Discussions about the Vols have recently become less about play on the field and more about how the athletic department is performing financially.
This summer UT announced a $4 million shortfall in its athletic budget. By the end of football season there was talk about the expense of firing head football coach Derek Dooley and his staff. Then there was the cash required to hire his replacement, Butch Jones.
Then the discussion went back to school with an agreement to allow the athletic department to put a three-year halt to its annual gift of around $6 million to the academic side of campus.
There have been several comments by fans and even some media outlets that assign blame to UT's academic leaders for putting UT's athletic department in a financial bind. ESPN's College Football Nation Blog included a December 12 comment from columnist Ivan Mansiel about UT's financial woes. Mansiel wrote, "The university administration has used the athletic department as an ATM, saddling it with financial responsibilities that the Vols' SEC competitors don't have."
In fact, a WBIR request for financial information reveals several SEC schools donate as much or more athletic revenue to academics as the University of Tennessee.
Rarity of Revenue Rare in SEC
Schools across the Southeastern Conference draw a blurry line between academics and athletics. When a new school president takes over, their first graded performance among the public arguably pertains to their display of school spirit.
University of Georgia president Michael L. Adams can be seen enthusiastically cheering, "Go Dawgs! Sic 'em!" Then Adams barks enthusiastically like any ardent UGA fan would proudly do in support of the school's sports teams.
Adams replied to 10News' request for information and said Georgia's financial situation makes it a dog with an athletic bark and plenty of academic bite.
"UGA athletics pays the university about $2 million for services and gives $3 million dollars for academics. We have a great relationship between the academic and athletic sides of the house," wrote Adams.
Across the country, gifts of millions of dollars to academics from athletic departments are rare. That is mostly because only a few schools actually turn a profit and have their own money to donate to academics.
The schools that are able to donate money to academics are generally the big-time lucrative programs. That includes the University of Tennessee and many of its SEC brethren. Those profitable athletic directors often are eager to share the wealth with academics as a point of pride, positive campus relations, and good press.
Jay Blanton serves as executive director for public relations at the University of Kentucky. Blanton wrote in his reply that the UK athletics department "is one of only about 20 across the country that is financially self-sustaining, meaning it receives no general fund support from the state or institution."
Basketball rules at Kentucky while the football program has gone through a carousel of hired and fired coaches analogous to the University of Tennessee. Yet, the UK athletic department has increased what was already a multimillion dollar contribution to academics.
"Most significantly, perhaps, athletics is paying for $3 million this year for the institution's most prestigious academic scholarships - the Singletary Scholarships, which are full academic scholarships," wrote Blanton. "That's an increase over the $1.7 million provided in previous years."
At the University of Alabama, assistant to the president Deborah Lane indicated, "Our Athletics Department gives more than $5 million to UA annually." Lane said $1 million of that money was for faculty support and more than $3 million was for scholarships on campus.
The gators down in Gainesville, Florida, have served the academic side of campus with a healthy chomp of $6.4 million in sports revenue. A chart regarding Florida Athletics contributions to the University of Florida dating back to 1991 can be found on page 27 of this PDF at the UF website.
Promises of athletic money for academics immediately accompanied Missouri's announcement that it would join the more lucrative SEC.
"As part of our moving to the SEC, one thing that will be coming on line beginning in Fiscal Year 2014 is a payment of $500,000 per year over a 10-year period to campus to support the overall mission of the University. It will be a $5 million total payment," wrote Chad Moller with Mizzou media relations.
Moller said the $5 million gift over the next 10 years is in addition to its existing contributions. He estimated the athletic department sends well over $10 million per year back to campus, although much of that is for scholarships and other campus services the department pays for.
"The LSU Athletic Department turned over $8 million to the academic side of the university last year," said Michael Bonnette, LSU sports information director.
Suffice to say the Vols annual payment to academics is not unusual compared to much of its main SEC competition. Like the other schools, it was the UT athletic department that voluntarily devoted money to academics.
Leaders at UT have indicated the main problem with the $6 million contributions is they were promised up-front.
"I think the perception was we were in great shape financially. The reality is we were not," said Dave Hart, UT Athletic Director.
Unexpected costs associated with firing and hiring coaches have eaten heavily into the cash reserves.
"Suddenly we got down to a reserve of under $2 million, which for a Southeastern Conference athletics department is really unheard of," said Hart.
"We want to continue to help the University and we will. I feel we have an obligation to do that. We're in the process of developing a model that works for all parties involved."
While the Vols take a three-year break from academic contributions, UT may want to look to LSU for guidance on a long-term model of revenue sharing.
In September the LSU board adopted what it deemed a new "historic fund transfer policy." The agreement "formalizes an annual transfer of $7.2 million from the Athletic Department to other components of LSU."
The formula UT may be interested in deals with the formula for additional surplus money. The September announcement indicated the "first $3 million of any surplus will be devoted strictly to athletics reserve accounts." If a surplus of between $3 million and $5 million is obtained, the money will be split with 75 percent going to athletics. Any surplus above $5 million "will be split equally between athletics and the rest of the university."
Update, December 19, 10:00 a.m.:
The University of South Carolina has now responded to WBIR's request for athletic and academic financial information. The total amount of athletic revenue given to academics totals almost $5 million dollars according to Steven Fink with USC athletic media relations. Fink indicated $3.4 million went to "athletic funds for scholarships."
Reporter's Note: Six SEC member institutions are yet to respond to WBIR's request for athletics financial information. That includes five public institutions and private Vanderbilt University.