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VOL. 41 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 08, 2017

Pay for no play: UT paying millions to former coaches

Updated 9:54AM
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Tennessee’s bungled search for a football coach will come at a cost for the university. A big cost.

There are buyouts everywhere. A potential lawsuit looms. And a rift between boosters caused by the botched search may be the costliest item of all for the university long term.

When former UT athletics director John Currie fired football coach Butch Jones on Nov. 12, he had no idea how the coaching search would unravel and cost him his job. Currie was suspended Dec. 1 after a bizarre sequence of chasing coaches and being turned down.

Now, Tennessee not only owes Jones and his assistant coaches buyouts, but also a potential buyout for Currie.

Those buyouts for Jones, his staff and Currie could cost UT more than $18.1 million – and that’s before the university even pays a new football coach and staff and starts paying new athletics director Phillip Fulmer his $575,000 annual salary.

Jones and his staff are expected to receive a $13 million buyout with $8.2 million of that going to Jones. Those buyouts will be mitigated if Jones and his assistants land comparable jobs.

Currie, who began his job as UT’s athletics director, ironically, on April 1, is still owed about $5.1 million for the remaining time on his five-year contract. The caveat to that $5.1 million cost is if Tennessee proves it can fire Currie with cause. If not, UT will be on the hook for Currie’s $5.1 million, plus potential parting fees for Currie’s assistants not retained by Fulmer.

Tennessee also might be facing a big-money ticket if Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano decides to pursue litigation against the university after Currie signed, as reported, a memorandum of understanding with him to be UT’s next coach.

Currie’s offer was pulled Nov. 26 amid an uproar by the Tennessee fans, former players and politicians against the hiring of Schiano for his possible knowledge of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. At issue is whether an MOU signed by Currie but not by UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport is legally binding.

Jones was the second UT coach fired by Currie. He fired men’s tennis coach Sam Winterbotham in early May. Winterbotham’s buyout is $181,873 for the year remaining on his contract, and the ex-tennis coach appears ready to collect it all. He’s now selling real estate in Knoxville and the area.

Currie didn’t need to fire former baseball coach Dave Serrano or pay a buyout. Serrano was on the last year of his contract when he resigned in May.

Of course, Winterbotham’s buyout is chump change for Tennessee, so long as the mega-booster Haslam family is on board. The Haslams are a Tennessee gravy train that might have derailed last week.

Currie was an assistant AD at Tennessee under Mike Hamilton in 2008 when Fulmer was fired as head football coach. The Haslams appeared to be on the Hamilton/Currie side, unable to save Fulmer’s job, up against Fulmer and big booster John “Thunder” Thornton.

After Jones was fired, Currie was in charge of the search, but flanked by Cleveland Browns owner/Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam and former Vol and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.

Fulmer, who was in the running against Currie to be Tennessee’s athletics director early this year, was hired in June as special advisor to the UT president for community, athletics and university relations, a part-time job that paid Fulmer $100,000 a year.

Fulmer’s role in “helping” Currie in the coaching search apparently was minimal – unless you believe national reports Fulmer was undermining Currie’s search.

It’s believed Reid Sigmon was a top candidate to replace Currie. Currie hired Sigmon as his executive athletics director and chief operating officer at Tennessee. Sigmon worked at Kansas State from 2009-13 when Currie was athletic director there and worked for the Cleveland Browns from 2005-07. He and Currie are both graduates of Wake Forest.

Yet Fulmer had the backing of booster Charlie Anderson for the AD job when Currie was suspended, while Currie surely wanted Sigmon to get his old job. If Jimmy Haslam wanted Sigmon to be the next AD, which has been speculated, Tennessee will have rubbed its biggest boosters the wrong way.

Manning may be aligned with Haslam, too. If Peyton wants to get his foot in NFL minority ownership, Haslam and the Browns are his obvious ticket.

Tennessee better hope the Haslams and Manning warm up to Fulmer getting the AD job if they weren’t already for it. If not, UT could lose its greatest ambassador and its biggest boosters, thanks to Currie’s botched coaching search.

And that eventually will cost the university a whole lot more than all the buyouts.

Looking ahead, back on 2017

As Fulmer and UT finds its new football coach, the Ledger takes a look at the 2017 season, the players returning, the players leaving, and the 2018 commitments. Tennessee (4-8, 0-8 SEC) posted its first eight-loss season and winless SEC season in program history.

Quarterbacks (D+)

(173.7 passing yards per game, 12th in SEC, 106th in nation)

Tennessee’s next coaching staff should have three quarterbacks with starting experience returning in 2018, assuming there are no transfers.

Junior Quinten Dormady started the first five games and played in the sixth game against South Carolina before having shoulder surgery in late October. Dormady only played two full games he started.

Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano took over as the starter for the Oct. 21 loss at Alabama, started the next four games and hurt his ankle in the Nov. 4 win over Southern Miss. He was replaced during the Southern Miss game by true freshman Will McBride, who started the next game, an Oct. 11 loss at Missouri.

McBride, however, was hurt during the Missouri game, and Guarantano was back for the Nov. 18 loss to LSU, Brady Hoke’s debut as interim head coach, and started the Vanderbilt game.

For the season, Dormady (six games) completed 55.5 percent of his passes for 925 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions. Guarantano (nine games) completed 61.9 percent for 997 yards with four TDs and two interceptions. McBride (two games) completed 42.5 percent for 152 yards with one TD and two interceptions.

Dormady, who has not redshirted, appears the most likely quarterback to transfer.

Tennessee has two quarterbacks committed for the 2018 class: four-star dual-threat Adrian Martinez of Fresno, California, and three-star pro-style Michael Penix of Tampa. Martinez said last week he “is not 100 percent” committed to UT, while Penix says he remains committed “right now.”

Running backs (C-)

(117.4 rushing yards per game, 13th in SEC, 114th in nation)

Don’t blame Tennessee’s running backs for the bad rushing game in 2017. It’s on the injury-riddled offensive line.

Here’s the big question moving forward: Will John Kelly return for his senior season or opt for the NFL?

Kelly, of Oak Park High in Detroit, showed his toughness but also an attitude in 2016 – like giving Florida fans the double bird after scoring a touchdown in the Sept. 16 loss – while leading the Vols in rushing with 778 yards, nine touchdowns and a 4.1-yard averages. Once leaning toward forgoing his senior season, Kelly may reconsider after a slow second half of the season and a citation for misdemeanor marijuana possession in early November that may hurt his 2018 draft stock.

Tennessee’s next-best returning back is true freshman Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy, who rushed for 305 yards and two TDs with a 4.3-yard average. Like Kelly, Chandler has the ability to break tackles but has more breakaway speed than Kelly.

Also returning are true sophomore Carlin Fils-aime (215 yards, two TDs, 6.9 average) and true freshman Tim Jordan (52 yards, no TDs, 4.7 average).

UT’s only running backs commitment for 2018 is three-star Anthony Grant of Buford (Georgia) High. He’s rated the No. 21 running back in the nation and No. 43 prospect in Georgia by 247Sports.

Wide receivers/tight ends (D)

Like the offensive line group, Tennessee’s wide receivers never gained traction after their top player, junior Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High, sustained a season-ending wrist injury in the season opening win over Georgia Tech.

Now, Jennings’ future with the Vols is bleak at best after he was dismissed from the team by Hoke for a profanity-laced Instagram rant about Tennessee’s coaches on Nov. 22. WNML’s Jimmy Hyams reported sources telling him Jennings stormed out of practice Nov. 22 after being told he wouldn’t be allowed to practice at quarterback. He then posted the Instagram about UT’s coaches.

There’s a debate whether UT’s new coaching staff would consider reinstating Jennings – or if Fulmer would even consider it.

Jennings wasn’t the only wide receiver lost to injury for the season, joined by true freshman Jacques Jones, redshirt freshman Latrell Williams and senior Josh Smith.

Tennessee’s next team returns its top two receivers from 2017 in sophomores Marquez Callaway (24 catches, 406 yards, five TDs) and Brandon Johnson (37 catches, 482 yards, one TD). Also returning are freshmen Josh Palmer (nine catches, 98 yards) and sophomore Tyler Byrd (three catches, 27 yards, one TD). Smith (five catches, 43 yards) and Jeff George (nine catches 180 yards, one TD) were the only senior receivers in 2017.

However, the Vols’ lose their top tight end in senior Ethan Wolf (24 catches, 246 yards, three TDs) and their best blocking tight end in senior Jakob Johnson (one catch, 13 yards). Redshirt sophomore Eli Wolf (three catches, 48 yards), younger brother of Ethan Wolf, returns along with redshirt sophomore Austin Pope, (two catches, 9 yards).

Tennessee’s lone receiver/tight end commitment for the 2018 class is three-star Jacob Warren of Knoxville Farragut High.

Offensive line (F)

(291.1 total yards per game, 14th in SEC, 124th in nation)

(19.8 points per game, 14th SEC, tie-116th in nation)

No position group was more impacted by injuries than the offensive line, which was cause for its poor showing this year.

Tennessee’s offensive line entered preseason practice with the most game-experienced unit among Power 5 programs with a combined 111 starts between returning players.

However, the Vols ended the Nov. 18 loss to LSU with only four scholarship linemen available after senior center/guard Jashon Robertson left the game. UT finished the LSU game with redshirt freshman Ryan Johnson at center, true freshman Trey Smith at left guard, redshirt freshman Devante Brooks at left tackle, true freshman Riley Locklear at right guard and redshirt freshman sophomore Joe Keeler at right tackle.

Brooks and Johnson didn’t play until the ninth game of the season against Southern Miss. Keeler didn’t play until the 10th game against LSU.

Tennessee started eight different offensive line combinations this season due to injuries.

Smith, a January enrollee from University School of Jackson, is the only UT lineman to start every game this season. UT’s new coach will rebuild the line around Smith; redshirt sophomore Drew Richmond, who missed the last four games with a head injury (concussion); and junior Chance Hall, who missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury.

Seniors who played significant roles this season were center/guard Coleman Thomas, Robertson and guard/tackle Brett Kendrick of Christian Academy of Knoxville. Junior lineman Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland High suffered a career-ending neck injury earlier in 2017 and redshirt sophomore Venzell Boulware of Union City, Georgia/Creekside High quit the team.

Offensive line commitments in the 2018 class are three-star Tanner Antonutti of Ensworth High in Nashville and three-star Ollie Lane of Knoxville Gibbs High. Trey Smith is a rare exception of an impact player on the offensive line as a true freshman.

Defensive line (D)

(251.3 rushing yards allowed per game, 14th in SEC, 125th in nation)

Why not an F? Tennessee’s front six (or seven) was left on the field far too long, victimized by a poor offense.

Fifth-year senior tackle Kendal Vickers played his final game against Vanderbilt and holds the distinction of the only position player to have started every game for two seasons.

Junior Kahlil McKenzie started the first seven games at tackle before being replaced by junior Shy Tuttle, who played in 10 games (four starts). Tuttle was hampered by a knee injury from 2016.

UT’s new coach inherits three starting ends in redshirt junior Jonathan Kongbo, redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor and junior Kyle Phillips. Kongbo served a one-game team suspension this year and Taylor a three-game suspension.

Vickers is the only senior on this year’s defensive line group. Others who played significant roles and return next year are freshman Deandre Johnson, redshirt junior Alexis Johnson, and junior Quay Picou, who missed four games this year due to injury.

Tennessee’s 2018 commitments at defensive line/end are four-star Greg Emerson of North Side High in Jackson, Tennessee; four-star D’Andre Litaker of Murfreesboro Riverdale High; four-star Brant Lawless of Nashville Christian School; and three-star Jamarcus Chatman of Rome (Georgia) High. Three-star Dorian Gerald of College of the Canyons (Valencia, California) is considered a “soft” commitment as a JUCO transfer.

Linebackers (C-)

(412.9 yards allowed per game, 10th in SEC, 81st in nation)

(29.1 points allowed per game, 10th in SEC, 83rd in nation)

UT’s defense took the worst hit before the season started when junior middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. – the team’s top returning defender at the most crucial of positions – suffered a knee injury in preseason and didn’t return.

It continued when redshirt sophomore Austin Smith, a backup outside linebacker, sustained an undisclosed injury in preseason and missed six games, and the situation worsened when starting outside linebacker Cortez McDowell, a senior, was injured in the loss to Florida and missed the last nine games of the season.

The return of Kirkland and Smith will bolster Tennessee’s chances of an improved defense in 2018. In their absences, sophomore Daniel Bituli of Nashville Christian emerged as the team’s leading tackler. Bituli started the first two games at strong-side linebacker when the Vols were in their 4-3 defense, and he split starts with senior Colton Jumper the rest of the season at middle linebacker.

When McDowell was injured, redshirt sophomore Quart’e Sapp took over as the starter at “will” linebacker.

Bituli led the Vols in tackles (90, 3.0 TFLs), while Sapp was fourth (78 tackles, 4.0 TFLs) and Jumper sixth (55 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks).

UT’s linebacker corps loses McDowell, Jumper, and senior Elliott Berry (24 tackles). True freshman Shanon Reid played in six games (one tackle) and could see more action in 2018.

Tennessee’s only linebacker commitment for the 2018 class is three-star Matthew Flint of Madison County High in Gurley, Alabama.

Secondary (C)

(161.7 passing yards allowed per game, second in SEC, sixth in nation)

UT’s starting secondary remained intact for almost the entire season, although backup safety and 2016 starter Todd Kelly Jr. played in only two games before having season-ending knee surgery.

Kelly has indicated he’d like to return for a fifth-year senior season in 2018.

Tennessee’s starting secondary for the 2017 season had redshirt junior Rashaan Gaulden at nickel back, senior Emmanuel Moseley at boundary cornerback, senior Justin Martin at field cornerback, junior Micah Abernathy at free safety, and sophomore Nigel Warrior at strong safety.

Warrior, son of former UT All-American Dale Carter, was Tennessee’s second-leading tackler (83, 3.0 TFLs, one sack, one interception) with Abernathy third (81 tackles, one TFL), Gaulden fifth (65, 3.5 TFLs) and Moseley eighth (38, 2.0 TFLs, one interception).

True freshman Shawn Shamburger of Colquitt County High in Moultrie, Georgia, made a strong push for playing time late in the season, started in the loss to Alabama, and finished with 19 tackles, one tackle for loss, and a sack.

Tennessee’s next coaching staff may be without Gaulden, who might opt for the 2018 NFL Draft, but can build a secondary around Abernathy and Warrior.

UT’s secondary commitments for the 2018 class are four-star cornerback Jaycee Horn of Alpharetta (Georgia) High; four-star safety Trey Dean of Dutchtown High and Hampton, Georgia; three-star cornerback Brandon Cross of Jones High in Orlando; and three-star cornerback Tanner Ingle of Orlando.

Special teams (B)

Tennessee loses starting punter Trevor Daniel, a senior who tied for second in the nation in punting average (47.5 yards) with Florida’s Tommy Townsend. Daniel is a former walk-on from Dickson County.

Also gone is senior place-kicker Aaron Medley, who started his first three seasons but was replaced by true freshman Brent Cimaglia of Page High in Franklin, for much of 2017. Medley was used for short-range field goals with Cimaglia from 40 or more.

Chandler returns after averaging 24.5 yards on 17 kickoff returns, including one for a TD. Callaway, UT’s top punt returner, also is back after averaging 8.4 yards on 13 punt returns.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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