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VOL. 132 | NO. 50 | Friday, March 10, 2017

What a Strange Twist of Events in Hiring of Currie

BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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John Currie is the new athletics director at the University of Tennessee. Has it sunk in yet? Currie, previously the athletic director at Kansas State, was introduced last week by new UT chancellor Beverly Davenport during a ceremony featuring fans, boosters, coaches and, of course, former Tennessee and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.

Chancellor Dr. Beverly Devenport presents her new athletic director with a personalized football jersey.

(Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

Has Davenport’s speech sunk in?

Has the irony of Phillip Fulmer being bypassed for the AD job sunk in yet?

Only at Tennessee can such stunning turns of events happen.

Tom Mattingly has seen it for years. He’s called “The Vol Historian” for a reason. He bleeds orange. The Knoxville native is a Vol fan for life who started working in UT’s athletic department in 1987 and worked there until 2005.

Mattingly has written books on Tennessee football. He’s seen it all in his many years researching the Vols, watching the Vols and working at UT. He closely followed UT’s new athletics director’s search and saw Davenport’s introductory speech.

His thoughts?

“That was a strange press conference, even by UT standards,” Mattingly says.

It was a strange and bizarre few days leading up to Currie’s introduction. 

Let’s set up the circumstances.

Fulmer, UT’s former football coach, was thought to be the leading candidate for the AD job going into last week, and even on Monday, Feb. 27, got a call from a member of the search committee, according to longtime Knoxville radio and print journalist Jimmy Hyams in an article for Gridiron Now. That call led Fulmer to believe he had the job.

“He’s been quoted as saying he was going to have the job,” Mattingly says of Fulmer, “and apparently things intervened. Either the chancellor (Davenport) thought better of it or somebody else thought better of it because (Fulmer) thought he had the job on Monday, and then (Davenport) went to Kansas on Tuesday, and then on Thursday we had a whole different result than anybody expected.”

Sure enough, Davenport flew to Kansas on that Tuesday, met with Currie and offered him the job.

Davenport announced Currie as the new athletics director that night. The news was a shocker to many who thought Fulmer and current Tennessee-Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn were the frontrunners.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how all the relevant actors get pulled back together again because the fan base, by all accounts, didn’t seem to be buying into this hire,” Mattingly points out. 

“Here they were on Monday with it seemingly at an end, and then all of a sudden, on Tuesday, (Davenport) goes to Kansas, and then on Thursday, we’ve got another guy in there who is sort of halfway a UT guy (Currie). 

“But he’s not a UT guy who spent all the time there the other two people did and knew the (people) and knew the state and knew the university. I don’t know. The whole deal flabbergasted me. I was just caught unaware about that (hire).”

So were many fans and media members.

If there was a split among UT’s fan base before Currie’s hiring, it’s now the Big Orange Divide.

Fulmer, head coach of the Vols from 1992-2008, was the choice for the new AD by many longtime boosters and fans. The Winchester native played guard for Tennessee from 1969-71, was an assistant coach from 1980-92, and was head coach of the 1998 national championship team.

Yet Fulmer has no experience in athletic administration, and his tenure as head coach at Tennessee began and ended in controversial fashion.

Fulmer’s career as UT’s head coach started in 1992 when Johnny Majors had heart surgery before the season, attempted to return, and was eventually let go with Fulmer, the interim head coach, taking over as full-time coach. Majors and others believe Fulmer won a coup for his job.

On Nov. 4, 2008, Fulmer agreed to step down with three games left in the season and the Vols 3-6 overall, 1-5 in the SEC. While former athletic director Mike Hamilton made the final call on Fulmer’s ouster, Currie was instrumental in having Fulmer fired, according to Hyams in the Gridiron Now article, and Currie reached out to Fulmer after his hiring and didn’t get a response.

More intrigue 

“One reason Fulmer pushed for the AD job is he didn’t want Currie to get it.”

“Davenport didn’t want Fulmer because he didn’t have AD experience; she wanted someone with experience from a Power Five Conference.”

“The search committee member that pushed for Currie was Jimmy Haslam.”

“The search committee recommended Currie to Davenport, although the vote was not unanimous.”

Thus, Davenport’s want of an athletics director from a Power Five Conference eliminated Blackburn, despite his deep ties with Tennessee and his success in a short time as athletic director at Tennessee-Chattanooga (2013-present).

Blackburn is a 1990 UT graduate, was a student assistant under Majors and started his working career at UT in 1993 under Fulmer for 10 years as assistant director of compliance, assistant athletic director for football operations and director of football operations. He moved to fundraising from 2003-07 and into athletic administration from 2007-13.

In January, my Ledger predictions for the AD’s job had Blackburn as the favorite at 2-1 odds, followed by Fulmer at 4-1 and Currie at 8-1. Currie begins his job April 1. He replaces Dave Hart, who announced his retirement last August.

“(Blackburn) seems like the obvious choice,” I wrote for the Ledger. “Maybe it’s too obvious for Turnkey (the search firm) and the search committee.”

I reminded Mattlingly of my odds at the time.

“I don’t think you would have had many takers,” he said.

Currie, a 1993 Wake Forest graduate, earned his master’s degree in sports management from UT in 2003. He started his career at Wake Forest in 1993 as Deacon Club intern and was assistant Deacon Club intern from 1994-97. 

Currie joined UT’s staff in 1997 as executive director of the Volunteer Athletic Scholarship Fund. He returned to Wake Forest for two years as assistant athletic director. He returned to UT in 2000 as assistant athletics director for development, and was promoted to associate athletics director for development in 2002. He left to become Kansas State’s athletic director in 2009.

While at Kansas State, Currie was credited with overhauling the athletic department’s fundraising campaign, which soared during his tenure along with increased attendance at sporting events.

However, Currie riled the K-State fan base by firing basketball coach Frank Martin in 2012, and it’s been reported that he had an often-frosty relationship with longtime Wildcats football coach Bill Snyder.

At Currie’s introduction ceremony, UT football coach Butch Jones sat a seat away from Manning. It was no coincidence Majors was sitting nearby – in support of Currie, the man who helped get Fulmer fired in 2008 and got the AD’s job last week when Fulmer thought he had it. Obviously, Fulmer wasn’t at Currie’s introduction ceremony.

Ah, the Big Orange Divide

“It’s going to take some work to put this back together again,” Mattingly explains. “I read somewhere where the (Tennessee) Lettermen’s Club seemed to be upset about the hire, and I’m sure that the people who didn’t get the job, whether they say so or not, are not happy with the way things worked out. 

“It’s like an election or anything where the guy who wins has to come in and pull everybody back together. I haven’t seen Currie since I left, which was in ’05, and I don’t know what his attitude to all of this is and how he’s going to pull it off, and how the chancellor (will), who seemed a little overmatched in her press conference by the magnitude of the moment, and that worries me a little bit, that she would be that overmatched.

“It was not a virtuoso performance by any means on her part. Maybe she was just overwhelmed by the moment. I don’t know. 

“But this deal with Peyton. She kept talking about if you don’t agree with me, you just mention Peyton’s name, and that seemingly will bring everybody together because Peyton is so popular, such a legend. That kind of intrigued me that she would go in that direction.”

Here’s part of what Davenport said about Manning during Currie’s introduction:

“I’ve gotten so many letters, and so many wishes. Someone wrote just last week, ‘If you do anything that people don’t like, just tell them that you love Peyton Manning.’ So, I’m here today to tell you, I love Peyton Manning, and I’m going to keep loving Peyton Manning.”

There are those not loving this AD hire. And Tennessee coaches are on the alert. Currie won’t hesitate to make changes if he sees fit.

Baseball coach Dave Serrano is going into a pivotal sixth season after getting a contract extension last May by Hart; Jones has posted back-to-back 9-4 seasons but fallen short of expectations to win the SEC East; and Holly Warlick’s Lady Vols’ basketball team lost 14 games last year and lost its 11th this season with last Thursday’s upset loss to No. 12 seed Alabama in their SEC tournament opener.

Jones will be back next year for his fifth season. So will Warlick after her team attempts to get past the NCAA’s Elite Eight, where it’s been eliminated three of the past four years.

Serrano’s future at UT depends on this spring.

More change may be on the way. Davenport may have hired Currie to prove a point. She’s not afraid to go against the grain and may think the hire will enhance her resume for a job beyond Tennessee.

And Currie’s success at Tennessee will be judged on fields, not by the money he raises. He won’t stick with mediocre coaches.

“It’s one of those changing-of-the-guard moments where one generation kind of yields its ways to another,” Mattingly says. “It happened when they hired General (Robert) Neyland back in 1925 or ‘26. It happened when General Neyland died in 1962 and Coach (Bob) Woodruff came, and Coach (Doug) Dickey came in 1963. It happened in 2003 when Dickey left and (Mike) Hamilton took over as athletics director.

“Now, we have a new chancellor from outside the university system. We have someone (Currie) who had worked at the university and left and came back and worked (at UT again). 

“John had actually left twice. So it’s one of those moments where there’s all kinds of pressure on the new person to come in and do the right thing and to lead the university forward just like it happened with Coach Dickey and Coach Woodruff and General Neyland way back when.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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