Game of Thrones Meets Tennessee Athletics

I am posting the live Outkick the Show I just did to explain what has been going on at Tennessee right here.

I’d encourage all of you to watch it as most in the media are still missing the larger stories at play inside the University of Tennessee. But here are some key details that I think should be public to help make sense of what’s transpiring.

Here we go:

In 2008 Phil Fulmer is fired as Tennessee’s football coach. He’s fired by athletic director Mike Hamilton. Who is Hamilton’s top disciple when this decision is made? John Currie.

I wrote a book about Fulmer’s final season at Tennessee, it’s called “On Rocky Top,” and it’s a damn good read. I don’t believe this was in the book, but I asked Phil Fulmer about his firing and whether any boosters could have stopped it and he told me back then that only one booster had that power — Big Jim Haslam. (Big Jim Haslam is the father of Bill, the current governor of Tennessee, and Jimmy, the current owner of the Cleveland Browns). Big Jim is 86 years old and played football for Tennessee on the 1951 national championship team for General Neyland. He founded Pilot Oil in 1958 and he became a billionaire. As his wealth grew his influence in Tennessee athletics grew to the point where he and his family came to make many big hiring and firing decisions at the University.

Fulmer tells me that Big Jim didn’t step in and stop Hamilton from firing him.

Okay, fast forward now to 2017, Dave Hart steps down as athletic director and Phil Fulmer desperately wants to become athletic director at Tennessee.

His final interview occurs in the governor’s mansion. (Yes, the governor’s mansion occupied by Bill Haslam, the governor, and son of Big Jim.) There are only three people present for Phil Fulmer’s interview to become the Tennessee athletic director — Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Browns, Peyton Manning, and Beverly Davenport, the chancellor of the university.

Fulmer interviews, feels great about his chances, and then a bombshell drops — there’s a secret candidate — John Currie is the hand picked athletic director by the Haslam family. (There’s an interesting debate among the boosters about why Peyton Manning has so closely allied himself with the Haslams. The general consensus is because Peyton, Eli, and Archie want to own an NFL team when Eli’s career is over and the Haslam’s money and connections can help make that a reality.) Regardless, Peyton Manning calls many of the top boosters at the University of Tennessee who have been supporting Phil Fulmer’s candidacy and explains that Fulmer “began the race two touchdowns down and could never make it up.”

So John Currie is installed as the next Tennessee athletic director.

He installs Phil Fulmer as a special adviser for community, athletics and university relations in an attempt to pave over old wounds.

Currie attempts to make amends with all the rival booster factions at Tennessee and reaches out to one of the biggest boosters at Tennessee seeking a meeting.

That booster responds with this message in September:

“John, I don’t need a thing. Like I told the chancellor, don’t mess with my tickets or my parking and I’m good. I hope Butch keeps winning and you don’t fire him. We don’t need another Kiffin or comparable replacement. Appointment of Phillip was great for the university and self serving for you. Good move for you. I’m not giving any more money to UT other than what I’m obligated to for my existing benefits. 

John, I’m a straight shooter. I don’t trust or like you or (Mike) Hamilton and that is not ever going to change, ever. I’ll never forgive you for firing Phillip. Worst fucking decision that UT ever made. It scattered a horde of the nation’s best assistant coaches and their families across the country and in an unwanted divorce, it separated a National Championship and Hall of Fame coach from the university that he loved.

Fucking stupid. 

You’re set in a good spot in your life and career and so am I. Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.”

So long as Butch Jones didn’t collapse, a battle seemed unlikely.

But then Butch Jones collapsed.

When Butch was fired John Currie, significantly, did not hire a search firm. Many inside Tennessee became nervous about this decision. What was Currie trying to pull off, why was he not involving more people? Then came the leaking of the Greg Schiano news.

The news landed like a grenade inside the athletic department and the state of Tennessee. Tennessee officials were aghast, immediately recognizing that this was the Haslam family’s hand picked choice. They pointed to an SI interview about Jimmy Haslam interviewing Greg Schiano in 2014. 

“Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer were strong in recommendations for fired Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano—Belichick called twice—and here’s where I hear there was a major rift in the organization. Banner wanted nothing to do with Schiano. Haslam was intrigued with him after the over-the-top recommendation from Belichick. The group flew to Tampa to interview Schiano, and one source said Banner was cold to Schiano, not participating much in the interview. Banner likely thought Schiano would be a disastrous hire, given all the negatives in recent Cleveland history. He was probably right, but the owner was open to it, and when the owner’s open to it, the man running football operations should at least consider it.”

Why, many asked, was the man in the midst of a 1-27 run with the Cleveland Browns being allowed to hand pick Tennessee’s coaching hire?

The ensuing fan outrage over Schiano blew up the hire. Furious with their choice being shot down, John Currie and the Haslams begin leaking information to the national media blaming the fan base for being a bunch of ignorant rednecks who don’t know any better.

Not content with that story being spread, Jimmy Haslam even begins calling Tennessee legislators who had Tweeted their disapproval of the hire with this message, “You don’t make the Tennessee hire, we do.”

The national media eats up the fan mob story line peddled by Currie and his alliese — the stupid, impractical Tennessee fans, look at them, how dumb they are. As if that weren’t enough, many media also decide they have to defend Greg Schiano and Ohio State to remain in good graces with Urban Meyer and Schiano’s agent, Jimmy Sexton.

So these media become obsessed with the idea that fans pointing out Greg Schiano’s being mentioned in a court transcript watching a boy being raped and doing nothing about it is somehow character assassination. (Seriously, since when has linking an accusation made under oath, whether its hearsay or not, about the man who would become the highest paid public employee in a state not fair grounds to discuss?) Even if Schiano denies the story, as he does, this story angle provides cover for Currie and the Haslams mistake in ever hiring Schiano in the first place. If the story turns into a battle over what Schiano knew about Penn State and how dumb the fans are the larger issue is masked — Schiano was an awful hire for Tennessee.

But that awful hire is not ignored inside Tennessee.

Especially not when the school becomes aware of an agreement signed between Currie and Schiano. Wait, many ask, how did John Currie have the authority to bind the university to Schiano without the chancellor or the president also signing the hiring document?

Had Currie exceeded the scope of his authority in effectively hiring Schiano with this document? As this question works its way up to the president and the chancellor, who are now being deluged with angry booster and politician inquiries about the hire, Currie is told he has to rescind the offer to Schiano. Currie, humiliated by the public rejection of his decision making, isn’t even willing to make the call himself to tell Schiano the deal is off.

Currie embarks on a dizzying array of coaching meetings, attempting to save his initial error and make a solid hire for Tennessee. But Mike Gundy says no, the university becomes bogged down over the buyout for Jeff Brohm’s contract, and Dave Doeren decides to stay at North Carolina State. With every misstep, the media coverage becomes more pronounced, the pressure more all encompassing.

With his job status in serious jeopardy, Currie embarks on a hail mary attempt to hire Mike Leach and save his job, finally trying to make a hire that will make the fan base happy.

Currie flies cross country and interviews Leach in Los Angeles. But back home in Knoxville trouble has arrived — the Haslams no longer have Currie’s back. The collapse of the search has finally led to a near universal agreement among Vol power brokers — John Currie has to go.

As Currie flies back cross country from Los Angeles, he’s informed he has a morning meeting with the chancellor. Inside this meeting he’s officially fired.

Now as part of the separation agreement I’m told Tennessee will argue Currie has been fired for cause based on the agreement that he entered into with Greg Schiano. (They may end up settling, but that’s the university position right now.) Currie leaves the meeting and immediately begins calling his friends in the media to put out the story that Fulmer and other athletic department employees undermined him.

But the simple truth of the matter is this — Currie undermined himself with the Greg Schiano debacle. His position had become so tenuous that the same people who ensured he got the job, the Haslams, now recognized that he had to go.

No one had to undermine John Currie to get him fired, they just had to let him hang himself.

Phil Fulmer will be announced as the new athletic director at Tennessee within the next few hours returning to a position of athletic prominence nine years after he was fired as head coach.

Where Tennessee will go from here in its coaching search is unclear. So too is whether Fulmer can finally unite the fractious Tennessee family and find a coach that will win and end the internecine warfare among its boosters.

But one thing is certain, this was Game of Thrones in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

And John Currie just got fed to the dragons.

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