Tennessee's Money Woes Show How Badly Schools Rely on College Football

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterJanuary 24, 2013

Nov 18, 2012; Knoxville, TN, USA;  Tennessee Volunteers athletic director Dave Hart announces the firing of football head coach Derek Dooley at Stokely Family Media Center.  Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Cash is king, and in the world of collegiate athletics it is football that makes the cash. Schools at the top are raking in money, hand over fist. Meanwhile others are struggling to make ends meet, if they meet at all.

At Tennessee, a school in the cash-flush SEC, business is not going as usual. The budget deficit in Knoxville is just more proof of just how vital a thriving football program is to the business of collegiate athletics.

When the 2013 season starts, Tennessee will be on its fourth coach in six seasons. Needless to say, success for the program has been remarkably fleeting. One of college football's most storied teams has had just one winning season in its last five, and only two bowl appearances in that same time.

With that bottom-half-of-the-SEC performance came frightening results that has put new athletic director Dave Hart's back against the wall. Attendance for the once always full Neyland Stadium dropped. Donations were not as robust. The school, which had recently invested in spending cash for new facilities, found itself wondering where all the money went.

As USA Today reported, Tennessee, for fiscal 2011-12, reported a lofty deficit in its athletic department:

As it attempts to rejuvenate its football program, Tennessee's athletic department is working at a financial disadvantage. The athletic department reported a $3.98 million budget deficit for the 2011-12 fiscal year that caused its reserve to drop to $1.9 million, the lowest total in the Southeastern Conference.

Even with the television money and the stadium being mostly full, the Vols were still draining their coffers. Dipping into reserve funds to help keep the beast running. Meanwhile, the rest of the teams they are battling are reporting revenues ranging from marginal to among the nation's best.

Yet, in the grand scheme of things, Tennessee is going to be OK. Hiring a new coach helps donations get kickstarted. The new facilities are going to come off the books as payment is made. Oh, and the SEC is signing a new rights deal to help boost its cash.

Unfortunately, other schools are not nearly as lucky as the Volunteers. Where Tennessee will be able to rehab its bank account without much change, schools like Maryland and Rutgers were forced to move conferences to make that happen. Both new Big Ten members added new and upgraded facilities, like Tennessee, leaving them cash strapped.

For schools not lucky enough to be deemed desirable by bigger conferences, the outlook is even more bleak. Football runs things and when that money does not work out, budgets run deficits and schools suffer.

Most schools don't have "reserve funds" just laying around for athletics. Rather that deficit has to be recouped from elsewhere; sometimes even from school funds. Other times that means increasing student fees to make ends meet.

In the case of Tennessee, the Vols need football back and rolling to grow their revenue and their reserve funds. For other schools, it is not about the reserve, it is about the here and now. Big schools take hits. Little guys get chopped off at the knee. Rutgers and Maryland escaped, but for most people a budget deficit is a very true reality when football cannot make ends meet.