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Rocky Top Reset: A $50 million gambit to save Tennessee football, athletics

The reasons, perhaps, are debatable – pending one's point of view.

Either Tennessee adopted a great impetus to to play on the figuratively cleanest of playing fields. Or something perhaps because Jeremy Pruitt's allegedly boorish antics, as well as his on-field losing, did not leave space for any equity within the University of Tennessee football program.

Whatever the viewpoint on getting to here, UT athletics is at a bit of an unprecedented ground zero.

Where things now stand are indisputable: the University of Tennessee is less than two months into yet another wholesale razing of its athletics department and, more specifically, its flagship, revenue-driving football program.

“I would say tripping upon something in athletics that then sent us into looking at what was going on in football,” UT chancellor Donde Plowman said last week via Zoom, “and a number of changes that were made there.”

In: athletics director Danny White, football coach Josh Heupel. Myriad staff hires for both.

Out: Pruitt, former national champion football coach and failed athletics director Phillip Fulmer, with a bevy of additional dismissals.

The cost: guaranteed now at more than $56 million to Tennessee's coffers.

The start: fresh.

“I couldn't be happier with the hiring of Danny White,” Plowman said. “Once we realized we were going to need a new coach, Phillip made the choice to say a new A.D. ought to make that choice.

“Danny White, you're going to get to meet him soon You're going to love him, he's a rock-star. He brings so much energy into the room.

“The staff that Josh has put together, it's impressive. I know that Tennessee fans are tired of hearing we're going to rebuild this; but I'm going to tell you, this time it's going to work. And I'm so excited, we're doing this the right way. We're determined to get this right. We want a world-class athletics department and a world-class university all in one.”

Plowman, the UT system's highest-ranking employee below President Randy Boyd, insists the challenge at Tennessee is White's draw.

“(White) said straight-up, if you had everything moving along great, I wouldn't be interested in this job,” Plowman shared.

What a challenge White – and equally, if not more so, Heupel – face.

Consider, then: football is in its all-time longest drought without an SEC championship (1998); women's basketball likewise is working its way out of its longest stretch without a berth in the Final Four (2008); the school is just a few years removed from settling a Title IX lawsuit; it only recently has completed its severance payments to fired former football coach Butch Jones while insisting it will not pay Pruitt after terminating him with cause.

Pruitt, per multiple sources, is contesting his with-cause firing and seeking legal recourse to regain funds from his more than $12 million buyout presently being withheld.

Here is a dive into the $50-plus million Rocky Top roll of the dice to fix an athletics department taking orders from its sixth athletics director since 2011 and its 10th head football coach – six full-time, four interim – since 2008.

The signature costs are the contracts of Heupel (six years, $24 million guaranteed) and White (five years, almost $10 million guaranteed) as well as their combined buyouts of $6.1 million from the University of Central Florida.

Additional major line-item budget expenses include fired offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's final $1.7 million salary on the last of his three-year deal. Chaney's new salary as an offensive analyst with the New Orleans Saints is expected to only minimally mitigate UT's incurred costs.

Though UT lists Fulmer as having elected to retire, he is collecting $37,500 for the next 33 months – $1.312 million – which exactly matches the terms of his contract being voided in a dismissal.

Heupel's top pair of assistants – defensive coordinator Tim Banks and offensive coordinator Alex Golesh – are guaranteed a combined $6.45 million across the next three years unless they are dismissed with cause or take a job that requires them to buy out their Vols' contracts. Banks is scheduled for $4.2 million guaranteed; Golesh $2.25 million.

Offensive line coach Glen Elarbee ($1.5 million for two guaranteed years) and defensive line coach Rodney Garner ($1.325 million including retention bonus for two years) account for nearly another $3 million in guaranteed expenditures.

The remainder of Heupel's inaugural staff has contracts totaling $3.8 million in salary guarantees through early 2023.

Assistant coaches now seeking employment as no longer members of the Vols' staff but still earning salaries from Tennessee after recent dismissals include Kevin Steele ($900,000), Chris Weinke ($450,000) and Joe Osovet ($250,000). Additionally, Tennessee still is on the hook for a $650,000 salary to Jimmy Brumbaugh as part of the two-year deal he was given a year ago by Pruitt, who fired Brumbaugh midway through the Vols' loss to Kentucky last October.

There's another $295,000, per figures supplied to FootballScoop, in Tennessee's legal costs for retaining the Bond, Schoeneck and King law firm in its internal investigation into Pruitt's football program and recruiting practices.

The grand total: $56,481,500.

The risk: never been greater.