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VOL. 132 | NO. 20 | Friday, January 27, 2017

What are the Odds? Blackburn is Still the Favorite

BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Tennessee has its search firm and its search committee is in place to find the replacement for Dave Hart as the university’s athletic director.

David Blackburn

Hart announced last August he would retire June 30, and with Tennessee undergoing a transition in its chancellor’s position, the search for Hart’s replacement was put on the back burner.

It’s still on the back burner. 

Tennessee announced Beverly Davenport as chancellor Dec. 15 to replace Jimmy Cheek. Davenport, interim president at the University of Cincinnati, begins work at UT on Feb. 15.

UT announced last Friday that Raja Jubran, a UT graduate and CEO of Denark Construction, was selected by Davenport to chair the search committee, and Turnkey Sports and Entertainment was awarded the contract to assist Davenport in the search for UT’s new athletic director.

At least one report – by Jimmy Hyams of Sports Radio WNML – has UT not hiring an athletic director until April or May. Jubran also stated on Twitter the hire might not happen until then.

Jubran, vice chair of UT’s board of trustees, is one of six members of the search committee. Other members are:

• Former UT and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, the most recognized athlete in Tennessee sports history

• Jimmy Haslam, a UT graduate, CEO of Knoxville-based Pilot Flying J and owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns

• Charlie Anderson, a member of UT’s board of trustees, former defensive end at UT (1974-76), CEO of Anderson Media Corp., and a member of the search committee for UT’s new chancellor

• Donald Bruce, UT’s faculty athletics representative for the NCAA and SEC and the Douglas and Brenda Horne Professor of Business in the Haslam College of Business

• Donna Thomas, senior associate athletics director and senior women’s administrator for Hart, and a 24-year member of UT’s athletic department.

Financial terms of Tennessee’s contract with Turnkey were not released, but UT paid the Parker Executive Search firm $75,000 plus expenses in its search for the chancellor to replace Cheek.

Fan interest in Tennessee’s search for an athletic director started to spike Jan. 15, when Alabama athletic director Bill Battle announced he was stepping down due to health reasons.

The next day, Alabama announced it hired Greg Byrne away from Arizona to be the Tide’s new athletic director.

Alabama’s quick move gave sports talk radio a fresh, hot topic for the week: If the Tide can move so quickly, why can’t Tennessee?

Good question.

Here’s my list, with offs, of candidates for the job:

David Blackburn

Odds: 2-1

This seems like the obvious choice. Maybe it’s too obvious for Turnkey and the search committee.

Blackburn, vice chancellor and director of athletics at Tennessee-Chattanooga, is a 1990 UT graduate and former student assistant in football under head coach Johnny Majors.

Blackburn started his working career at Tennessee in 1993 under head coach Phillip Fulmer for 10 years as assistant director of compliance, assistant athletic director for football operations and director of football operations.

In August of 2003, Blackburn moved into fundraising as UT’s assistant athletic director for development and was in charge of the entire department. In spring 2007, he was promoted to associate athletic director of administration under former AD Mike Hamilton, and promoted again in 2008 to senior AD for administration.

Blackburn’s chance to run an athletic department came April 20, 2013, when he was hired by Tennessee-Chattanooga. He immediately had two crucial coaching vacancies to fill with the departure of women’s coach Wes Moore (left for North Carolina State) and John Shulman (who was fired).

Blackburn made solid coaching hires with Will Wade taking over the men and Jim Foster the women.

Foster, the former Vanderbilt and Ohio State coach, has won three consecutive Southern Conference championships and had the Lady Mocs ranked in the top 25 during the past three seasons. Wade had such success at UTC he was hired by VCU two years ago.

In 2015-16, UTC became the first program in the conference’s 100-year history to win the football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball title in the same year.

Blackburn’s background at UT in fundraising and his success as a young athletic director at UTC make him the best choice, long term for Tennessee’s athletic director.

Phillip Fulmer

Odds: 4-1

Just when Alabama was hiring Byrne as its athletic director, Phillip Fulmer’s name became the hottest one in Tennessee’s search for an athletic director.

John Brice of 247Sports reported Jan. 16 his sources saying Fulmer, who coached Tennessee football to the 1998 national championship, was almost a lock to be UT’s next athletic director. ESPN’s Chris Low reported the same day Fulmer was the prime candidate.

And that was before Turnkey got the contract to help Davenport and the search committee find the next athletic director. Fulmer has a close connection at Turnkey, according to Brice.

Brice reported Jan. 22 Fulmer is a long-time friend of Gene DeFilippo, who was hired by Turnkey in June of 2014 to be Advisor of College Sports, and Fulmer and DeFilippo have long discussed working together.

Fulmer has said publicly he’s “honored” his name is on the potential list of candidates.

Fulmer’s roots as a UT player (1969-71) and head coach (1992-2008) also make him a prime candidate with a group of influential boosters working the searching committee. Plus, having Manning and Haslam on the search committee might help Fulmer’s chances.

While Fulmer might be a good fundraiser, his only administrative experience is as a consultant for East Tennessee State University’s athletics department when it was reviving its football program.

Plus, Fulmer’s detractors haven’t forgotten how his tenure as Tennessee’s head football coach began and ended.

In 1992, Fulmer was the Vols’ assistant head coach and offensive coordinator under head coach Johnny Majors when Majors had heart surgery two weeks before the season opener.

Fulmer became interim head coach, and the Vols went 3-0 with wins over Georgia and Florida; Majors was back on the sideline for the fifth game against LSU, a win that left the Vols with a 5-0 record.

Tennessee lost its next three games to Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina, dropped to No. 23 in the nation. Majors announced the night before the Nov. 14 Memphis State game he would resign at the end of the season. Majors and his fans often hint he was forced out by a Fulmer regime.

Fulmer, who won 152 games as UT’s head coach and is in the College Football Hall of Fame, was on the firing end in November of 2008. UT athletic director Mike Hamilton told Fulmer during the 2008 season it was his last year. At the time, the Vols were 3-6, 1-4 in the SEC, after a Nov. 1 loss to South Carolina.

Fulmer announced days after that loss he wouldn’t return in an emotional departure with many current and former players and donors siding with Fulmer. Perhaps they’re still around and can help the pro-Fulmer campaign for athletic director. 

Fulmer might have some politics on his side, but not the administrative experience to be an athletic director. Plus, at 66, he wouldn’t be the long-term choice to lead Tennessee’s athletic department.

John Currie 

Odds: 8-1

Currie, longtime administrator at Tennessee, was hired as Kansas State’s athletic director in May of 2009 and is credited with a surge in the program’s athletic department – not only in the fields of play but in marketing and fundraising.

During Currie’s seven years there, Kansas State has been to six bowl games (2010-16) in football and won a Big 12 championship, won a Big 12 men’s basketball title (2013), had 16 teams make NCAA appearances in men’s and women’s basketball, and more than $200 million has been gifted to K-State Athletics.

Currie was the recipient of the 2013 Bobby Dodd AD Award and was a 2013 UnderArmour AD of the Year; served as chair of the Big 12 athletic directors in 2013-14; and is a member of the NCAA Division I Administrative Cabinet.

Currie is a 2003 graduate of Wake Forest and earned his master’s degree in sports management at Tennessee in 2004. His professional career at UT began in 1997 as executive director of the Volunteer Athletic Scholarship Fund (VASF), and in the next 10 years, he rose to executive athletic director and chief deputy and advisor to Hamilton, the athletic director.

Would Currie leave his AD position at Kansas State while he’s got the Wildcats’ program on a roll? Would he leave to become Tennessee’s athletic director with a task of reuniting a department that’s said to be divided, and with a football coach, Butch Jones, on the hot seat entering the 2017 season?

Only Currie knows.

Mike Bohn

Odds: 16-1

Bohn, athletic director at Cincinnati, might be a candidate, thanks to his relationship with Davenport.

Bohn was Colorado’s athletic director from 2005-13, and in early December of 2012, interviewed UT coach Butch Jones, then the coach at Cincinnati, about the football opening at Colorado. Jones, who also interviewed at Purdue, was hired as Tennessee’s coach Dec. 7, 2012, to replace Derek Dooley.

Bohn then hired Mike MacIntyre, who led Colorado to a Pac-12 division title in 2016. However, Bohn’s two previous hires were Dan Hawkins (16-33 in five years) and Jon Embree (4-19 in two years).

Bohn was pressured to resign at Colorado in May of 2013, and he was hired as Cincinnati’s AD in February of 2014 to replace Whit Babcock, who left for the same job at Cincinnati.

Could Bohn really be in play for the Tennessee job? Maybe.

Charles Davis

Odds: 20-1

Davis, who grew up in New Paltz, New York, played defensive back for the Vols from 1983-86, and due to a highly successful career in broadcasting might not want to get back into athletic administration.

However, Davis still has plenty of ties to Tennessee and often speaks on talk radio in Knoxville about Vol athletics – once hinting the university should hire someone with a UT background as the new AD.

Davis has been with FOX Sports television since 2006 and was a longtime lead analyst for FOX Sports’ college football coverage. He moved to the NFL booth for FOX in 2015. Before FOX Sports, Davis worked at TBS, NBC, TNT, and ESPN.

His professional work isn’t limited to broadcasting.

During the 1990s, Davis served as assistant athletic director at Stanford, director of the United States Olympic Training Center and became the first black tournament director in PGA history when he ran the Disney Golf Classic from 1998 to 2000.

Davis was born in Elizabethton, and his family moved to New Paltz when he was 2 years old. Davis was a quarterback, defensive back and kicker at New Paltz High School before signing to play for Johnny Majors.

The field

Odds: 50-1

A couple guys in the field are Mark Ingram and Chris Fuller.

Ingram, a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, played center for the Vols from 1995-96 and is a 1996 graduate of Tennessee. He spent two years in administration at Georgia; five years at UT in planning and strategy for the athletic department’s Capital Campaign that raised $336 during his tenure; and three years at Temple in sports administration.

In May of 2015, Ingram was hired as UAB director of athletics, a position he still maintains.

Fuller was senior associate athletic director at Tennessee when he left in November to become deputy athletic director at Syracuse. He spent 12 years at UT in sales and marketing and external operations, and from 2009-16, was senior athletic director for external operations, including the Tennessee Fund Office, sales and marketing, ticket operations, and broadcasting/VFL Films.

Tennessee’s athletic director job would be a step up for the career of Ingram or Fuller.

Turnkey Sports and Administration might have some candidates I’ve missed. It’s getting paid to do a thorough nationwide search. But I’d say Tennessee’s next athletic director is one of my favorites.

My money is on Blackburn. He’s the logical choice.

Dave Link is a freelance contributor living in Knoxville.

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