As Tennessee’s level of play in the SEC has gone from bad to worse this season, frustrations have mounted in Big Orange Nation. With their team now at 0-4 in conference play, and having scored touchdowns in just one of 16 quarters in conference play, UT fans have worked themselves into a lather over their coaching situation. And amid what they perceive as silence from the corporate offices of the university’s athletics department, fans are beginning to aim their vitriol at athletics director John Currie with increasing regularity.
In fact, if a growing number of Tennessee fans had things their way, Currie and head coach Butch Jones would join the ranks of the unemployed alongside one another. Immediately, if not sooner.
In a sport where fans regularly turn to messageboard chitchat to voice their frustrations, VolNation.com ranks as the most popular place where Tennessee fans hang out online. It may not necessarily represent the voice of the common fan, but it is the pulse of the younger, social-media-driven portion of the fanbase, where impatience is quickly growing. And there, more and more fans are turning their ire from Jones to Currie.
“He hasn’t said a damn word about the situation. That’s why fans are mad,” a user named KeyVol14 explained Tuesday. “No actions are being made either.”
Another user, mdrew27, was more succinct in his take on Currie: “Fire his arse,” he said.
The angst has spilled over to Twitter. There, too, you’ll find a growing sentiment to fire Currie. When he published a tweet on Sunday, one day after the Vols’ 45-7 loss to Alabama, inviting fans to cheer on UT tennis player Timo Stodder at the regional championship, heads exploded. The way Vol Twitter saw it, Currie was casually tweeting about tennis as the football program — the sacred cow of the UT athletics department — burns.
There’s nothing unusual about Currie’s silence of course. In fact, Currie’s silence speaks volumes. It tells angry Tennessee fans exactly what they want to hear. They just aren’t listening.
By remaining silent, Currie isn’t giving Butch Jones a vote of confidence. Aside from sending cardiac-sensitive UT fans into danger territory for heart attacks, a vote of confidence would at least indicate that Jones might still be around for the 2018 season. And if Currie was convinced that Jones is the right coach to continue leading the UT program, it’s likely he would have done that by now in an effort to squelch the growing anger within the fanbase.
Short of a vote of confidence, you can bet Currie is going to remain silent until it’s time to fire Jones. That’s how athletics directors operate. Can you imagine, in 2012, as the Vols started 0-4 in SEC — and then 0-5, and then 0-6, if then-AD Dave Hart had stated, “Derek Dooley better win the next game . . . or else”? Hart kept quiet, evaluated the situation, then made his move when the timing was right.
Those connected to the UT athletics department say Currie can be expected to do the same.
“Fans act as though silence is inaction,” one UTAD insider told AllThingsVol. “That’s the world we live in. We’re all about instant gratification. But when you’re making decisions with multi-million-dollar contracts, that’s not reality.”
As AllThingsVol previously reported, conversations involving Butch Jones’ future at Tennessee and a buyout of his contract have already been had — involving Jones and/or his agent, Jimmy Sexton.
“Rest assured, John is very much doing his due diligence with the football program right now,” the insider said. “Like any good AD, he has a list of coaches that he would consider suitable candidates to replace Jones.
“I get that fans want it done yesterday,” he added. “But what is surprising is you have people who should know better, talk radio people, who are ranting and raving about John’s tennis tweet and suggesting that he’s letting fans down. Either those people are trying to drive up their ratings by generating anger, or they’re clueless about the way the process works.”
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Jones will not coach at Tennessee beyond the 2017 season. But what is much less clear is exactly when his termination will come. Sources who typically tend to have reliable information about the inner workings of the UTAD appear to be in the dark on that subject.
Prior to the Vols’ 41-0 loss to Georgia last month, AllThingsVol projected that Jones would not be fired before Tennessee’s game against Kentucky. With that game now less than 72 hours away, some have suggested that an announcement might be coming as soon as Sunday if the Wildcats — which are 5.5-point favorites against Tennessee — beat the Vols. Others suggest Jones has at least the Southern Miss and LSU games ahead of him, while still others have suggested that Currie might allow Jones to complete the season before making a change.
The latter seems unlikely if the Vols cannot find a way to snap their losing streak in the weeks ahead. Each loss makes it less likely that Jones finishes the season as Tennessee’s head coach. On the other hand, it might take no more than a single win to keep Jones employed through the Thanksgiving holiday — particularly if that win comes in upset fashion in Lexington this weekend.
That isn’t going to sit well with fans who have convinced themselves that firing Jones and naming an interim — defensive line coach Brady Hoke (Michigan) and offensive coordinator Larry Scott (Miami) are the two coaches on the Vols’ staff with head-coaching experience — will increase the chances that UT manages to turn things around in time to achieve bowl eligibility.
Those who follow that line of logic point to last year’s situation in Baton Rouge, where Les Miles was fired four games into the season and interim coach Ed Orgeron led the Tigers to a 6-2 record over the course of the last eight games.
But within that example is a perfect reason why LSU’s route isn’t necessarily one the Vols want to follow. As Orgeron’s wins mounted, so did a groundswell of support to keep him permanently. In the end, LSU’s administration caved to the demands of players and some boosters. Most of the UT fans who clamoring for Jones’ immediate dismissal have visions of a big-name head coach coming to Knoxville — think Jon Gruden, or Chip Kelly. Are they really prepared for the possibility of an interim like Hoke or Scott being named the Vols’ permanent head coach?
Others argue that an immediate change is necessary to get fans re-energized about UT football and back in the stands. Stop the financial bleeding, so to speak.
To date, fan attendance has not been a problem for this year’s Tennessee team, although it’s likely to become one as November rolls around. UT’s next home game — against Southern Miss on Nov. 4 — is likely to find lots of empty seats around Neyland Stadium.
But firing Jones isn’t a certain cure for a half-full stadium. In 2012, as Dooley struggled to a 4-5 start to the season, only 89,272 showed up for his final home game, against Missouri. Tennessee lost that game in four overtimes, 51-48. The next game, Tennessee was face-stomped by Vanderbilt in Nashville, 41-18. Dooley was fired, and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was named the interim coach for the Vols’ final game of the season, against Kentucky. In that game, at Neyland Stadium, only 81,841 showed up — 8,000 fewer than the Missouri game. It was UT’s second-worst attendance for an SEC game that season.
So, at the end of the day, what’s left? A complicated process, where decisions to change aren’t made lightly and the timing of those decisions is even more intricate. Impatient UT fans can take heart in knowing that Jones’ fate has been sealed. But that isn’t likely to be enough to silence their frustration towards Currie. That won’t stop until they see the first-year athletics director standing at the podium to make the announcement they’re waiting on.