Monday, December 11

Rucker: Candid Danny White demanding more from everyone at Tennessee. Even you. Yes, you.

NASHVILLE — Danny White hasn’t made an appearance at every Big Orange Caravan stop this year.

Thursday’s stop at Yee-Haw Brewing Co. was a can’t-miss, though.

If you’re Tennessee’s athletic director and there’s a Big Orange Caravan stop downtown in your state capital, and it’s arguably the largest-attended Big Orange Caravan stop in history, you hop on the plane and you get there.

White and University of Tennessee-Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman both made appearances Thursday night, alongside football coach Josh Heupel, men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes and women’s basketball coach Kellie Harper.

Ever-expanding Nashville’s importance in so many ways to the state’s flagship institution is tough to overstate. More people potentially means more fans, more money and more in-state talent to populate the rosters of Tennessee athletics. But nothing is guaranteed, especially with stiff competition coming from the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and NHL’s Nashville Predators, to say nothing of the fresh transplants of Middle Tennessee with personal ties to other colleges around the SEC and beyond. Then there’s Vanderbilt, which almost always has played second fiddle in its twangy hometown but can’t be completely ignored.

Tennessee fans waiting for the Big Orange Caravan doors to open. (Photo: Mark Zaleski, The Tennessean)

In other words, yes, Danny White was in Nashville on Thursday night, stump speech locked and loaded. He was there to spread the Gospel of The Vols, one “y’all” at a time.

“Let me hear a ‘Go Vols.’ Let me hear it.” White said to open his time on stage at the packed venue — no small feat on the first night of the NFL Draft.

The initial response wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t to White’s liking.

He didn’t come back with a, “Let’s try that again.” Not even the slightly more direct, “Y’all can do better that that.”

Nope. This was an even more specific demand.

“Come on. Do it a little louder. GO VOLS!” White said.

Response No. 2 was noticeably louder. White was satisfied.

White, who arrived at Tennessee in a particularly touch-and-go moment in the proud university’s athletic history, has plenty of legitimate achievements to tout from the first 16 months of his tenure in Knoxville. Practically every UT sport aside from King Football is ranked nationally and competing at the highest levels, and King Football showed signs of promise in the first year under head coach Josh Heupel — who worked for White at UCF and was promptly hired away from the Golden Knights after White took the gig at Tennessee.

Tennessee’s baseball team is ranked No. 1 in every national poll, has already set multiple SEC records and has been described by at least a few analysts and scouts as perhaps one of the most talented and best college teams they can remember. Barnes’ Vols recently won the program’s first SEC Tournament championship since 1979 — though another sooner-than-expected NCAA Tournament exit was a disappointment. Harper’s Lady Vols fought through injury after injury after injury to get that proud program back into the Sweet Sixteen — which never has been and never will be a crowing achievement for a program of that stature, but is a step in the right direction. The softball program under Karen Weekly is again a title contender. The men’s and women’s Olympic sports are nearly all in good shape, and some are legitimate national title contenders. The (very) recent loss of soccer coach Brian Pensky to Florida State was an undeniable bummer, but that program is now a proven winner with good facilities and support and shouldn’t have trouble finding a solid replacement.

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Everyone knows Tennessee football isn’t where Tennessee football has been for a majority of its existence. No one reading this needs — or probably wants — that reminder. It’s nonetheless true. There are signs of life with Heupel and his fun, fast-paced system, though.

Despite that, Tennessee currently sits at No. 11 nationally — and No. 3 in the SEC, behind only Kentucky (No. 9) and Arkansas (No. 10) — in the LEARFIELD Directors’ Cup Standings for all-sports success. And that update came after the winter sports season. And Tennessee’s spring sports have multiple championship contenders.

White, like most athletic directors at places like Tennessee, is a good salesman. Some of the stuff his Vols and Lady Vols are doing at the moment sells itself, but a good salesman’s got to sell, right? And White can do that. Athletic administration is very much his family’s forte.

“I couldn’t be more excited and more proud to be your athletics director,” White said. “I want you to know we have a ton of people — competitive people — hard at work every single day on campus to deliver [results]. We want to be the very best athletics department in the country. Not second. The best. That means across-the-board excellence like we used to have. Competing for championships in every single sport.

“We’re sitting at No. 11 in the country in the all-sports cup. We want to win that. Anything that’s a competition, we want to win it. That’s where Tennessee should be.”

In reality, if you’ve been to one Big Orange Caravan, or the equivalent rah-rah events for other major-college programs, you’ve been to most of them. These things are essentially rock concerts. The diehards want to parse over every note, but a majority of the people mostly want to hear the hits. They want you to play Free Bird. And they want to yell when they hear those first few chords.

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Tennessee athletic director Danny White (Photo: Mark Zaleski, The Tennessean)

Y’all see that baseball team out there kickin’ ass and takin’ names? Wooooooo!

Y’all remember Peyton? Pat? Ernie and Bernie? Wooooooo!

Y’all see Hendon Hooker’s comin’ back? Wooooooo!

Y’all know Bama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky? Booooooo!

Y’all know Rocky Top? Wooooooo!

Play the hits. Always play the hits. White knows the drill.

“We’re gonna be the most student-athlete-centric athletic department in America,” White said. “We’re gonna do what’s right by them in the recruitment process. We’re gonna do what’s right by them academically. We need to recruit the very best, from an integrity standpoint, to a character standpoint, academic excellence … and, yes, a little bit of athletic talent to go with it, too.

“And we have no chance of doing that without really talented coaches. I think our head coaches … I’ll put our roster of head coaches up against anybody in the country. We’ve got some absolute studs.”

It wasn’t all sunshine and apple sauce, though.

White — to his credit, if you’re asking me — admitted that Tennessee still isn’t what it has been in the past, and what he and many others believe it could be again.

You can win big at Tennessee. It’s been done before. It can be done again. It’s not impossible, and anyone telling you otherwise is wrong. But it’s also not as easy as it is — or, at least, should be — at … say … Florida or Texas.

Nashville is growing at a ridiculous rate, but this state doesn’t produce as much talent as the nation’s most fertile youth-sports factories, and it probably never will.

Tennessee traditionally offset some of that with facilities. If you build it, they will come, right? That was the case in the corn fields of Iowa, and historically it’s been the case in an area where people proudly boast about getting their corn from a jar.

Athletic facilities — both in sheer size and grandeur — have long been a point of pride for the University of Tennessee. The size is still there, in most cases. The grandeur … not quite so much.

Neyland Stadium needs and is getting a facelift. Anderson Training Center needs and is getting some new bells and whistles. Lindsey Nelson Stadium needs … well … a lot of work. Many other sports need it, too.

(Photo: Mark Zaleski, The Tennessean)

White knows how much Tennessee fans have given historically, and he knows they haven’t always gotten a fair bang for that buck in recent years. But he also visits rival campuses throughout the year, and he certainly can read and understand balance sheets.

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The things he wants, and the things his coaches, his players and Tennessee’s fans want, are not cheap. And, sure, you can hope to catch lightning in a bottle as the Vols have done in the past with coaches like Pat Summitt, Bruce Pearl and now Tony Vitello — coaches who found ways to win big early in their tenures without the fanciest creature comforts. But you know what’s easier? Having the kind of financial reserves of envy-of-everyone facilities Tennessee had before it fell behind in both areas.

And then, obviously, there’s the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) laws that finally allow college athletes to be fairly compensated for their talents. You might not like it, and you have every right to that opinion, but this still a capitalist country, isn’t it? Aren’t these men and women worth whatever the free market determines?

Regardless, that costs money, too. A lot of it. And while White and others understandably choose their words carefully when asked about NIL in public spaces, they know the deal.

None of this will be cheap. White doesn’t deny that. But he also doesn’t deny what he sees as the need for Tennessee to once again act — and spend — like a big-deal athletic department.

The SEC arms race is as fierce as it’s ever been, and White wants Tennessee to out-flex the field.

“Competing in the SEC, it’s the toughest conference in America,” White said. “We’re competing for SEC championships, which means we’re competing for national championships, right? They [the coaches] are in that fight every single day. They’re recruiting every single day. They’re probably back there recruiting right now. They’ll be recruiting tonight. They’ll be working with our players tomorrow. They’re in it every single day.

“But we’ve got to help. As an administration and as a fan base, we’ve got to think about, ‘Why can’t Tennessee be the best athletic department in the country?’ When we had it rolling — when we were the best version of ourselves — we had the top budget in the SEC. We don’t today. We need to fix that. Quickly. When we were the best version of ourselves, we had the best facilities in the country. We don’t today. We need to fix that really quickly.

“We need your help. All of you.”

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