KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Every time you think it can’t get worse, Tennessee’s coaching search takes a new turn . . . and it’s almost always worse.
As darkness fell Wednesday evening, the 18th day of the Vols’ search for a replacement for Butch Jones, talk had centered on NC State coach Dave Doeren and the UT fan base was creeping closer to a full-scale revolt.
The potential hire of Doeren, which comes after the Vols’ talks with Purdue’s Jeff Brohm collapsed amid an awkward attempt at a revised offer, has met with resistance from the Tennessee fan base that is not completely unlike the pushback that forced UT athletics director John Currie to renege on an offer to Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano on Sunday.
Doeren had splendid success in two seasons at Northern Illinois, but has been unable to recapture the magic of his back-to-back MAC championships at NC State. He entered his fourth season squarely on the hot seat in Raleigh and some believed he wouldn’t survive the season after a season-opening loss to South Carolina. The Wolfpack rebounded to win six straight games — including victories over No. 12 Florida State and No. 17 Louisville — and were ranked as high as 14th in the nation before losing three out of four games to finish the season.
But Doeren’s record in five seasons with NC State is just 33-30, and he’s 15-25 in ACC play, a conference record that is on par with Jones’ five-year mark in the SEC.
It’s unclear whether Tennessee has actually interviewed Doeren, as there have been conflicting reports. But just the idea has sent UT fans into an uproar for the second time in four days. A radio station’s on-air poll found 84 percent of fans against the hire. On VolNation.com, one of the internet’s most popular messageboards for UT fans, a poll found 97 percent against the hire.
While those polls are hardly scientific, they represent the mood of the Tennessee fanbase amid a search that has turned into something of a clown show. At Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday evening, students chanted “Fire Currie” at every opportunity, even though the university attempted to drown them out with piped-in music and the pep band. Video surfaced of a student being thrown to the ground by police as he was escorted out of the stands.
Fans managed to thwart an attempted hire of Schiano at the 11th hour Sunday. A massive social media backlash resulted after word leaked out that Currie was in Columbus to interview Schiano, who once served as an assistant coach under Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
It was unclear whether they would be able to add Doeren’s scalp to their belt on Wednesday, but the restlessness in Knoxville showed no sign of dying down.
Duke’s David Cutcliffe, a popular offensive coordinator at Tennessee during the Phillip Fulmer days, said “no thanks” to the Vols on Monday, and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy rejected an offer on Tuesday that was reportedly worth $7 million per year.
As Wednesday neared its end, Brohm had not officially rejected Tennessee — at least not publicly — but a recruit had tweeted a screenshot of a text message exchange with the head coach, in which Brohm said reports that he had reached a deal with Tennessee were “false.”
Tennessee sportswriter Jimmy Hyams reported early Wednesday afternoon that the Vols were finalizing a deal with Brohm. However, negotiations fell through at some point. Internet muckraker Clay Travis and former GoVols247 writer John Brice both reported that Currie had presented an offer to Brohm, only to have UT chancellor Beverly Davenport refuse to sign off on that offer. According to their reports, Brohm refused to agree to an amended offer presented by Currie. It was unclear whether Tennessee was willing to go back to the table with the original offer in hand or whether the Vols had moved on from their courtship of Brohm.
If the Travis/Brice reports are true, it will represent an embarrassing twist in what has been an embarrassing coaching search.
It’s worth noting that Currie chose to go about the search alone, without employing a search firm, although SEC Country writer Mike Griffith reported Wednesday that UT megabooster Jimmy Haslam is running point on the search with Currie. Former UT coach Phillip Fulmer and former quarterback Peyton Manning are advisors to the process, though Fulmer has said publicly that his input has gone largely unneeded.
For the first two weeks of the search, it appeared that Currie was managing to keep most details under wraps, though a growing number of fans are now questioning whether Currie was actually interviewing candidates during that time period or whether he and Haslam had settled on Schiano as their top target from the beginning.
The timing would suggest that this particular conspiracy theory might be true. Either way, Currie’s decision to not use a search firm is now coming back to haunt him, as the debacle increasingly makes UT a laughing stock on the national sports scene.
The narrative that is being framed by national sportswriters is that Tennessee fans are largely to blame for the spectacle, after dredging up Schiano’s past ties to Penn State on Sunday. However, local and regional media are growing increasingly frustrated with Currie and the rest of the UT administration.
In the midst of it all, there are rumors of an all-out war between two factions of boosters that is playing out behind the scenes. It isn’t hard to figure out who would be leading one faction in such a battle, as Haslam is UT’s leading contributor. It is much less clear who might be leading the other faction, though internet conspiracy theorists have been quick to point to Dish Network founder Charlie Ergen.
It should be noted that neither Haslam nor Ergen have publicly commented on the search process.
It’s unclear where Tennessee’s search turns if the Vols do not land Doeren. UT has talked with Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and has interviewed SMU head coach Chad Morris. Former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, who is currently the offensive coordinator at Southern Cal, is not currently a candidate for the UT job, as AllThingsVol wrote Tuesday. Neither is former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, who is currently the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Fans have clamored for Currie to target both men, though Martin lacks experience as a head coach and Kiffin is, well, Kiffin.
As the search drags on without a conclusion, it seems that there is a real possibility that Currie might not survive as Tennessee’s athletics director long enough to see the search through.