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Step one for Tennessee: John Currie has to go

It’s almost midnight now. This is my last task before I turn in. When I wake up shortly before sunrise, it should be to news that John Currie is no longer the athletics director at the University of Tennessee.

I fully expect Currie to still be employed at Tennessee on Monday, and perhaps even for weeks, months or years to come. But he should be immediately relieved of his duties.

That’s the first step Tennessee should take as it moves forward from what might have been the most disastrous day in program history on Sunday. No one can say with much certainty how the Vols went from anticipating a major hire to coming perilously close to closing a deal with Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Conspiracy theories abound. But they all boil down to one central ingredient: Currie’s incompetence.

To be fair, the first-year athletics director wasn’t in an enviable situation to start with. Athletics directors aren’t expected to undertake major coaching hires in their first year, and Currie has undertaken a couple of them. But, to be fair, Currie was hired to deal with the UT football program. He had to know there was a possibility that Butch Jones’ brick-by-brick facade crumbled in 2017. And he spent the better part of a decade here before leaving for Kansas State, as the Phillip Fulmer era came to an unceremonious end, meaning he knows this program and the demands of its fans as well as any college sports administrator in the country.

Really, when you get past the debatable details, there are really two paths from Knoxville to Columbus, Oh. and Schiano’s doorstep: Currie completely panicked when his first choice (or choices) didn’t pan out, or he was making a power play that completely blew up in his face.

It is the latter that is especially intriguing. One of the popular conspiracy theories that has emerged in the last few hours is that Currie was tired of boosters meddling in his coaching search — it has been no secret that a not-insignificant faction of Tennessee boosters wanted to hire Jon Gruden — and set his sights on a guy that none of the boosters would have ever expected.

Maybe that’s true. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe the alternative theory is correct: Currie had his sights set on Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. And, when Florida struck out on Chip Kelly (to UCLA) and Scott Frost (to Nebraska, apparently), he panicked and quickly went all-in on Schiano.

That’s likely makes more sense than the power struggle speculation, but it’s no less concerning. The Tennessee fan base is fractured — you can thank the Gruden talk for that — and there were precious few names who could’ve united them. Think Gary Patterson or Chris Petersen. But UT fans would’ve come much closer to accepting a hire like Memphis’s Mike Norvell, or Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, or former LSU coach Les Miles, than to accepting Schiano. Frankly, Tennessee fans would’ve come closer to accepting the reviled Lane Kiffin than to accepting Schiano.

And that’s a significant part of the problem: John Currie is apparently tone-deaf.

Despite the pearl-clutching of the national sports columnists who are falling over themselves with faux outrage that UT fans would dredge up Schiano’s Penn State history, Currie must’ve been aware that Tennessee was recently being scrutinized for what its detractors called an environment that fostered sexual assaults that were perpetrated by student-athletes. The university settled a lawsuit targeting its response to those crimes for a cool $2.48 million just a little more than a year ago. Throw out the deposition and the under-oath trial testimony that suggested Schiano had knowledge of the covered-up sex crimes committed by the disgraced former Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. He worked with Sandusky for several years in the early ’90s — some might say he was mentored by Sandusky — and that was enough to warrant concern. Currie should be smart enough to realize that UT’s Title IX scrutiny was a not-insignificant part of why he got the athletics director’s job here. He had to be tone-deaf to not realize how the hire of Schiano would be perceived.

Currie also had to be tone-deaf to not realize how fans would perceive the hire of Schiano. The Penn State ties withstanding, Schiano’s record as a head coach is questionable. He was one game above .500 in 11 seasons at Rutgers. He was 16-19 in Big East play in his final five seasons with the school. And his two-year NFL tenure was an unmitigated disaster. He was reviled by his franchise’s players, its fans, and the media covering the team. Even players and coaches from other teams didn’t like Schiano, as evidenced by his targeting of quarterback brothers Peyton and Eli Manning.

It has been reported that Currie was taken aback by the reaction of UT fans as news leaked on Sunday that he was moving forward with a plan to hire Schiano. In fact, it was widely reported that he was caught completely off-guard and unprepared by the reaction.

I predicted, via Twitter, on Saturday that hiring Schiano would cause the UT fan base to revolt. It’s alarming to me that I was more in touch with what the UT fan base’s reaction would be than Currie was. I would hardly consider myself qualified to be the Vols’ athletics director. And now we know Currie isn’t, either.

You can argue that UT fans over-reacted to the Schiano news all you want. But the bottom line is that it isn’t a hire that should have been considered in the first place. There’s one person to blame for the attempted hire, and therefore one person to blame for the subsequent reaction from fans. That person is Currie.

Currie shouldn’t have dragged the Schiano family through Sunday’s firestorm. Nor should he have dragged the university and its fans into it. What resulted by the time the dust settled was irreparable harm to the Tennessee football program and the Vols brand.

It’s going to be difficult, at this point, for Tennessee to lure a proven coach. That’s squarely on Currie’s shoulders. In 2010, Mike Hamilton was forced into the quick hire of Derek Dooley, and that turned out to be a crippling decision. But at least Hamilton had the defense of being hamstrung by Lane Kiffin’s flight-by-night from Knoxville to Southern Cal. Currie has no such defense at his disposal. He’s had weeks to work on a replacement for Butch Jones.

Tennessee fans cannot possibly trust Currie to conclude this search. And after the Schiano affair blew up in his face, Currie won’t have the support of prospective coaches, either. Firing an athletics director amid a coaching search would be unprecedented, and the closest thing to a disaster that a college sports program could envision. But Tennessee’s coaching search has already reached disastrous levels, thanks to Currie’s incompetence. It’s better to relieve him of his duties now and let someone else take over the process.

Naming a successor to Currie should be easy. Former Chattanooga athletics director David Blackburn wanted the job when Currie was hired. So did former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. Either man would gladly accept the job today. Either man is qualified to conduct Tennessee’s coaching search and could theoretically have a new coach in place before the early signing period in three weeks.

It is the Blackburn name that is especially intriguing. His resume is impeccable, and he would’ve crawled up I-75 to Knoxville last year. It was stunning that he didn’t get the job at the time, especially with some of UT’s biggest financial supporters lobbying for him to have the job. There are rumors as to how — or why — Currie got the job, but ultimately it was chancellor Beverly Davenport who made the call. She isn’t likely to fire Currie because he was her hire. But if she can’t, and perhaps even if she does, it might be time to examine her future with the university, as well.

The UT fan base flexed its muscles in a mighty way on Sunday. Perhaps the powers who be at Tennessee discounted the fans’ ability to unify after the spectacular fail that was the #EmptyNeyland movement. Fans filled Neyland Stadium for the homecoming game against Southern Miss because they’re passionate about the school’s football program. And they showed that same passion on Sunday by torpedoing the Schiano hire.

Now it’s time for fans who are fed up by years of inexplicably bad coaching hires to flex their muscles again by demanding changes at the very top.

And firing Currie is the first step that should be taken.

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