What Season Is This?

Isn’t this the quietest spring practice you can remember?

It lacks the shiny new things that tend to make the most noise this time of year – new coach, new quarterback – and even the new offensive coordinator isn’t really new. Tennessee’s freshmen most likely to make an impact are offensive linemen. There are plenty of things keeping April low-key that have nothing to do with Tennessee’s record last year.

Can we still call the expectations lowered? The Vols are 67-70 in their last 11 seasons, 4-8 in 2017 and 5-7 last year. Jeremy Pruitt made progress in year one, no doubt, but I don’t think anyone expects a leap back to the national elite in year two. The Vols still haven’t gone 9-3 in the regular season since 2007, and haven’t finished a season with less than four losses since 2004. If the Vols can find defensive linemen, we should see progress again this year. I’m just not sure we’re going to find defensive linemen in the Orange & White Game.

Lots of words will be written about the attendance by Monday. Maybe Pruitt will continue to implore fans to show up. The Vols have a wait-and-see fan base at the moment, and rightfully so. It’s how the Butch Jones era started too until he recruited his way out of it; Pruitt probably gets less credit for his first full class in that department because it lacked the in-state and legacy connections that were available to Jones in 2014, but the 2019 class is actually better in blue chip ratio.

But even if things are wait-and-see, this feels different than before. And I think that has a lot to do with Jim Chaney, Phillip Fulmer…and Rick Barnes.

Five years ago, we were hoping a coach who went 5-7 in his first year with a memorable win and some frustrating losses could turn things around. We knew who Jones was at Cincinnati. We were still getting to know Dave Hart. And the glory we were trying to return to was a little closer in the rear view.

We’re still figuring out who Jeremy Pruitt is. The first year results were one step in the right direction. But it’s not just knowing who Chaney and Fulmer are: the additional trust that comes with their stability is considerable. And this week, Tennessee made an enormous commitment to stability in men’s basketball.

The USA Today database of coaching salaries continues to be an excellent resource. As we wrote earlier this week, I wasn’t surprised Barnes stayed at Tennessee over going to UCLA, but was delighted to find the Vols would pay him UCLA money. This not only puts Barnes, for the moment, behind only Calipari and Coach K, but puts Tennessee’s athletic department on a very short list.

According to the USA Today database only seven schools pay their football and men’s basketball coach $3.5+ million dollars: Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Virginia, and Utah.

Tennessee currently ranks 12th in combined head coach salaries:

Texas A&M7.53.811.3
Michigan State4.44.28.6
South Carolina4.837.8
Ohio State4.537.5
Florida State52.37.3

If Pruitt gets Tennessee where Tennessee wants to go, he’ll make more than $3.8 million per year. So the Vols have room to grow on the athletic department leaderboard. But in the football/basketball marriage, Tennessee is in very good company.

Stability on this level in basketball creates trust that, even if Jordan Bone and Grant Williams go pro, the Vols can still be in the hunt. Barnes and these players earned that expectation the last two years, and Tennessee’s recruiting continues it going forward. Pruitt’s recruiting is getting there going forward; we’ll see how far they go on the field this fall.

But don’t be fooled by low attendance or what feels lowered expectations (which really just means reasonable expectations at this point in football). Tennessee is building a healthier athletic department. The Vols have more stability in more important jobs than at any point in the last 11 years. And as we just saw this week, when health and stability lead to more winning, Tennessee will pay for that too.

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