Tennessee football: California NCAA law shows Vols always behind curve

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 16: The NCAA logo is seen in the second half of the game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Vanderbilt Commodores during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 16, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 16: The NCAA logo is seen in the second half of the game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Vanderbilt Commodores during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 16, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /
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California’s new law requiring NCAA athletes be allowed to profit off their name hurts Tennessee football. It puts the Volunteers behind the curve again.

Once again, Tennessee football blew a golden opportunity. A trend the Vols could have gotten out in front of will start, as it often does, in the state of California. By the time it reaches the Deep South, it will likely probably be too late.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Monday requiring that athletes be allowed to profit off their likeness. He did it despite the criticism that came from the Pac-12, the SEC and the NCAA. And as a result, the California schools will be the top destination for all athletes.

What is the NCAA going to do? Ban all California teams from participating in postseason events? It doesn’t matter. California has all the leverage, and if the top players are going to the schools out there, national media will just cover those major schools, and they will be as relevant as anything else happening in the nation.

The die has been cast. South Carolina and Colorado already have similar legislation. So just in the Power Five, you have the USC Trojans, UCLA Bruins, Stanford Cardinal and California Golden Bears set to benefit, while the Colorado Buffaloes, South Carolina Gamecocks and Clemson Tigers could be next.

Eventually, it will hit everywhere. But until it does, California schools have a chance to establish themselves over other programs in a major way. The same will be true with South Carolina and Colorado schools. And that’s something Tennessee football could have been doing years before if they thought this through.

The Vols have one of the largest athletic budgets in the nation, consistently in the top 10 and the top two or three of the SEC. Their football expenses are through the roof, as detailed here in this USA TODAY report.

Tons of that money comes from apparel and fan interest in merchandise. You don’t think they could have benefitted from players being able to profit off their own name more than anybody else? People buy random UT jerseys all the time, they loved the old NCAA football game, and being near Atlanta, it was the perfect spot for national branding.

Currently, Tennessee football has one of the highest paid assistant staffs in the nation. Jim Chaney is the highest paid offensive coordinator in the nation. The Vols also have spent the most on recruiting in the SEC. Sure, they have operated at a deficit recently due to buyouts. But if they had put a focus on paying players before anybody else, they could have had a huge advantage.

And they wouldn’t have needed the buyouts or the huge recruiting budget. Who needs high-paid assistants or money spent on finding athletes when you can get slightly lesser assistants and lure the top talent in with open bribes? When you have the Jimmys and Joes, you don’t need the X’s and O’s.

All that had to happen was for Tennessee football to use its advantage and get out ahead of this. They could say they would openly allow players to profit off their name, maybe even pay them, and encourage a few other major-market schools, like the Texas Longhorns, to join in.

Say the SEC and NCAA ban them for a period of time. Well, those few schools could play each other, generate a ton of revenue and bring in all the TV coverage. Eventually, other schools would catch on board, and the NCAA would either catch on or become obsolete.

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Then, even if schools caught on, the Vols would have been branded as the program before any other program that thinks about the welfare of the student-athlete. Instead, they blew it. And now California schools have taken that mantra.

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Being late to the party is a tradition with SEC football. They were the last of the Power Five conferences to integrate (including if you separate the Big 12 back to the Big Eight and Southwest Conference), despite the fact that they were located in a region with the highest concentration of African American talent.

On top of that, the league used to always fall behind other schools when it came to innovative offenses, hiring people outside the family, upgrading stadiums and facilities. That has always been an issue.

Although Tennessee football was often ahead of other SEC schools, it was still behind the national curve, and it’s not just in integration. They refused to move from the single-wing until 1964. There’s the infamous call-out from Joe Paterno in 1971 about Neyland Stadium not having lights. Ask Johnny Majors about what the facilities were like in 1977.

When they did move ahead of things, such as expanding Neyland Stadium to over 100,000 seats in the 1990s, adopting a pass-happy pro-style offense under David Cutcliffe and trying to establish a national presence in recruiting, they returned to prominence. So the formula is clear.

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Up next for college athletics was the trend of athletes getting openly paid. Tennessee football had the chance to get out in front of it. Instead, they let California steal the branding. And yes, it will have a long-term damaging effect on the Vols and every other school that doesn’t get in on this.