that men's basketball overtook the Lady Vols in terms of general interest for the average Tennessee fan.
And then there are a handful of other sports that, when they're successful in Knoxville, they have enough appeal to create a surge of interest that separates them from the "everything else" category: still nowhere near as popular as football or basketball, but more general appeal than the olympic sports. We've seen this recently with tennis and softball (and it would probably happen eventually with soccer if it ever came to pass), with the latter especially the beneficiary of increased coverage from ESPN. Lady Vol softball might be the fourth most cared about sport on campus right now, which would've been a strange thing to say just ten years ago.
The one with the most potential to gain an audience and a following out of the non-football/basketball group is, of course, the baseball team. This makes sense in a southern city - I guarantee you there are more people in Knoxville who care about the Braves than the Predators - and the Vols have the facilities and a modern history to support it. Lindsey Nelson Stadium has seen major improvements in the last five years, and the Vols made the College World Series in 1995, 2001, and 2005.
But since 2005, the baseball program has fallen into relative obscurity. Rod Delmonico was not retained after the 2007 season, and Todd Raleigh was brought in from Western Carolina. In four years, Raleigh posted a .350 winning percentage in conference play and failed to make the SEC Tournament all four years (the top eight teams in the league advance to the conference tourney). And so today, Raleigh was fired because the program had fallen to such depths that even his terminaton makes us ask: how many people actually care?
Can you name a current Tennessee baseball player?
But I can name Todd Helton, R.A. Dickey, and Luke Hochevar, because I watched all of them play in person and on television.
When it comes to all things Tennessee, I'm not an expert, I'm a fan. I think there are a lot of people out there like me: people who follow the football team religiously and support the basketball team. People who don't pay as much attention to the Lady Vols as they should during the regular season. People who take a measured amount of joy when one of the non-revenue sports reaches a championship level. And people who will get behind the baseball team and support them with attendance and attention, but only when the product deserves it. If such a thing as a fair-weather college baseball fan exists, I am one...and I am very much not alone.
All of the programs at Tennessee deserve attention, but only a select few of them are going to get it from the masses. They get it by being good, and being good in a sport people care about makes a huge difference. Again, there are plenty of people in Knoxville who like baseball. Wes Rucker believes that UT baseball should be the most consistently successful men's sport at Tennessee. That's an interesting conversation, but whether it's true or not, the baseball team should easily be the fourth most popular sport on campus.
Instead, the program has been run down so far that not only did it stop winning, but the average UT fan stopped caring.
Where Raleigh will make a sound is in Mike Hamilton's office. The AD who inherited Phillip Fulmer, Buzz Peterson, and Rod Delmonico replaced them with two different kinds of failure (Kiffin and Raleigh) and an equally impressive rise and fall (Pearl). The jury will still be out on Dooley and Cuonzo for multiple seasons. The impact of Raleigh's removal will most immediatley be felt in the argument against Hamilton's continued employment, though once again it's Hamilton who will be leading the coaching search.
But despite the black hole the baseball team has fallen into under Raleigh, it can still be the third most important hire Hamilton can make. Baseball will always be able to do things in Knoxville that tennis, swimming, and track cannot. Another name I know is Chris Burke, who played on UT's 2001 CWS team and is most famous for hitting the home run in the 18th inning of Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS between his Astros and the Braves that ended the longest game in postseason history. Burke has been out of the majors for two years and is apparently very interested in becoming the Vols' new head coach, making him an option that's deeper than just blind fan optimism. Hiring a guy like Burke would give you a short-term PR boost, but long-term nothing is going to help Tennessee Baseball the way winning would. And I'm not nearly smart enough to tell you who they should hire to make winning a reality, or if other ex-Vols like Phil Garner are better choices than coaches at other colleges we've just never heard of.
In a perfect world, we'd all invest ourselves in all of the programs on campus. In the real world, people have only so much time, so much money, and so much interest to invest, and while I'm sure the baseball team has its few diehard fans, the majority of us find greater significance that today is 100 days til kickoff than in the firing of the baseball coach. The baseball team is incredibly fun to follow when the investment is worth it. I'd love to write about a team making the SEC/NCAA Tournament. After the last four years, the program has nowhere to go but up.
But right now, right or wrong, how many of us even care? And what can the Vols do to change that?