Game of thrones? UT’s cast not that smart

Incompetence is king of this Hill

Friday, December 08, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 49

Phil Fulmer, who in 1998 coached the Vols to their only consensus national title since 1951, was installed as athletic director last week after AD John Currie was suspended following a bizarre week.

-- Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

When he was president of the University of Tennessee in 1959-70, Andy Holt often referred to the Vols athletics program, and particularly its football program, as “the front porch of the university.”

These days, that front porch is a mess. Smokey is hiding under the steps.

Thanks to the total mismanagement of the search for a new football coach, UT is the biggest story in college sports for all the wrong reasons. Others that play in the big leagues should view this as a cautionary tale of what can happen when poor leadership and lousy planning intersect.

It’s bad enough that the Vols just endured the first eight-loss season in school history and must now pay Butch Jones a buyout upwards of $8.25 million to go away. Worse still is the ugly residue of a flawed hiring process for Jones’ successor.

You know the highlights (lowlights?) of the story. John Currie wanted to hire Greg Schiano and the two actually agreed to terms before all hell broke loose. What followed is a blur of job offers and rejections, a possible palace coup at the top of the athletics department and failure of the administration to take responsibility for the whole mess.

Oh, did I leave out the part about the populist fan revolt? Forgive me. It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

Over the years, there have been plenty of rough spots in the road for UT sports. That’s simply the way of the world in big-time college sports.

The old guard remembers what a mess it was when Doug Dickey left UT for Florida immediately after the Vols and Gators played in a bowl game in 1969. The ouster of John Majors, and Phillip Fulmer’s ascension in 1992, divided the fan base for a period.

Bruce Pearl’s fall from grace was unsettling on many levels. More recently, the elimination of the “Lady Vols” name and its ultimate reinstatement was an unnecessary distraction.

But this is uncharted territory. Never before have things been in such utter disarray. UT’s dirty laundry is on full display, with the national media more than happy to opine on the disaster du jour.

Just wondering: What if UT had followed through and hired Schiano? No doubt, many Vols fans still would be upset, but at least Schiano would be in the process of hiring a coaching staff and attempting to stabilize recruiting as the early signing period of Dec. 20 approaches. The page would have turned.

Presumably, Currie would have kept his job. Fulmer still would be in his part-time job as university glad-hander. People actually might be talking about Rick Barnes’ surprising basketball team instead of continuing to poke fun at all things orange.

And that’s how it would have worked at most schools. But UT is not most schools.

We won’t go through all the details of what went wrong with the aborted hiring of Schiano, who remains the defensive coordinator at Ohio State. While some continue to take the easy way out by saying their aversion to Schiano was his involvement – real or imagined – in the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal at Penn State, the bottom line is that many Vols fans don’t think he is a good enough coach.

Throw in the Penn State stuff and you have a man who just doesn’t measure up, at least in their estimation.

Never mind that UT will begin the 2018 season with its fifth coach in a decade. If you’re looking at the world through orange-colored glasses, 1998 seems like yesterday. This is supposed to be a destination job, not one that is best avoided.

One of the most interesting sidebars to the Sunday night massacre that led to the non-hiring of Schiano is the involvement of the state’s elected officials. Yes, the very same people who won’t respond to their constituents about matters such as taxes and health insurance had no problem chiming in about something that’s really important to them – the UT football coach.

Amid the tumult, UT backed down. Although Schiano and Currie had agreed to the terms of a memorandum of understanding, the deal was pulled off the table. Schiano never even got to see how he would look in an orange tie for his press conference.

Over the next few days, Currie went from coach to coach, desperately attempting to make a hire. David Cutcliffe of Duke, who was offensive coordinator at UT under Fulmer on two separate occasions, turned the job down. So did Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State. Ditto for Jeff Brohm of Purdue and Dave Doeren of North Carolina State.

It was a job nobody would touch. Granted, Gundy has a good gig at Oklahoma State, his alma mater, but it’s a sign of the apocalypse when Tennessee gets turned down by guys from Duke, Purdue and North Carolina State.

Meanwhile, Currie was dead man walking. Chants of “Fire Currie!” erupted during a basketball game. Critics emboldened by the anonymity afforded by social media were relentless.

In situations like this, you must think outside the box. And believe me, there’s nobody in college football that operates as far outside the box as Mike Leach. Maybe that’s why Currie flew to Los Angeles to discuss things with Leach, the coach at Washington State. Indeed, Currie appeared close to striking a deal with Leach before things took yet another stunning turn.

Currie was called home by his superiors. We’ll never know exactly how things went down, but we do know that in short order Currie was dismissed and Fulmer was installed as athletics director.

And that is the most compelling development of this intercollegiate soap opera. Nine years ago, when he was second in command to Mike Hamilton in the UT athletics department, Currie spent considerable time and effort going to big-time boosters and some members of the media sowing the seeds of change. He gauged what the response might be if Fulmer, then the football coach, were to be fired, which he ultimately was.

It’s the kind of thing somebody like Fulmer doesn’t forget. Would you?

The Fulmer-for-Currie swap is one of the reasons some in the media have compared this to Game of Thrones, where leaders are constantly under siege by those who make calculated moves in their pursuit of power. Think of it as a giant chess game, albeit with seven-figure buyouts for those who are overthrown.

It’s an interesting theory, this idea that those in power can be weakened or eliminated entirely with a few ruthless backdoor moves.

But I’ve got news for you: These people aren’t that smart. UT finds itself where it is because of its own incompetence, not some fantasy land of espionage and throat-cutting.

Still, we’re talking about sports here so there are winners and losers. Fulmer is the biggest winner, at least for the time being. If nothing else, he now gets the chance to go out on his own terms, which certainly wasn’t the case in 2008.

Currie is among the losers, although it’s hard to summon up much sympathy for a man who stands to be paid $5.4 million after serving just eight months of a six-year contract.

It’s also safe to say Jimmy Haslam took a hit. He’ll still have some clout because of the Haslam family fortune and past gifts to the university, but Haslam’s heavy-handed role in the attempt to hire Schiano will reduce his influence over the longer haul.

Likewise, golden boy Peyton Manning lost a little altitude in the eyes of some. He worked the phones to former players in an effort to drum up support for Schiano. Some now see him aligned with Haslam, which is an unpopular position. Even so, it’s hard to see Manning being left off the invitation list for the next major event in Knoxville.

But the greatest damage has been done to those at the top of the university administration, beginning but not ending with Beverly Davenport, the UT Knoxville chancellor. All in all, the profound lack of leadership is appalling – and embarrassing. Nobody took ownership.

The whole ugly mess could have been avoided with proper planning, execution and communication. That didn’t happen. And the front porch is a mess.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.