VOL. 41 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 10, 2017
New AD is bad news for struggling Vol coaches
As senior associate athletic director at Tennessee, John Currie led the effort to hire Bruce Pearl, Lane Kiffin and baseball coach Todd Raleigh, none of whom left the school on good terms. -- Ap Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Travis Heying, File
The hiring of John Currie as the University of Tennessee’s athletics director conveys a number of messages. One of them: Butch Jones is officially on the clock.
Based on Currie’s history at UT, as well as his eight-year track record as Kansas State’s athletics director, it’s safe to say he isn’t afraid to pull the trigger when it comes to coaches – for better or worse.
Currie was right in the middle of the decision to fire Phillip Fulmer as Vols football coach midway through the 2008 season. He was, at the time, second-in-command to Mike Hamilton. Currie made it clear he believed the Vols were headed in the wrong direction under Fulmer. And he had Hamilton’s ear.
Ultimately, it was Hamilton who made the call to fire Fulmer. But Currie had significant input. He spent considerable time selling the idea of a coaching change to big boosters and others.
Let’s be clear: I am not suggesting that Currie will arrive in Knoxville with a slash-and-burn approach when it comes to coaches. He’s a smart guy. He knows that the last thing a new athletics director should do is make wholesale changes.
At the same time, though, Currie has no built-in loyalties. The head coaches in the major sports at UT have all come aboard since Currie left for Kansas State in May 2009. He didn’t hire any of them.
In terms of Jones’ job security, the best hire would have been Fulmer. Fulmer would have empathy for the plight of an under-pressure football coach. To this day, he doesn’t believe he should have been fired in 2008.
Time and again, he has told those close to him that he would have righted the Vols ship if he had been given another year.
While that is debatable, he sincerely believes it.
Fulmer would have gone the extra mile – or two or three extra miles – with Jones. The two already have a friendly relationship. When he was hired, Jones went out of his way to make Fulmer feel welcome around the football facility and at practices.
Jones has no such background with Currie. On the plus side, though, Jones has some of the qualities that Currie wants in a football coach. He is energetic and enthusiastic. He works overtime to sell the program to fans. If he needs to help close the deal on a big contribution from a booster, Jones will hop on the plane.
On the other hand, Currie is a bottom-line AD. He is a big believer in trends. If your program is not trending upward, he wants to know why.
They say what’s past is prologue and that helps us understand what Currie covets in coaches.
In his previous time at UT, Currie was the point person in the searches that led to the hiring of Bruce Pearl as men’s basketball coach and Lane Kiffin as football coach.
Currie saw Pearl as a live-wire coach who could awaken a sleeping giant. Pearl was all that – and more. He took the Vols to six straight NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2010.
Beyond that, his style and charisma helped pack Thompson-Boling Arena before he flamed out after lying to NCAA investigators.
As for Kiffin, Currie saw him as the anti-Fulmer. He was young and brash. Although he is reviled by most Vols fans now, let’s not forget that Kiffin was a very, very popular hire at the time, in large part because he was so different from Fulmer.
To be fair, it also should be noted that Currie ran the search that resulted in the hiring of Todd Raleigh as UT baseball coach. Raleigh was fired in 2011 after four underwhelming seasons.
While running his own shop at Kansas State, Currie’s most notable coaching change involved basketball coach Frank Martin, who left the Wildcats for South Carolina in 2012 after an impressive five-year run that included an Elite Eight appearance. Currie then hired former Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who got off to a strong start but has since faded.
It’s unclear exactly what caused such friction between Currie and Martin. Currie is a stickler for playing by the rules, particularly in recruiting, and it’s possible Martin had crossed a line or two. Whatever the case, Currie let him walk.
Currie’s emphasis on rules compliance probably played a big role in his hiring, as did his background as an athletics director at a Power Five conference school. New UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport chose Currie when most of us believed it was a two-man race between David Blackburn and Fulmer.
Blackburn and Fulmer each had his strong supporters on a search committee that included heavy financial hitters like Jimmy Haslam and Charlie Anderson, as well as Vols football icon Peyton Manning.
Blackburn’s background as a high-level staffer in the UT athletics department plus his performance as AD at UT Chattanooga were pluses. As a former Vols football coach who is as orange as they come, Fulmer was in the conversation.
I never thought Fulmer was up to the job. The days of a former football coach ascending to the athletic director’s spot are long gone. And when Blackburn was not hired in the days after Davenport’s arrival, it was pretty clear that UT was going a different direction.
Currie’s hiring comes at a time when the UT athletics program is in a state of flux. Vols football has not won the SEC East since 2007 – and that’s three coaches ago. Rick Barnes is the fourth men’s basketball coach since 2010. Holly Warlick has struggled to meet expectations after succeeding legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt.
It goes deeper. Once upon a time, UT was the top overall athletics program in the SEC when it came to across-the-board success in all sports. Those days are long gone.
Thanks to his previous stint at UT, Currie knows the turf. He understands Vols football is the force that makes everything else go. If you’re not winning – and winning big – in football, nothing else really matters.
Butch Jones, you’re on the clock.
Reach David Climer at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DavidClimer.