Tony Vitello is the hottest thing going for Tennessee Vols. Danny White must pay the man. | Toppmeyer
The replies from Tennessee fans reflected their excitement for coach Tony Vitello’s surging Vols – and their fear that a rival school will pluck Vitello out of Knoxville.
“Back the Brinks truck up for Coach,” wrote one fan.
“Keep Coach Vitello in Knoxville long term! Extend that contract, please!” wrote another.
Another fan hammered home the point in all-caps.
“PAY THE MAN, DANNY!” he wrote.
The fiery and affable Vitello seemingly can do no wrong with Vols fans, who packed Lindsey Nelson Stadium earlier this month for UT’s series against No. 1 Arkansas. The fourth-ranked Vols won the SEC East for the first time since 1997 and are 42-14 entering this week’s conference tournament in Hoover, Alabama.
That success comes with a challenge for White, who became AD in January: Tennessee must show a financial commitment to secure a rising coach who will be in demand. That task is made more difficult by the foolish financial stewardship carried out by some of White’s predecessors.
This isn’t an athletics department flush with cash. Rather, it is an athletics department that, for years, has flushed cash.
Tennessee must break its habit of writing endless checks to buy out bad coaches and invest in quality coaches.
Vitello has put his program on a steady ascent since John Currie shrewdly hired him in June 2017.
Vitello’s contract runs through 2024. His contracted salary this year of $600,000 trails several of his SEC peers, and he was among UT's coaches who agreed to an eight-month salary reduction to help defray the financial damages of the pandemic.
Vanderbilt, Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Auburn are among the schools that pay their baseball coach more than $1 million annually.
A new deal featuring a salary bump for Vitello and his staff would be a natural move after the program’s best season since 2005, when it last reached the College World Series.
And if Tennessee can afford to pay former football assistant coach Kevin Steele nearly $900,000 for seven weeks of offseason work, then it can’t justify being stingy with one of its most popular and successful coaches.
Other than men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes, Tennessee has shied away from spending big on coaches. Instead, money goes toward buyouts.
The 2017 football coaching change cost Tennessee $11.1 million in severance to Butch Jones and his staff, and UT paid a $2.5 million settlement for parting with Currie.
Tennessee avoided the brunt of the financial damage for its January football coaching change by firing Jeremy Pruitt and two of his assistants for cause, meaning they are not receiving severance. But UT still owed about $4.1 million to fired assistants. Former AD Phillip Fulmer will collect $1.3 million as a retirement farewell that matches what he would have received had he been fired.
Tennessee paid Central Florida about $6 million to cover the buyouts for hiring White and football coach Josh Heupel. An additional $240,000 went to a search firm. And cash flows to outside legal counsel that is helping UT investigate the football program’s recruiting malfeasance alleged to have occurred under Pruitt.
White will earn credibility if he shows a commitment to investing in coaches who will produce a bright future.
A staff salary bump is only part of the baseball equation.
It’s no secret that Vitello covets stadium improvements, including the addition of a seating area down the left-field line. He gained upgrades before the 2019 season, featuring the installation of a $1.25 million artificial playing surface, but Lindsey Nelson Stadium doesn’t compare to many of the SEC’s gleaming ballparks.
UT System President Randy Boyd, who owns the Tennessee Smokies, plans to move his minor-league franchise into a yet-to-be-built ballpark in downtown Knoxville as soon as 2023. That venue in the Old City could potentially host some Vols games, but making an off-campus ballpark the program’s permanent home isn’t a viable solution.
Lindsey Nelson Stadium is just one piece of the athletic department’s facilities needs.
A Neyland Stadium renovation has been in the works for many years but progressed slowly under White’s predecessors.
White gained a reputation for being a skilled fundraiser as the AD at UCF and Buffalo, and he has ratcheted up Tennessee’s efforts by unveiling the Shareholders Society donor program, which earmarks contributions for facility improvements.
“At one point in time, we had the best facilities in college sports,” White said last month during an in-house interview with Tennessee Athletics. “Let’s get back to that. We need to build our budget up to one of the highest in the country, so we can create and invest in and support every competitive advantage possible.”
Any major improvement for Lindsey Nelson Stadium is probably a ways off.
In the meantime, producing a concrete plan for facility improvements, along with further financial commitment to Vitello and his staff, would help reaffirm to the coach that Knoxville is where he needs to be.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.