Fiddling while Rome burns. It is an expression that fits Tennessee’s coaching search to a . . . well, to a “T”.
On the 18th day of the Vols’ coaching search, the position is still vacant, John Currie is still athletics director, the national sports pundits are still guffawing and UT’s rivals are still loving it. With each passing day — and each public rejection — more harm is done to the Tennessee brand, and in a market where perception is everything, an awful perception is being created: that this is a job nobody wants.
At this point, it’s hard to argue. Never mind that Tennessee is Top 10 in all-time wins, Top 10 in facilities, Top 10 in average attendance, Top 10 in revenue and has a rapidly expanding recruiting footprint in its own backyard (just ask Clemson’s Dabo Swinney what kind of prep talent the State of Tennessee is producing). Nobody wants the Tennessee job.
But let’s be a little more blunt than that: no one wants to work for John Currie. No one wants to step into center ring of the three-ring circus that Currie and chancellor Beverly Davenport have made of the UT Athletics Department.
I wrote Sunday, after Tennessee narrowly avoided a disastrous hire in Greg Schiano, that the first step moving forward should be to fire Currie. No ifs, ands or buts. Fire him, turn the search over to someone else, then move forward.
Would it be unprecedented? Yes. Would it hinder your chances of landing a top target? Yes. Would it be viewed from the outside looking in as a self-implosion? Yes.
But it was also apparent Sunday that it was absolutely necessary. Currie completely bungled the search, placed Tennessee in an unforgiveable dilemma, and could not be trusted to continue.
Tennessee didn’t fire Currie, and what has resulted over the four days that have followed has been a clown show, an unmitigated disaster, with one misstep after another.
On Tuesday, Tennessee was turned down by Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy. There’s no shame there. Gundy is one of the top 15 coaches in America, with a strong resume. The Vols backed up the proverbial Brinks truck to his Stillwater home — offering a reported $7 million a year — and were rejected. No harm, no foul.
Or was there? UT was also very publicly rejected by Gundy in 2012, after firing Derek Dooley. Gundy invited former UT athletics director Dave Hart into his home for a very public interview, taking painstaking steps to be sure it received maximum exposure. It needed to be seen by those who mattered most: the Oklahoma State administration and the school’s wealthiest booster, oil baron T. Boone Pickens. Gundy was using Tennessee for a pay raise and he got it.
If Tennessee was going to go back down that path five years later and risk another public rejection, Currie needed some assurance that this time around would be different, that there was concrete reason to believe Gundy was willing to leave his alma mater and the place where he has spent the entirety of his head coaching career.
The easiest assumption is that Currie didn’t do his homework, and walked blindly into an interview with Gundy after throwing hope to the wind. If that isn’t the case, what happened to cause negotiations to break down between Gundy and the Vols? To have been a fly on the wall in Dallas on Tuesday might have been key to providing invaluable insight into why this coaching search is flailing at every turn.
We don’t know what might have gone wrong between Tennessee and Gundy on Tuesday, but we do know what went wrong one day later, when the Vols suffered their biggest humiliation to date by being rejected by Purdue’s Jeff Brohm.
Brohm is one of the best up-and-coming coaches in America. What he was able to accomplish in one season with the Boilermakers was incredible, taking their Sagarin rating from 126th to 37th. He’s the kind of coach that you make a handsome offer to because you know he’s going to turn around your program.
From all accounts, Currie made Brohm a handsome offer. There was just one small problem: he didn’t have the approval of his boss, Davenport.
Tennessee appeared to be close to a deal with Brohm on Wednesday. Jimmy Hyams — one of the most plugged-in journalists on the Vols beat — had already reported that it was done. Then there was a Purdue recruit, tweeting out a screenshot of a text message from Brohm saying that reports of him leaving for Tennessee were false.
The hangup apparently centered around Brohm’s $5 million buyout. No one knows whether Currie agreed to pay some of it or all of it, but multiple reporters have written that Currie made an offer that Brohm agreed to, then went back to Davenport for agreement and couldn’t get it. When Currie took an amended offer back to Brohm, according to those reports, Brohm said no thanks.
It is incompetence of the greatest kind. How do you make an offer that you can’t back up when you’re the athletics director at one of the largest Power 5 schools in America? And if you’re Davenport, how do you send your athletics director into battle without being sure that you and he are on the same page?
While you’re pondering those rhetorical questions, consider this: That perception that no one wants to come to Tennessee? One of the sharpest offensive minds in the game wanted the job and the deal fell apart because of administrative bungling.
So, from there, Tennessee has turned to NC State’s Dave Doeren. And while Doeren is undoubtedly a great guy, he has a resume in five seasons in Raleigh that is on par with what Butch Jones accomplished in five seasons in Knoxville. He was on the hot seat before his team went on a six-game winning streak this season. He isn’t a hire that Tennessee fans can get behind. As AllThingsVol wrote Wednesday , fan polls — albeit very unscientific efforts — find as much as 97 percent of the UT fan base opposed to a Doeren hire.
As Doeren mulls an offer from Tennessee and a competing offer from his current employer, that brings us back to the beginning. Tennessee is on the verge of either a.) a very humiliating rejection, or b.) a hire that will send the fan base into full revolt. It’s a no-win situation, and one that Currie and company have brought on themselves through their conduct as the most tone-deaf administration in America.
So ask yourselves again: how on earth can Tennessee afford to leave Currie in charge of this debacle?
This dungfest began Sunday with the equally tone-deaf effort to hire Schiano. It would have been frightening if UT had been rejected by so many coaches that it was down to a guy who was one game over .500 in 11 seasons at Rutgers before flaming out and alienating everyone around him in two seasons in the NFL. Forget the Penn State ties. Just consider his merits as a head coach. This isn’t a guy that anyone is clamoring for as a head coach. How many job offers does Schiano have? Tennessee would have real problems if it had to resort to a Schiano hire.
Except there’s this: reasonable people can reasonably infer that Tennessee wasn’t “settling” for Schiano, but that Schiano had been one of the Vols’ top targets from the beginning. The timing — Currie flew to Columbus one day after the regular season ended, as coaching searches were beginning in earnest — suggests that Currie had a pretty good idea he wanted to hire Schiano from the beginning.
Let the ramifications of that line of thought sink in. Consider just how tone-deaf Currie — and, by extension, Davenport — had to have been to go down that road.
Ultimately, of course, the hire didn’t happen because of a full-scale rebellion. Schiano’s ties to the Jerry Sandusky era at Penn State made too many donors uncomfortable, giving Currie no choice but to back off the hire. As poorly as his resume fits what Tennessee needs, Doeren is a better coach than Schiano, and he doesn’t have the Penn State ties, so donors aren’t in Currie’s ear today like they were on Sunday. There’s a good chance Doeren accepts Tennessee’s offer and moves to Knoxville.
And that brings up a final point to consider: In 2010, when Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal in the middle of the night, Tennessee had to move quickly to replace him before National Signing Day. That led to a desperation hire of Derek Dooley, a guy with a losing record at Louisiana Tech. The results of that no-choice hire were so bad that UT couldn’t attract a big-name coach in 2012, when Dooley was fired after what had been the worst three-season stretch since the Vols joined the SEC. But Jones, for all his faults, was able to improve the program’s discipline, academic progress, and the talent level. The narrative as Currie undertook this coaching search was that Tennessee was finally in a position like 2009: attractive to proven coaches. Able to hire a winner.
The fact that we’re sitting here 18 days later awaiting an answer that may or may not come from a guy who has been less successful at NC State than Jones was at Tennessee tells you all you need to know about Currie’s incompetence as an athletics director. Kansas State tried to warn us. And now we’ve seen it for ourselves.
How can this go on?