Peyton Manning Priceless to Vols

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Peyton Manning means more than touchdowns to Tennessee. Much more.

The senior quarterback's name routinely appears in sports pages across the country and is mentioned on virtually every college football show and in any analysis of the upcoming NFL draft.

And when he is mentioned, so is the school.

"The real value of Peyton Manning is in the sheer publicity that he generates," says George Korda, a Knoxville media and political analyst who's seen nothing like Manning before at the school.

What's it worth?

"Millions," says Susan Richardson-Williams, a UT trustee who's worked in politics, government and for the Tennessee Lady Vols.

"You cannot buy it," UT President Joe Johnson says.

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Manning autographs 500 photos and other memorabilia every week from fans around the country. More than 150 requests for personal appearances are pending in the football office.

To many Volunteer fans--as well the people who run the university--Manning doesn't need to win the Heisman Trophy for validation. He already has become legend by eschewing the riches of the NFL for one last season of college football.

He also has distinguished himself otherwise, from reading to children in public schools to buying pizzas for students waiting on line for football tickets to leading the UT band after a victory over Alabama.

And even the out-of-character "mooning incident," in which Manning's bare backside became the focal point of a sexual harassment complaint against UT filed by female trainer Jamie Whited, didn't hurt his popularity.

"I don't know of anybody, certainly in recent history, who has had this combination of poise, gentlemanliness, intellectual ability, commitment to an institution, absence of selfishness, combined with being a stellar athlete," Johnson says.

"That is just an uncanny combination of traits that sort of put him in a truly unique category. Peyton is just an exemplary representative of a truly outstanding student who just happens to be a truly outstanding athlete."

Manning has rewritten Tennessee's record book. He holds the school record for touchdown passes (76), passing yards (9,882) and completion percentage (62.8).

He's 35-5 as a starter and can win his first SEC East title if the No. 8 Volunteers win their final two league games.

Despite the records and accolades, Manning remains remarkably humble,

And he is devoted to UT.

"Life is about choices," he says in a TV commercial for the school. "You ask the questions and you listen to the answers. And then you listen to your heart."

That's why he selected Tennessee over Mississippi, his dad Archie's alma mater. And that's why he decided to return for his senior season, though he already had graduated with honors as a speech communications major and the NFL beckoned.

"I believe I chose well," he says.

Manning laughs about the ad that shows him walking the Knoxville campus alone, carrying a bookbag instead of a football to Neyland Stadium to reflect and read among 106,000 empty seats. "Like I do that all the time," he chuckles.

But he likes the way it came out; he likes the message.

"It is something I've kind of wanted to be--an ambassador for the University of Tennessee. You know, a guy who represents, hopefully, what a student-athlete should be--with academics coming first and football coming after that," he says.

Gov. Don Sundquist, who chairs the UT Board of Trustees, says Manning "has been a good ambassador not only for the University of Tennessee but for the entire state."

NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro says Manning has transcended Tennessee and become "a spokesman for college athletics."

Manning filmed an ad for the NCAA with his father, who played quarterback for the New Orleans Saints after a storied career at Ole Miss. In it, they discuss the value of a college experience.

He also is featured in a video with former Wake Forest basketball star Tim Duncan, who also stayed for his senior year. The video, in which Manning and Duncan talk about leadership, plays every half hour at the NCAA's Hall of Champions in Overland Park, Kan.

Jeff Hiller, the hall's senior assistant director, says it wasn't the video's focus but "the fact that he did stay in school . . . these are the messages that we are trying to get to the kids and the adults that come through our facility."

"I think a lot of people around the country look up to him definitely as a positive role model," Hiller says.

UT and its athletic department take in about $2.5 million a year from licensing UT's image, including Manning's No. 16 jersey, hundreds of which are worn by fans at home games.

No one can give a breakdown for Manning's financial impact on the school, but it is considerable. It's also unclear whether Manning's academic prowess has encouraged smarter students to apply at UT.

But the past three freshmen classes were among the brightest ever.

Admissions Dean Gordon Stanley won't give Manning credit for that. But he acknowledges Manning's influence doesn't hurt.

"I think Peyton's success here has simply shed a positive light on the university in general," he says. "And it makes our job easier."

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