Analysis: Tennessee AD John Currie knows his role, and so does Phillip Fulmer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee announced its athletic director hire last week, and the first thing many on social media wanted to know is if football coach Butch Jones is on the hot seat.
Jones isn’t getting fired before the start of next season, and regardless of who would be sitting in the athletic director’s chair, his position will be evaluated after the 2017 season.
Like it is every season. Like every other SEC football coach.
The same goes for every Vols and Lady Vols sports coach, for that matter.
The difference is, much of the equity the Tennessee coaches built up is out the window.
Currie didn’t hire any of the current coaches. He wants to win championships in all of the sports. Compliance and progress will be important for coaches wanting to keep their jobs.
The first thing Currie will do is the first thing any new boss does when taking over a department: meet and assess staff members.
Chances are, Currie already has a pretty good idea what he’s dealing with. It’s a tough job, and that’s why his five-year contract will call for him to make $900,000 annually with a retention bonus that could push the value to more than $1 million a year when the dust settles.
Some fans might like the blood and guts of seeing coaches and their families fired and forced to relocate, but secure and sensible athletic directors like Currie understand that termination most often comes as a last resort.
Currie is also well aware that changes can happen when boosters decide they want to ante up the money to buy out a coach.
Hopefully, Tennessee’s power brokers have learned the cost of impatience.
This brings us to the only real “rub” with Currie, which is that during his first go-round at Tennessee, some of his job duties were associated with the dismissal of first-ballot College Football Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer.
Mind you, it wasn’t Currie’s idea or even necessarily his desire to fire Fulmer. But he was in the athletic department office working under Mike Hamilton when 2008 happened, and he had his orders.
Obviously, there are some hurt feelings and fallout between Currie and Fulmer.
But Fulmer is a pretty resilient fellow, and regardless of how some revisionist historians attempt to paint him, the Vols’ coaching legend always keeps Tennessee in his heart.
Furthermore, Fulmer knows what it is like to be targeted by a grudge, as his relationship with former Vols coach Johnny Majors has been well documented.
One thing Fulmer is not, is a hypocrite.
Fulmer didn’t get the job as athletic director, as one national website breathlessly reported was “imminent” in January, but he did provide Tennessee and its fans a service by being willing and able in a time of need.
Many, including myself, supposed the Vols and Lady Vols athletics would be ok moving forward if Fulmer was the option the school chose.
Fulmer might not have the qualifications of many of the modern-day athletic directors — such as Currie, who now has eight years of Power 5 AD experience under his belt — but he’s a strong and competent figure that most everyone agreed could handle the complex duties and unite the fanbase.
There should be no shame for Fulmer that he did not get the job, and he should continue to stay involved with Tennessee athletics as well as maintain his relationship with Butch Jones.
Jones is the first to admit he has benefitted greatly from Fulmer’s wisdom and counsel.
Currie would take no issue with Fulmer’s involvement in UT football. Indeed, Currie praised Fulmer at his press conference last Thursday.
It would have been awkward for Fulmer to be at that press conference, but he was at the Tennessee men’s basketball game on Saturday.
Much has changed in the Vols’ landscape, but not Fulmer’s desire to see Tennessee beat Alabama at everything and anything.
Chancellor Beverly Davenport is off to a flying start with the hire of Currie, who in addition to being the most qualified candidate has the Tennessee background necessary to know where the landmines are planted.
Some have been critical of the outgoing Davenport, but for what? Representing herself as an intelligent, capable and charismatic leader?
Tennessee, like any other fanbase, has its share of critics on social media.
In this case, it’s a loud minority.
Davenport, whose experience at the University of Michigan qualifies her to understand the dynamics of big-time athletics, made sure Currie had the backbone to handle such critics.
Currie went so far last week as to say he prefers that sort of “caring” to an apathetic fan base, making the “come on” gesture while referencing those voicing displeasure.
It was exactly how Davenport would have wanted the captain of her sports programs to respond.
Some at Kansas State didn’t appreciate how Currie stood up to the Wildcats’ grizzled coaches, Frank Martin and Bill Snyder.
But did anyone ever consider that the reason those future hall of fame coaches were at Kansas State in the first place is because of how difficult they can be to deal with?
Currie not only handled those coaches, he massaged and built the product in Manhattan, Kansas.
The Wichita Eagle states Currie led Kansas State to “previously unimagined fundraising,” pointing out that the Wildcats built $210 million worth of new facilities during his tenure while maintaining a balanced budget.
Kansas State is located in a small town on the plains, somewhat similar to Mississippi State’s Starkville setting, in terms of its geographical and financial disadvantages.
Are either of those schools really anyone’s first choice?
And yet, during Currie’s 8-year tenure, the Wildcats won Big 12 league titles in men’s basketball, baseball and football, including seven consecutive bowl appearances.
Having watched Currie in action as he oversaw Tennessee’s basketball program during its most successful run in history, Currie was always direct.
Currie was in part responsible for tremendous scheduling that kept Bruce Pearl’s schedule among the most challenging and highly ranked in the nation.
While Currie’s demeanor could be cold and distant when professionally appropriate, he also built his share of warm and strong relationships, many of which he maintained even after his exit in May of 2009.
Tennessee athletics have accomplished considerably less than Kansas State from the standpoint of conference success since Currie has been gone, despite having a much larger budget and superior facilities.
Let that concept sink in: Currie and Kansas State have been accomplishing more than Tennessee these past 8 years despite having less to work with.
It is easy to tick off the Tennessee sports that need immediate improvement. It will be just as easy for Currie to meet with coaches soon after his official start date (April 1) to address the state of the various programs.
Of course football will be evaluated, but so will baseball, volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball, along with all of the other sports programs.
Currie will still have to answer to those above him as well as those with the financial power to provide facility makeovers.
But the soon-to-be 46-year-old wields the power to shape a program he first became a part of under the leadership of hall of famer Doug Dickey before concluding his first term under athletic director Mike Hamilton.
Currie had the benefit of seeing Tennessee football at its best, as well as seeing the circumstances that led to it being at the onset of its darkest moments in football history before his departure.
That’s an invaluable perspective.
Davenport, less than a month into her tenure, made good on her promise to take care of the athletic director search in a thorough, yet expedient fashion.
Currie was a logical hire, checking all the boxes, and bringing the type of youth and assertiveness needed to make the Vols and Lady Vols championship contenders across the board.
Still, some in the Tennessee fanbase will need time to come to grips that the athletic director search was not an election, after all.
It wasn’t a popularity contest, nor was the intent to hire the nicest guy available.
The objective is to run a compliant athletic department that competes for championships, and that’s how Currie’s upcoming tenure will be evaluated.