Nice Work if You Can Get It 

UT athletic department just loves to blow money buying out contracts

UT athletic department just loves to blow money buying out contracts

It's tempting, though not particularly informative, to suggest that UT's athletic department possesses considerably more money than sense. After all, as the firing of basketball coach Buzz Peterson demonstrates, it doesn't exactly take a lot of cash to clear that threshold.

The Buzzball era unofficially ended Sunday, when Peterson was told that his services no longer were needed. Everyone—including, surely, the coach himself—had seen the end coming like a storm front on the prairie. And yet, given the circumstances, it still seems a mite strange that the Vols' brain trust would make this particular choice at this particular time.

During his four seasons, Peterson's teams finished a mediocre 61-59 and never reached the NCAA Tournament. So perhaps we can view his dismissal as a sign that Tennessee will not accept mediocrity.

On the other hand, Jerry Green, Peterson's immediate predecessor, made the NCAA Tournament in every season he was in Knoxville, and he got flushed, too. And since whoever gets the job next will be UT's sixth coach in 16 years, maybe we should conclude that the university's athletic department suffers from persistent, institutional impatience.

Granted, Buzz's tenure was a disappointment. When he arrived, people expected that he would build on Green's victory totals while restoring the perception that UT's coach was there to do more than roll out a basketball at the start of practice.

Peterson managed the latter task just fine. But the on-court product, including the level of talent, has declined.

Still, giving Buzz one more year would have been a justifiable—and prudent—decision. If he had stayed for a fifth season, his backers—who noted that even his mentor, Dean Smith, had fared little better in his first four years at Chapel Hill—could not have complained that Buzz had received inadequate time to prove himself.

And Buzz had many notable backers—including Pat Summitt, Philip Fulmer and Peyton Manning—whose public votes of confidence offered a huge, shielding wall of political cover for athletics director Mike Hamilton against any alumni clamoring for change.

What should have made the decision to keep Buzz a no-brainer was the $1.3 million price tag that came with buying out the four remaining years on his contract. (Arguably, an even more harebrained choice was to commit UT to eight years with a coach who hadn't proven his worth in Knoxville.)

As it stands now, the Vols will be paying two former coaches at once—but not for long. Peterson's contract calls for him to receive the entire sum within 30 days; UT won't send the final payment for Green's buyout until early next year.

If I were a UT regent, I'd be less concerned with the basketball coach's middling W-L record than with the fiscal stewardship of an AD who uses so much presumably finite university money to buy his way out of extravagant contract extensions.

What often—and erroneously—informs such decisions to dump a coach is the belief that plenty of marquee candidates are just itching to take the job. If that's the thinking here, someone needs to wake up Bro. Hamilton and acquaint him with reality.

When Bill Guthridge retired, even North Carolina had trouble finding a suitable taker for one of the four best jobs in college basketball. Hamilton may find that few proven coaches from power conferences are interested in coming to a football-dominated school that has turned into a graveyard for its three previous basketball coaches before Buzz.

More likely, the Vols' next coach will come from a "mid-major" school, like Pacific or Holy Cross or Appalachian State (Peterson's previous stop). For guys who've been earning a relative pittance, the allure of a big-time coaching salary can prove irresistible.

In that sense, UT can offer a particularly strong incentive: Coach for four years, get paid for eight. Extremely nice work if you can get it.


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