Why Tennessee's next hire has to be a home run

Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE

With Derek Dooley reportedly on his way out, Tennessee's next hire must be one that inspires fans and rekindles hope.

It's really been inevitable for some time now, but Volquest is reporting that Derek Dooley will be out as the head football coach of the Tennessee Volunteers by the season's end. Now, we move to the next question, which we Vols fans know is even more important: Who's going to replace him?

Rather than talk about names in this post, I'd like to talk about the kind of candidate UT should be pursuing to lead the program back to relevance. Tennessee simply cannot afford to hire another coach without a track record of success at this position at this level or higher. It has to be what the fan base perceives to be a home run.

I've never liked the phrase, "Perception is reality." It's not. Reality is reality, and perception is just the way each of us views and interprets it. But that doesn't mean that perception is nothing, either, and in this case perception matters. It matters a lot. Maybe more than anything.

Why? Apathy. It's an infection that is killing our program, and the only thing that can eradicate it is real hope, right now.

Everywhere you look on Rocky Top these days, you can find various laundry lists of Derek Dooley's Record of Wrongs. It's practically an arms race to describe the failure in some innovative new way, the novelty of which will finally convince you that this is the worst thing that has ever happened in Knoxville. But really, every new description is just another new way to drive home the point that it's been too bad around here for too long.

The problem isn't the various ways that Dooley has failed, and the problem really isn't even that he hasn't won. The bigger problem is that folks no longer believe that he can win. That's always the death knell of college football coaches, the erasure of hope and the settling in of apathy.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again now. I've learned over the years that there are three kinds of fans: (1) die hards, who are always fans and always will be; (2) fair weather fans, who are fans but are only interested when it's easy to be interested; and (3) band wagon fans, who are fans of the team for the first time only because it's the hot commodity at the time. It goes without saying that when a program is down for as many years in a row as Tennessee has been, there are no band wagon fans, and the fair weather fans are off doing other things. But even the die hards are having to make hard decisions about what to do with their time and money in a tough economic situation.

Two Saturdays ago, I drove to the sports licensed apparel store I own in upper East Tennessee during the third quarter of the Troy game. In the first ten minutes that I was there watching the rest of the fourth quarter on our big screens, there were four groups of people in the store. First were our employees. They had to be there. The second was a group of Alabama fans who were actively rooting for Troy because they wanted Tennessee to lose. Nice. The third was another group of Alabama fans who were gearing up for a viewing party they were having for the big game against LSU that night. The fourth was a group of Vols fans who came in, half-heartedly perused the Tennessee apparel, and then left. We sold four times as much Alabama product as Tennessee product that week. Florida and Georgia also outsold Tennessee that week, and Notre Dame nearly did as well. The other side of that coin, of course, is that when ESPN Gameday came to Knoxville for the Florida game and folks thought we had a real shot to win, we had a live radio remote at the store, and the entire week was like Christmas.

All of this is in upper East Tennessee, 90 miles from Knoxville, and if the interest of fans -- which is tied to the success of the team -- ebbs and flows that much up here, imagine what it does inside the stadium, along the strip, and in and around Knoxville. There were reportedly only 60,000 or so in attendance at the Troy game. This isn't a precise measurement, but just for kicks, let's do the math just on ticket sales. That's roughly 40,000 tickets and nearly $2.5 million in empty seats for that game alone. Not to mention any empty seats the rest of the season post-Florida. And not to mention lost concessions, lost licensing revenue and merchandise sales, lost ad revenue on the Vol Network, and lost opportunities on hot markets (end-of-season recap DVDs, big game t-shirts, etc.)

And it's not just the Tennessee football program itself that suffers when the team does poorly, it's the entire community (video on the impact of a football season on the Knoxville economy). If you don't want to feel badly for Adidas, feel bad for Gus's Good Times Deli on the strip. Christmas use to comes six or seven home games a year for those businesses on and around campus. Now it comes once in September, and even that is now in doubt to the degree that apathy jumps across seasons.

And all of that is why Tennessee's next hire has to be an absolute home run in the eyes and minds of the fans. The decision makers need to invest in a guy in a way that conveys to fans that they are serious. If UT is going to ask folks to spend a great deal of money (to them) on Tennessee football, UT needs to invest a great deal of money (to it) on the most important thing to Tennessee football. The way to convey that all-important message is to get a guy who is expensive. Forgo the Corolla and get a Maserati.

If they invest heavily in a name-brand head coach that excites people, hope is instantly rekindled. Fans are instantly reengaged. Hire the right guy, and the spring scrimmage may have as many in attendance as the Troy game. Even if the guy who is hired ends up failing, we at the very least have two years of hope, of believing that he will succeed. If you hire the right guy.

But if Tennessee instead goes for the economy hire, hope is deferred until the guy wins and wins consistently enough for fans to really believe, which takes time we don't have. The Tennessee football program at this point in its history simply cannot afford to make a hire that asks the fans to wait and see. We've waited. We've seen. We've been disappointed.

Apathy is here and now, encroaching on our program, and it is bridging the gap between seasons with increasing frequency and anti-fervor. Don't ask the fans to wait any longer for something to believe in because most of them just won't.

We can't wait any longer, and we can't take additional disappointment in the form of a hire that doesn't inspire. The Tennessee football program doesn't have to give us wins right now, but they'd better give us hope immediately. And the only way to do that is to go after the biggest fish they can find and get that sucker in the boat.

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