Roy Exum: Vols Are Resuscitated!

Thursday, January 21, 2021 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I am a big fan of magic tricks. Sometimes I’ll sit down with YouTube and watch a lot of dazzling stuff. My favorites include Darcy Oakes with the doves, or David Blaine spitting up live frogs from “the aquarium in my stomach.” Really intellectual stuff … I can watch it for hours … but the best magic is “real magic,” much like the University of Tennessee jerked from the top hat Thursday, revealing they had just hired a Moses to lead UT back towards The Promised Land.

It isn’t a long reach at all to believe Central Florida’s athletic director Danny White is among the top two percent at his craft in the country. A Volunteer triumvirate flew to Orlando on Wednesday night, threw down a stack of $2.5 million in buy-out money, and brought the universally admired athletic director to a mecca where, believe me, Danny White is going to live for a long, long time.

In this very same week, a mournful Taps was being sounded by trumpet on The Hill, the hiring of White to lead Tennessee out of the most shameful quagmire in the Vols’ athletic history was the most dazzling act of magic ever before witnessed in the heralded Southeastern Conference. It came during the very last moment it seemed that all of the trust and values UT fans have embraced for generations was for naught.

But, no … suddenly new and determined leaders have very openly exposed the deception and the cover-up that has crept onto UT’s “front porch” -- its storied football program -- and rekindled the flame of hope the Orange have long-cited as its creed: “One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others.”

Danny carries a bright torch indeed, his accomplishments well-chronically and easily read elsewhere, but his biggest allure – by far – is his last name. His daddy, who surprisingly announced his retirement as the athletic director at Duke just last week, is one of the most respected men in intercollegiate athletics.

That is best reflected in the faces of his children – Besides Danny, there is Mike, the basketball coach at the University of Florida (whose Gators are now 7-4, 5th in the SEC), while Brian is the athletic director at Florida Atlantic (Boca Raton, Conference USA). Their sister, Mariah Chappell, is an assistant AD at Southern Methodist (SMU) in Dallas – enough said.

What makes Danny such a prize is that he played basketball briefly at Towson State then at Notre Dame, or in older day speak: “He’s tasted his own blood; he knows what makes college ball go.” He also is no stranger to the SEC; he worked three years at Ole Miss (2009-11) and did such a bang-up job with the UMAA Foundation he was the Senior Associate Athletic Director at Mississippi when he got his first job as AD at Buffalo. That was in 2012 and the ‘phenom’ was 32 years old.

Three years later Danny White was hired at Central Florida – one of those “directional” schools you know little about. If you did, you’d know the youthful AD started at the foot of the rock-pile in 2015. He took a football program that was at the bottom (incidentally, with a bevy of NCAA “tickets”) and didn’t win a game the year before, and adroitly engineered the Knights to football stardom beyond compare this side of Tuscaloosa.

Central Florida? Don’t laugh. The school is one of the largest in America, 70,000 students-plus, and in Orlando where the entertainment dollar is more sacred than a dose of COVID vaccine, he made a ticket to the Knights’ games a must for the city’s A-list.

Let me explain that. UCF is in the center of the Orlando metropolitan area, which had a population of 2,509,831, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released in July 2017, making it the 23rd-largest metropolitan area in the United States, … or, the sixth-largest metropolitan area in the Southeast.

Vying for Central Florida’s entertainment dollar, or “sports page dominance,” or “TV time,” the University of Florida is an easy 115 miles away (Chattanooga to Neyland Stadium is almost exactly the same.) But Tampa (the Bucs and the Rays) are 80 miles from Orlando, the Jacksonville Jaguars a two-hour drive, and the Magic is in your very back yard. That’s hard-fought cobblestone.

But you bring a world-class promoter to Knoxville and, other than the Titans, there is no competition for the buck. I’m talking “low hanging fruit”: and Danny White will pick it bare. Better put, Central Florida has a $5 million TV worth versus UT’s $50 million worth. This is a home run.

For all my life I have groaned when I have it said to me, “Back in my time ….” Please, I don’t want to hear it. Yet I find myself becoming guilty of it. So, accept my pardon if I veer from the present or the future. That’s what matters. What’s past is a lesson to learn from, but what is present is where we are.

Back in days past, I befriended so many Florida writers … all dear friends .. and towards the end of my run, I got to know Mike Bianchi, a brilliant writer for the newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel. Mike can evermore call a ‘ball’ or a ‘strike’ in the world of sports and, for kicks, I leaned in to see his take on Danny White coming to Tennessee.

Allow me to share an astute view from the Central Florida ‘side’ of the earth-shaker:

* * *

MIKE BIANCHI: ‘BOLDNESS, BACKBONE & BRASS MADE US FALL IN LOVE’

(NOTE: This story, written by award-winning sports columnist Mike Bianchi. appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday, January 21, 2021.)

Danny White often told us over the years that being the athletics director at the University of Central Florida was “the best AD job in America.”

He made us believe that building something at up-and-coming UCF was more worthwhile and more exciting than being an AD at some distressed, downtrodden Power 5 program. But on Thursday, White accepted a job at one of the most distressed, downtrodden programs in all of the Power 5.

He accepted the AD job with the hapless, hopeless Tennessee Volunteers, who just fired their football coach Jeremy Pruitt and forced out AD Philip Fulmer amid a scandalous investigation involving a series of major NCAA recruiting violations.

Does this mean White is just like all the other huckster coaches and ADs out there who talk a good game but then use schools like UCF as a steppingstone into the Power 5? I don’t think so simply because White has had numerous other chances to go to Power 5 institutions of higher earning. Southern Cal reached out to him at one point and so did Georgia and so did many others. And he always said no; he always believed he could get UCF to the next level.

That’s why White’s departure now seems like an even more devastating body blow to UCF’s athletic program; more devastating even than when former coach Scott Frost bolted for Nebraska or when beloved quarterback McKenzie Milton recently transferred to FSU.

It would actually be more palatable if White were leaving because of a money grab; because Tennessee is desperate and offered him a five-year deal that will likely make him the highest paid AD in the best conference in all of college athletics. Who would blame White if he were simply taking a big-time SEC job that will likely pay him about $2 million a year?

But I don’t believe this was about money. White was already making more at UCF (over $1 million a year) than some SEC athletics directors. I believe White is leaving for deeper, more concerning reasons. I think reality has finally punched him right in the face. I believe he realizes he has done everything he can do at UCF and that the Knights have reached their ceiling.

I believe he’s tired of constantly banging the drum and beating his head against the wall for equality in college football.

He hired good football coaches, such as Frost and Josh Heupel, watched the Knights roll to a national-best 25-game unbeaten streak and finish undefeated in two straight regular seasons. And, still, they didn’t get a sniff of the College Football Playoff semifinals. He saw conference sibling Cincinnati finish unbeaten last season and, again, not even get consideration for the College Football Playoff semifinals.

For the longest time, White was a lone voice in the wind, howling and screaming from the mountaintop about how unfair and inequitable the College Football Playoff selection committee is to undefeated Group of 5 teams. He was ripped and ridiculed by the college football establishment when he self-proclaimed UCF the 2017 national champions when the Knights beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl after Auburn had beaten the two national-title game participants (Alabama and Georgia) during the regular season.

It was this sort of boldness, backbone and brass that made UCF athletes, fans, boosters, and donors fall in love with White. More than any other AD I’ve ever covered, White — because of his charisma and dynamic personality — was a bigger rock star among the fan base than the coaches themselves. It’s why he was such a phenomenal fundraiser, because he had the unique ability of touching the hearts of UCF donors and then touching their wallets.

But he knows — no matter how much money he raises or how many lazy rivers he builds — he’s already reached the pinnacle at UCF. He’s seen his football program go to two New Year’s Six bowl games. He’s seen his basketball team nearly upset Zion Williamson, Coach K, and hoity-toity Duke in the NCAA Tournament. He’s seen his entire sports program enjoy across-the-board success on the field and in the classroom.

But at the end of the day — no matter what he accomplished at UCF — the Knights are simply not in a Power 5 conference. What does that mean? It means White is leaving a university where the conference TV deal is worth about $5 million a year and is going to a university where the conference TV deal is worth about $50 million a year.

Do the math.

And, in a way, maybe White sees Tennessee as a bigger, richer SEC version of UCF. When he took over the Knights six years ago, the athletic department was a dumpster fire, donations and season-ticket sales were drying up and the football team was coming off an 0-12 season. Tennessee is in the same predicament now — except with an NCAA investigation thrown in.

Just as he rode into Orlando on Pegasus, the Knight in shining armor to save the day and become a cult hero to UCF fans, White has the opportunity to be a similar savior in Knoxville. He can be the man who uplifts the Vols from their rock bottom up to their Rocky Top.

I believe Danny White when he says his decision to leave UCF was “excruciatingly difficult.”

But — sigh! — he’s still leaving. Just like all the rest.

* * *

In Knoxville, someone just detected a pulse.

royexum@aol.com


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