If you live in Tennessee or follow college football at all, you’re likely familiar with the scenario: following an embarrassing loss in Nashville to Vanderbilt in November, Tennessee fired Derek Dooley and began the search many Tennessee fans had been demanding for weeks—the search for a new head football coach.
If you live in America, or follow economic or political news at all, you’ve likely heard about the “fiscal cliff”—a dysphemism for the series of tax increases scheduled to take effect on New Year’s Day, 2013.
But what do a leaderless football team and sunsetting tax legislation have in common?
Fuel For Speculation
Even before the Vanderbilt game, Tennessee fans from Johnson City to Memphis were speculating about the possibilities of new coaches. Old photos of Jon Gruden, of Monday Night Football fame, at Tennessee began swirling around the cybersphere. After Dooley’s release, reports of Gruden sightings in Knoxville were tweeted out with humorous frequency. The reality that Gruden’s appointment was a non-starter didn’t stop the rumor mill, however—a litany of other names rushed to fill the vacuum left by Dooley and Gruden: Stoops, Gundy, Strong—all denying interest or renegotiating with their current schools; Kelly, Golden, Fedora, O’Brien, Smart, Holgerson, Jones, Davis, interim head Coach Jim Cheney and even former UT coach Phil Fulmer. Each of these has been hailed—by “sources” (or someone’s twitter feed) as “ the front runner” or even “a sure bet” or “a done deal.”
Similarly, there is almost as much variety in the rumor mill about what sort of political deal will result from our inexorable march toward the fiscal cliff. Like the Gruden-ites, many were placing their bets on the election results and political longshots like Mitt Romney, on record as in favor of repeal of the death tax and a policy to “repeal and replace” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare). When those hopes were squelched, a variety of opinions have surfaced about how the political gamesmanship will fall out—some are predicting that we’ll fall over the fiscal cliff; some say Obama will win cuts for the “middle class” and allow increases only for the rich, with others predicting a short-term compromise, even for high-income earners; estate and gift tax rumors abound (while not many are predicting full sunset of the current scheme from a $5.12 million exemption and a 35% rate back to a $1 million exemption and 55% rate, almost everything else has surfaced as a possibility: a full repeal of the estate tax , maintenance of the status quo, or some middle ground). Meanwhile, political finger-pointing and blame-casting rehetoric is tossed back and forth across the aisle.
Despite all the rumors, guesswork, speculation and conjecture surrounding UT’s hire and the results of a political deal on the fiscal cliff, the truth is no one truly knows how these two situations will be resolved—not Dave Hart, John Boehner, Harry Reid, or Barack Obama. This uncertainty makes planning nearly impossible—whether it’s a prep-football prospect evaluating a recruiting pitch from Tennessee’s interim head coach Jim Cheney or an estate planning attorney advising on transfer tax minimization strategies—the fact of the matter is that it’s very difficult to hit the bulls-eye when the target hasn’t been established.
The Stakes are High
The state of Tennessee’s football program (and athletic department, for that matter) has been in decline for some time. During the latter part of his tenure, Fulmer’s winning percentage fell. His (at least perceived) complacence was the first in a series of unfortunate events for Tennessee fans, and has led to more instability in the football program than has existed there in my lifetime. Attendance is at its lowest point in my memory. The Athletics department is strapped financially, and its financial assistance of academics has come to an end. Another bad hire with a bad (from the University’s perspective) contract could inspire the poison of apathy in the fan-base and mire the football team in its sad condition for years or decades to come.
Likewise, the impact of falling over the fiscal cliff could have a serious impact on the frail economy. With federal debt and deficits at mind-boggling levels, some action should be taken—but how much is enough and how much is too much? Obviously how one answers these questions depends on political and philosophical presuppositions and economic assumptions. But like Dave Hart’s decision in Knoxville, whether the correct decision was made can really only be evaluated in hindsight—and the consequences of failure could be dramatic.