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Where does Tennessee go from here: ‘​​The sleeping giant just woke up’

Pete Nakos10/18/22
Article written by:On3 imagePete Nakos

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Josh Turbyville has owned Clancy’s Tavern & Whiskey House for nearly nine years. Situated in the middle of downtown Knoxville on Gay Street, Neyland Stadium sits a short walk away.

He’s lived in the Tennessee college town his entire life. He knows what Vol football is supposed to look like. And he could not pass up on going to the game Saturday. But throughout the night, he checked Clancy’s cameras on his phone.

“It was packed,” he said. “And then after the game, it was just crazy. I mean, people all night – shots. Just insane.

“As opposed to 2017 when we lost to Florida in the last seconds and people just left full beers and walked out of the bar. That’s the difference.”

The madness did not end with the shots, though. Clancy’s is the only spot on Gay Street that sells cigars. The entire cigar cabinet, which typically holds 400 to 500 sticks, was wiped out.

Chatting over the phone Monday, the pub owner confidently said he brought in more than $40,000 in profits from Thursday to Sunday. That’s double the amount of business a typical Tennessee football weekend brings the restaurant.

As the product on the field starts to resemble the late 1990s, Knoxville business owners are reaping in the benefits of the historic run. The Volunteers have three home games remaining, and Clancy’s is even planning for an above-average crowd for this weekend’s Tennessee-Martin game.

So what’s it going to take to sustain this? This is not supposed to be a one-hit-wonder. Tennessee officials have admitted the rebuild is ahead of schedule, but that does not mean it’s enough. Sure, the Vols have found their head coach in Josh Heupel. Winning recruiting battles and building a stockpile of talent is key. As is not losing a portion of the roster come Transfer Portal season.

Winning in Name, Image and Likeness will be at the core of what comes next for Tennessee.

“This is Tennessee’s moment. Right here,” Spyre Sports Group co-founder Hunter Baddour told On3. “Not only is Tennessee back, but they can stay this way for a long time if we’re firing on all cylinders, and that includes NIL.”

NIL operations at Tennessee can’t slow down

For as much as college football is about pageantry and tailgates, the sport has turned into an arms race in the past 16 months. NIL collectives have surfaced at nearly every Division I school. And the word collective, which has no ulterior meaning, has become synonymous with Name, Image and Likeness. The race is to stockpile the most cash to distribute to current players so recruits know what they can make once they enroll at the college.  

Baddour knows the ins and outs of the undeveloped and immature NIL industry. He and James Clawson founded Spyre, a marketing agency based in Knoxville, back in 2020. Their operation took on a new life when the NCAA installed its interim NIL policy on July 1, 2021. 

This summer, they took Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman to New York City for meetings with brands, future partners and stock market executives. Another example of what possibilities there are for athletes who go to Tennessee. 

And it’s why Baddour refuses to truly enjoy the celebrations of the Alabama win that continued well into this week. Now is the time to kick the operation into high gear. 

Over the past 16 months, Spyre has established two entities to allow donors and fans to support Tennessee athletes. Vol Club supports Volunteer student-athletes through a monthly membership program. To date, it’s distributed more than $4.5 million to Tennessee athletes. Volunteer Legacy was recently established, too, as the 501(c)(3) wing of Spyre, which is accepting tax-deductible donations. 

“The universities you give to – really any school – it’s a tax-deductible gift,” Clawson said. “And so we needed to be able to have that same option. There’s so much negative stigma around NIL, we thought, ‘Man, it’d be great if we could partner with nonprofits and foundations, not just in Knoxville, but across our entire state.’

Spyre has been open about its goal of raising at least $25 million annually to put into the pockets of athletes. Baddour said the Vol Club has already added 100 members since the Alabama win. Plus, his staff is reaching out to all donors in all major markets this week. 

“College football’s a multi-billion dollar business,” he said. “And just with football, winning matters. And winning is important because it can generate millions of dollars for not just the athletic department but for the entire academic community. In addition, it has a direct impact on the bottom line of businesses all across the state of Tennessee. And it comes down to players. The players win the games. And that’s just the reality.”

Preparing for the Transfer Portal

The NCAA approved 60 days throughout the calendar year when athletes are able to enter the Transfer Portal back in August. The changes went into effect for this college football season. That means players are allowed to enter the portal for 45 days beginning the day after the College Football Playoff field is announced. The final 15 days will go from May 1 to May 15. 

Basically, Baddour and Clawson have 47 days until Selection Sunday to make sure Tennessee players have had their NIL wants and needs to be fulfilled. Stories ran rampant last offseason of the cash athletes were offered to just enter the portal.

The NCAA has yet to put any type of consequences into action, only releasing guidance around the role of collectives in recruiting. Nothing is stopping collectives from taking out the checkbook. Spyre is well aware of the target Tennessee players will have, especially if the Volunteers secure a CFP berth. 

“With success comes the reality that we’ve got some really good players on this football team,” Baddour said. “They’ve put themselves in a position that they’re going to have options in terms of the portal. That’s just the reality that we’re in. And so we have to keep the foot on the gas from a fundraising standpoint. It’s critical that everybody steps up and realizes that we have a great thing going, and we can keep it going. 

“But in the NIL world, it’s going to require a significant amount of cash.”

The same goes for winning in recruiting. Tennessee currently has the fifth-ranked class in the SEC and 15th nationally, per the On3 Consensus team rankings. Both are a bump up from where the Vols stood before Heupel came to Knoxville. 

Securing NIL deals now for athletes will show recruits what opportunities they will have at Tennessee, Baddour said. Recruits talk to each other about a variety of things in their recruitment, including NIL. An On3 exclusive survey from 85 of the top high school football prospects in the country showed 64.7% of the recruits say they talk with other prospects about NIL deals. Plus, 38.2% of the recruits said they are even comparing NIL offers with other players they talk with.

“When these recruits get on campus, they’re going to ask players, what is the NIL environment here?” Baddour said. “What kind of deals have you got? And if the answer is not a good one, that’s a problem. The more deals we can do for current players on the team, that is how we can best impact prospective student-athletes.”

The future of Tennessee football, NIL

When Baddour helped found Spyre Sports back in August 2020, the NIL Era had not officially begun. California Senate Bill 206 had been signed back in 2019. The NCAA’s stranglehold on athlete’s rights was slowly loosening. The Alston decision was months away. Tennessee would go on to finish 3-7 in what would turn out to be the final season of the Jeremy Pruitt era. 

How things have changed. 

On Saturday night, cigar smoke wafted above the Tennessee River. Field goalposts were torn down. Dixieland Delight, which is by the band Alabama, bounced from corner to corner of Neyland Stadium. 

It’s that moment Baddour will remember for years to come. But the last thing he wants is to reflect on it as a standalone event. He wants to smoke cigars year in and year out. 

Making sure Spyre Sports Group continues to deliver NIL opportunities to athletes is a must. And Saturday provided a glimpse of what Rocky Top can be.

“When you combine elite coaching with players making plays with a strong NIL program that includes powerful and enthusiastic donors and a rabid fan base – it’s a perfect storm, really, for Tennessee,” he said. “The sleeping giant just woke up.”