ORLANDO, Fla. — A UCF fan tweeted out a video earlier this week of former WWE wrestler Goldberg’s iconic ring entrance in which the sculpted professional wrestler marches toward the squared circle with fans cheering and music blaring. And as he emerges from the smoke and pyrotechnics onto the runway, Goldberg punches and kicks the air, scowling, growling and flexing his bulging muscles.
The caption underneath the video: “Danny White makes his return to Orlando.”
The caption, of course, was making reference to current Tennessee and former UCF athletic director Danny White, who made his triumphant homecoming to Orlando this weekend to watch his fourth-seeded Vols advance to the Sweet 16 Sunday by dismantling fifth-seeded Duke 65-52 at Amway Center. White, who made a name for himself as one of the most innovative ADs in the country while in Orlando, has used nearly the exact same strategic plan at UT as he used at UCF to instantly revitalize a dilapidated, downtrodden athletic program in Knoxville.
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When I asked Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes to describe the impact White has made in transforming the Vols, he beamed and said, “That would probably take all afternoon to tell you everything that he and his staff have done. It’s been an incredible turnaround. … And it’s happened quicker than we all could have imagined.”
Has it happened even quicker than White himself could have imagined?
“Maybe I should have been more confident,” he replied. “If you would have asked me that same question five years ago at UCF [after former coach Scott Frost’s 2017 football team went unbeaten in his second season], I would have had to say, ‘Yes,’ because I don’t know how we could have expected it to happen that quickly. It’s the same here at UT. We built a really aggressive five-year strategic plan and we surpassed many of those goals in the first year.”
It certainly isn’t a stretch to say White had a much tougher resurrection project in Tennessee than he had at UCF. Yes, the Knights’ football team was 0-12 the year before White arrived, but the overall program was in good standing ethically, morally, academically and athletically.
At Tennessee, White stepped into a program that had been down for more than a decade and in disarray. The football team had just completed its worst record (3-7) in more than 100 years and former coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired for a long rap sheet of NCAA recruiting violations. Embarrassingly, even Pruitt’s wife Casey was cited by the NCAA for making illicit cash payments to recruits and their families.
White, ripping a page from his UCF game plan, immediately hired Knights coach Josh Heupel — a football coach whom he knew would help ease the misery by putting an exciting and high-scoring offense on the field. It was the same strategy White used at UCF when he hired Frost to replace George O’Leary.
“Fans better buckle their seatbelts because we’re going to punch the accelerator and go fast around here,” Frost said when he was hired.
Likewise, Heupel had a similar message for beleaguered UT fans at his introductory media conference.
“We’re going to be the aggressor,” he said.
The Vols went 7-6 with the No. 7 offense in the country during Heupel’s first year and then last season took the SEC by storm with an 11-2 record, the No. 1 offense in all of college football and a monumental victory over then-No. 1-ranked Alabama.
“I remember thinking during Josh’s first year [at UT],” White said, ‘‘ ‘Why are the fans so surprised we’re scoring so many points and compiling so many yards? This is what Josh Heupel does.’ Obviously, Josh has over-delivered in two years.”
Consequently, the Vols sold 17,000 more season tickets after Heupel’s first season and this season White expects to sell out the season-ticket allotment of nearly 70,000 at 102,000-seat Neyland Stadium.
It should come as no surprise that White’s business and marketing plan is also similar to the one he implemented at UCF when he tapped into Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins’ expertise. When White came to UCF, he believed then and still does that college programs have lagged behind professional franchises from a business and marketing standpoint.
“I think college athletics needs to catch up with pro sports in terms of how we interact with the market,” White said. “I think more college athletic programs need to look like NBA and NFL front offices. Alex really helped me out a ton in that regard.”
It’s no wonder White has become the highest-paid athletic director in the Southeastern Conference with an annual salary of $2.2 million. The Vols just claimed the SEC all-sports trophy for the first time in school history, fund-raising is at an all-time high and the Vols are in the middle of a $300 million expansion of their football stadium and a $100 million reconstruction of their baseball stadium.
Not only is White standing at the pinnacle of his career up on Rocky Top, he is simultaneously celebrating the successes he helped make possible at UCF. He admits he stills roots for the Knights “with reckless abandon” and was “overjoyed” when UCF was invited into the Big 12.
And let’s also remember, it was White’s lone voice howling in the wind about the inequity of a four-team College Football Playoff. White’s aggressive attacks on the elitism of college football helped raise awareness that the field needed to be expanded. Back in 2017, White loudly lobbied for playoff expansion because he felt Group of 5 programs should have a legitimate pathway into the field, but now he’s just happy everybody will have more access into the playoff when the 12-team tournament format begins in 2024.
“Obviously, a lot of things have changed and I’m on a different side of the conversation now that I’m at Tennessee versus when I was at UCF,” White said. “But what hasn’t changed is my advocacy for an expanded playoff and access to the playoff. This is going to be great for college football with more compelling games, more compelling conference championship races and obviously a more compelling postseason. I can’t wait!”
Who knows, maybe Tennessee will be playing UCF in the championship game of that inaugural 12-team playoff in two years.
If it happens, let us hope Danny White choreographs an entrance that would make Goldberg himself proud.