Analysis of operating costs shows Tennessee athletics is the king of the buyout

Tennessee is the buyout king.

The UT athletic department’s $13.8 million in reported severance expenses were the most among all Division I athletic departments at public institutions during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018.

USA TODAY published its database of public institutions’ athletic department finances on Monday. Private schools are not subject to public record laws requiring them to release their finances.

The News Sentinel previously reported UT’s athletic finances for the 2018 fiscal year in January. The USA TODAY project shows how bleak of a financial year it was for Tennessee compared to the rest of the NCAA.

Why Tennessee led the nation in severance costs

Tennessee was the only institution that reported more than $13 million in severance payments. Nebraska, Florida, Arizona State and UCLA topped $12 million in reported severance costs. All of those schools, including Tennessee, fired their football coach in 2017, which helps explain the high severance figure.

Tennessee fired coach Butch Jones in November 2017, and none of his assistants were retained beyond February 2018, causing the severance costs to pile up.

Football staff buyouts accounted for $11.5 million. Tennessee also was on the hook for a $2.2 million settlement with athletic director John Currie in March 2018 after he was placed on paid suspension on Dec. 1, 2017, amid his chaotic football coaching search. 

Not all of the buyout expenses listed on the 2018 fiscal report have been fully paid out. For example, Tennessee owed Jones a $8.26 million buyout due in monthly installments through the end of his contract, which expires Feb. 28, 2021.

The report reflects dollars paid before June 30, 2018, and estimated money owed after that date. Accounting protocol requires that Tennessee acknowledge the full buyout potential as of the final day of the fiscal year in which the firing occurred.

Tennessee operated at the biggest loss among SEC teams

Because of the severance burden, Tennessee reported a $6.5 million operating loss for the 2018 fiscal year. The Vols operated at a $10.8 million surplus in the previous fiscal year.

Mississippi and Missouri were the only other SEC teams to report an operating loss in 2018, but neither matched Tennessee’s amount.

Texas A&M paced the conference in total revenue ($212.4 million) and in operating surplus ($46.6 million). Alabama was second in total revenue ($177.5 million), but Georgia ranked second in operating surplus ($42.8 million).

Tennessee’s total revenue ($143.5 million) ranked seventh in the SEC. Vanderbilt, which is a private school, was the only SEC member not included in the USA TODAY findings.

Tennessee didn’t pinch pennies when it came to recruiting expenses, accumulating $3.2 million in recruiting costs. Only Georgia ($4 million) and Alabama ($3.3 million) spent more on recruiting.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.