Tennessee’s football search claims another casualty

Fulmer named athletic director

Friday, December 01, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 48

Tennessee Athletic Director John Currie

-- Photo By Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire Via Ap Images

Tennessee football isn’t what it used to be. Nor is the attraction of being UT’s football coach. It became more and more apparent this week as now-"suspended" UT athletics director John Currie tried to hire his first football coach as an AD.

Currie made Tennessee fans wait for weeks before firing fifth-year coach Butch Jones about 12 hours after the 50-17 loss at Missouri on Nov. 11. At the time, UT had a 4-6 record and was 0-6 in the SEC.

Tennessee lost its last two games against LSU and Vanderbilt under interim head coach Brady Hoke. The Vols finished with an eight-loss season and winless in the SEC for the first time in program history.

Many thought the program, which has a 62-63 record over the 10 years and hasn’t had a season of two or fewer losses since 2001, had hit rock bottom. But a new low arrived Sunday when Currie offered Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano the job.

An additional low point was added Tuesday night when Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy turned down a reported six-year, $42 million offer from UT. That $7 million per year would have been $2.8 million more than he makes annually at Oklahoma State after signing a new contract in June. Jones made $4.11 million per year.

A deal with Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, formerly of Western Kentucky, fell through on Wednesday.

Late-week failures included North Carolina State's Dave Doeren and Washington State's Mike Leach. Former Texas A&M coach Mike Sumlin also was said to be in the mix.

A new basement was dug Friday morning when Currie was "suspended" as athletic director after eight months on the job and replaced by former football coach Phil Fulmer, who has most recently been employed by the university on a part-time basis as special adviser for community, athletics and university relations.

How did the craziest week in UT sports history go down?

On Sunday, part of Vol Nation went ballistic on social media over the thought of Schiano being the Vols’ coach. State politicians and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee denounced the potential hire on social media. There were protests on campus against Schiano, and security was called to the Tennessee athletic center for crowd control.

Why? Because of Schiano’s alleged knowledge of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State while Schiano was working there from 1991-95, something all involved seem to be denying.

All the uproar caused negotiations between Currie and Schiano to end Sunday night. Currie’s search continued Monday with more pressure than ever to make the right hire. Not an easy task for a UT program that has lost four of its last six games against Vanderbilt and is coming off a historically bad season.

Now the anger of fans and former players that was laser-focused on Jones just a few short weeks ago has shifted to Currie, and nothing short of a home run hire is likely to soothe the orange-clad masses.

“I think (the UT job) has naturally lost some of its luster since they haven’t been in the SEC championship game since 2007,” says Scott McMahan, a co-host of “SportTalk” on WGOW radio (102.3 FM) in Chattanooga. “I think that plays a little bit of a role into it. Also, I think you can’t discount the fact that Florida and UCLA, jobs like that came available.

“Frankly, Nebraska might not be the most attractive job, but the fact that (Central Florida coach) Scott Frost was an alum, you would assume that carries a lot of weight as far as he goes (in Nebraska’s search). I would think UCLA is more of a comparable job to Tennessee, but the fact that (Chip) Kelly was a West Coast guy, I think steered him that way.”

McMahan, who has worked in the Chattanooga radio market for 27 years, adds Currie might have another hurdle to clear in the hiring process: Currie himself. He spent eight years as Kansas State’s athletic director before returning to Tennessee where he previously worked.

“I don’t mean to say this to be some sort of an antagonist, but it really makes me wonder about the rumored relationship between (Kansas State football coach) Bill Snyder and John Currie when he was at K-State,” McMahan says.

“Maybe that’s getting around the coaches’ circles, too, that Currie’s hard to work with, or Currie doesn’t let you kind of run your own program. I don’t know what the questions would be, but I’m sure you saw all the stories when Currie was hired (at Tennessee) about maybe having some issues with Bill Snyder.

“He [Currie] was on our show and spoke about it and basically denied that there were any issues, but other people say differently. I just think he’s in a tough spot here, and also, the fact that he wanted it to be his sole focus and not using a search firm (for the hire).

“And a lot of times athletic directors can hide a little bit behind the search firm and say, ‘We pay them this kind of money and they do the due diligence on everybody and produce a hire,’ and (Currie) wasn’t going to go about it that way, which I admire. But I don’t know if it’s the best situation for the University of Tennessee.”

Instead, Currie has conducted a clandestine coaching search. Secrecy is of utmost importance. It’s been that way since the start, when Currie should have squelched rumors of Jon Gruden possibly being Tennessee’s next coach.

As Kelly was hired by UCLA, and then Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen left for Florida’s vacant job on Sunday, Currie’s search resumed under tight security.

“It looks like a guy that (who has) had SEC experience – that’s probably not a possibility,” McMahan explains. “You’re probably looking now at a guy like (Memphis coach) Mike Norvell. But I’m thinking you’re going to have to go hire a guy much like Butch Jones now, who was a head coach at not a Power 5 school, but yet a head coach at the Division I, FBS level.”

McMahan adds the fans’ angst over the coaching search doesn’t just exist in Knoxville.

“I think it’s just as crazy of a feeling for the whole Tennessee fan base, whether you live in Jackson, Tennessee or Athens, Tennessee,” McMahan points out. “It’s the same feeling of ‘We want a better product. Now what’s the recipe to get it?’ I don’t think anybody knows what ingredients we need to order.”

Dustin Dopirak, a freelance writer in Pittsburgh who covered Tennessee football for the Knoxville News Sentinel for two seasons (2014-15), notes Currie shouldn’t have had Schiano as a candidate simply from a public relations standpoint.

“It’s such a self-inflicted wound,” Dopirak adds. “There’s a whole bunch of guys who are just as qualified who maybe have closer connections to the Southeast than Schiano does.

“There’s nothing that compelled you to do this (interview Schiano), that compelled you to get yourself involved in something that’s, frankly, beyond you. It’s bigger than you, and you’re not going to be able to figure out what really happened (in the Sandusky scandal). You’re never going to have answers to that. You can say you vetted him, but you weren’t there in 1991.

“You have no idea what happened, and one way or another, you know full well that people are going to take some of that stuff as gospel, and they’re going to be upset about it, so why would you even open up the possibility of this?’’ Dopirak asks.

“You’re not going to be able to control that. You’ve asked for this set of problems. So, now that you’ve done that, and now that other coaches see that you’re willing, number one, to ask for your own set of problems, and number two, then when everybody freaks out about it, then you pull back an offer.

“You go as far as making an offer and you’re basically signing the papers, and then you realize people are going to be mad, and then you pull back. That makes so many people say you’re going back on your word, and you make decisions obviously without a whole heck of a lot of conviction behind it, so basically it makes you wonder a lot about who you’re dealing with.”

Dopirak, who covered Indiana football and basketball for the Bloomington Herald-Times for five years before becoming Tennessee’s beat writer, says he believes the UT job still has plenty of appeal.

“I think it’s better than Tennessee fans that are really down on the program think it is, because I think they still have the resources,” adds Dopirak, who also currently writes about Tennessee athletics for SEC Country.

“I still think there’s talent in the area. There’s probably more talent in the state than there even used to be when they were really good. I think you can get a lot of good players there, and I think there’s the ability to do a really good job there.

“I think there were some things about Butch Jones that did not impress me very much, yet he would still get a bunch of players to Tennessee. They didn’t end up performing as well as they should have, so I think that has a lot to do with development.

“But I think if you’re a coach you can look at a lot of the things Butch Jones was able to do and say, ‘Well, I can do that and do it better.’ And I think you should feel like you can win the SEC East with everything that Tennessee has.

“The fact that it hasn’t performed as well I think obviously gives you some pause over time and makes you wonder, ‘OK, what’s gone wrong?’”

Still, Dopirak says it can be fixed, and the right coach can put Tennessee back on the football map.

“I don’t think it’s a Top 5 job,” Dopirak acknowledges. “I don’t know if it’s a Top 10 job, but at least it’s a Top 20 job, I think. For anybody who doesn’t have a Top 20 job, it’s a step up. You can make it a Top 10 job. I don’t know if it’s a Top 5 job, but you can make it a Top 10, Top 15 job, at least.

“So, I think anybody who is mid-major, or at place like Iowa State, one of those schools that is sort of not as moneyed as everybody else in their conference, a school that doesn’t have all the resources that other teams in their Power 5 conferences have, it’s a step up. Obviously, Florida was a better job for Dan Mullen, but I think Dan Mullen, if Florida wasn’t on the market, Dan Mullen would have considered (Tennessee).”

Noted Vol Historian Tom Mattingly, who worked in Tennessee’s athletics communications department from 1987-2005, says Currie can hire a rising star to rebuild the program.

“I thought (Matt) Campbell at Iowa State was a perfect fit, but the buyout was such an issue they didn’t want to have to deal with that,” Mattingly explains.

“I think a young, gray-flannel suit-type coach with some spunk to him can turn this thing around pretty quickly. I don’t know who it is yet, but it could be Jeff Brohm (Purdue’s coach). It could be any number of people.

“I’m not sure they could sell the idea of Kevin Sumlin (fired by Texas A&M on Sunday) to the fan base, but this fan base has pretty much had enough, and they need a boost of a good hire.

“I mean, (Neyland Stadium) was literally embarrassing the other night (for Vanderbilt) with the large gaps of empty seats (crowd estimates were 50,000 to 60,000), and we need somebody with some spunk and some ambitiousness and some moxie to come in and turn this thing around. I don’t see why someone can’t come in and turn it around in a couple of years. There’s some talent there.”

Tennessee’s new coach will have more than some talented athletes when he arrives. He will have some good football history, although dated.

“Historically, it’s been a great job, great fans, great stadium, great facilities,” Mattingly recounts. “Recruiting is always a challenge since Tennessee has to go further away (to recruit) than a lot of schools do.

“It’s a program that’s fallen on hard times recently, but Tennessee’s always been able to recover from hard times, whether it was a short period in the ’50s, the early part of the 1960s, the early part of the ’70s. They’ve always been able to recover from bad hires or bad decisions.”

Currie has such a recovery resting on this coaching hire. We’ll see in time if it’s a good or bad decision.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.