Tennessee’s Fans Know More Than John Currie and the Haslams

As Tennessee inches ever closer and closer to offering the job to another coach its fan base doesn’t want — Dave, the ACC’s own Butch Jones luckily chose not to take the job — you can expect the predictable gnashing of the teeth from national college football media who have no idea about Tennessee or its fan base yet consider it to be unacceptable for those fans to voice their opinions of a football hire.

I’ll get to why those national media columns, Tweets, and screeds are virtually worthless before this column is over, but first I want to share some thoughts with you about what the Tennessee fan base’s revolution on Sunday really represents. And to me, the easiest analogy I can draw is it’s the wisdom of the masses brought to bear on college football in a way we’ve never seen before.

Now let me explain.

I’ve had a lot of fun over the years ranking the dumbest fan bases in America, but that’s mostly in good fun. One of the best things about college football is the trash talk, what one fan base says about another. I’m a fan just like just about every single person reading this column right now. My particular team, via birthright from my maternal grandfather who played at the University of Tennessee under General Neyland, is the Tennessee Volunteers. I am named after a former Vol and I’ve been a Tennessee fan my entire life.

I’ve never hidden this fact or disguised it and this certainly doesn’t mean I don’t root for players, coaches or teams I also like over the years at different schools, but deep down, long before I ever thought about where I would go to school or what college even was, I was a University of Tennessee fan.

I’ve chronicled those experiences quite a bit in my first two books — Dixieland Delight and On Rocky Top. Many of you have read those books and while you may not root for Tennessee — or may even hate the Vols — my fanhood is probably very similar to yours as well. That is, all fans, particularly those from the SEC, share many things in common.

That’s why the SEC fans share so ardently for the conference because, in all honesty, the South is an ethnicity and college football is our regional heartbeat, the ties that bind us all together. Meet anyone else born and raised in an SEC state anywhere in the world and it’s just about inevitable that the talk will eventually turn to SEC football.

Now I’ve been very critical of the Tennessee administration over the past decade because I think they have generally been incompetent. They have taken the 8th winningest fan base in college football history and the second winningest fan base in the history of the SEC and they have not served the fans well. They’ve provided a crappy product, arrogantly ignored Volunteer fan disgust, and generally proved to be the worst possible stewards of a fan base’s trust, respect and loyalty.

This is an opinion that is shared by a great majority of Tennesee’s fan base.

On the day John Currie was introduced as Tennessee’s new athletic director on campus both he and I spoke to audiences. Mine was an overflowing auditorium that required students to be turned away. Currie’s was in an empty arena. I outdrew him by a better than 10-1 margin.

Why was that?

Because I know what Tennessee fans want better than he does. And because I do a better job speaking to them than he does.

When John Currie and the Haslam family attempted on Sunday to ram through Greg Schiano as the next Tennessee football coach, the fan base collectively stood up and said this was an unacceptable hire. From the state legislature to the lowest fan sitting in the highest seats of the football stadium, Tennessee fans forced the administration to rescind the offer and begin the search anew.

Most in the national college football media have chosen to ridicule the Tennessee fan base, but this is entirely misguided. The Tennessee fan base didn’t hire Lane Kiffin for one year and then have him leave. They didn’t hire Derek Dooley and then watch him leave. And they didn’t buy Butch Jones’s bullshit for five years about building the program up brick-by-brick. That was the Haslam family and their handpicked athletic directors.

The Haslam’s had gone 0-3 on hires and now they wanted the chance to make another one, a guy no one else wanted and, frankly, that no one else is even interviewing.

And the fan base said, “Hell no.”

If you don’t know about the Haslam family, you should. They are billionaires and they run the Tennessee athletic department like a feudal kingdom. They hire and fire, they make every major decision, they nod and administrators jump. They’ve got the governor’s office locked up in the state and an NFL football team — if you want to count the Browns as an NFL team — and while their company is currently under federal prosecution for a variety of misdeeds, they control everything at the University of Tennessee and much in the state as well.

John Currie was the Haslam family’s handpicked athletic director. He exists to do their bidding. Countless other top donors to the University of Tennessee have thrown up their hands, aghast at the power wielded by the Haslams, but no one has been able to challenge their power and win.

Now maybe you could argue the Haslams are good for Tennessee if they actually made good decisions, but effectively they have been running University of Tennessee athletics like they’ve been running the Cleveland Browns — badly. Tennessee football has become the Cleveland Browns of the SEC.

And fans are sick of it.

So the story of Tennessee’s fans finally standing up to the awful administration that has run their program into the ground should have been one that was told by the national college football media.

But instead they focused on Tennessee fans standing up for themselves and not allowing their administration to make yet another awful hire BY BLAMING THE FANS FOR BEING AWFUL.

This national media criticism was personified by my friend Joel Klatt, who has evidently decided it’s an insult to call me a “Tennessee blogger” on Colin Cowherd’s radio show yesterday. (I don’t particularly care what people call me, but I’m a “Tennessee blogger” like Abraham Lincoln was a “country lawyer.” The truth of the matter is this, no one in college football doing writing and radio has a bigger audience than I do. And, frankly, no one else doing writing and radio is even close.)

The bigger point here was that Joel decided to attack the Tennessee fan base and call Tennessee the worst job in a big five conference.

This is such a patently absurd argument that I’m not even going to address it, but I think the arrogance and anger of Joel’s argument has been altogether common among the “college football media elite.”

This is predictable, retroactive rearguard protection from a college football media elite that is increasingly useless. If you don’t break coaching stories what value do you provide to college football fans? No one reads articles about games so press box access is mostly worthless. Most profile pieces of players or coaches aren’t well done or particularly enlightening. The more press conference team briefings you attend the less honest you can be, you effectively become captured by the team and have to keep writing relatively bland takes to maintain your access. Individual team websites still have value for purposes of recruiting information, but from a national perspective most of what college football media provides is coaching news.

And where do they get that coaching news?

Via text message or phone calls from coaches and agents.

That’s not particularly difficult work, it just requires you to have good relationships with agents or coaches. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — there are many coaches and agents I really like and have great relationships with — but what’s the value added proposition of a national college football writer at this moment in time? Virtually zero. So what do they do? They work to protect the coaches and administrators who text and call them. Because if those texts and calls stop, what audience do they have?

So when given the choice between attacking the fans or the coach and administrators they almost always defend the coach and administrators. (Until, that is, the coach or administrator gets fired and suddenly all the actually juicy information they really wanted to write becomes fair game).

But the more I thought about this criticism of Tennessee fans the more interesting this big question got to me — why does the college football media elite assume its smarter than the collective wisdom of the entire Tennessee fan base? Which person do you think has more information about a program, a fan who has watched every game for decades or a member of the national college football media who might have watched three games total from start to finish in the past ten years.

And the biggest question that came to me about the Tennessee fan revolution was this — why wouldn’t a smart athletic director use social media to better understand his consumer, the fan who supports his program?

Think about it, which are among the most powerful and effective companies today — Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix are certainly four of them and all of these companies have something in common — they are essentially data companies.

What do all four of these companies do exceedingly well? They use large data sets to make their products better. Google is the perfect example of this. The Google search engine works better the more people who use it. Google wouldn’t work if some guy somewhere had to decide what people wanted when they typed in “top college football coaching records.” But over time if millions of people do that search, the results they select become highly predictive of what they’re searching for. The Google algorithm is literally worth its weight in gold.

And, tellingly, the Google algorithm becomes more valuable the more people who use it.

The same is true of the other three companies.

Netflix uses data on what its viewers watch to greenlight new shows and decide whether to keep making new seasons of existing shows. And they can also predict what shows you will like based on what shows you’ve already liked. The same is true of Amazon, which uses its wealth of customer data to offer you products you are probably going to like based on what it knows you have liked before. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve bought a recommended book on their suggestion page.

And, Facebook, my god, don’t even get me started on Facebook, the entire company is a data factory designed to ensure they know everything about you. Facebook can use its billions of users to test everything and ensure that everything, from the news feed to the picture quality, is optimized to keep people online as long as possible.

Which brings me to college coaching searches — why is the legacy college football media so quick to blame fans who reject a coaching hire? Isn’t a fan base just another large set of data for a company to analyze? And the more opinions of that data set you have, doesn’t that make it more likely that you’re going to pick something that most appeals to all of them? A college football team is, after all, just a company seeking to maximize its revenue and success via wins. The more games you win, the more money you make.

By and large shouldn’t you trust the wisdom of the masses when it comes to hiring a coach over the decisions of a couple of people at the top of an executive pyramid? Now, certainly this might not be true for all schools. There are, after all, some athletic directors who are particularly skilled at their jobs, but at a school like Tennessee, which has screwed up again and again over the past decade with decisions both large and small, don’t you have to try and find out what your fan base wants? And if that fan base isn’t happy, shouldn’t you work to make it happy?

Never before has social media allowed such an easy data set to analyze. (One caveat here, you have to ensure that the social media opinion is reflective of the overall population. I’m confident this Tennessee social media opinion is, in fact, reflective of the Tennessee fan opinion. But as I’ve written before, you have to be able to gauge your audience and ensure you aren’t just responding to a fringe while you alienate the silent majority.)

What we saw at Tennessee wasn’t interestingly, an unpredictable event, it was just an acceleration of the coaching hire cycle. Vol fans unanimously rejected Greg Schiano as the coach, but this was just the 2017 version of Ron Zook at Florida in 2001 or Gene Chizik at Auburn in 2008. Remember when Ron Zook was hired at Florida, fans revolted too. But how could they revolt? They started a website called fireronzook.com and everyone was amazed at how this newfangled thing called the Internet could reflect such dismay. I vividly remember how college football writers and TV announcers criticized fans for their behavior online and railed against the very idea that fans might want to express their opinions.

How dare they question the opinions and decisions of the people in positions of power?!

Yet, guess what, the fans were right.

But they had to suffer through two and a half years of mediocrity before their position was proven correct. They were right, Ron Zook was an awful hire. If Ron Zook had been hired in 2017, he would have been Schiano’d. I doubt he would have ever coached a game.

Fast forward to 2008 and Gene Chizik was hired at Auburn.

Social media hadn’t yet taken off, but a new contraption called YouTube had begun to exist. So when Jay Jacobs landed after hiring Chizik, then 5-19 at Iowa State, there were a couple of fans standing there yelling at him. That video was one of the first in college football to go viral.

If Auburn had hired Gene Chizik in 2017 their fans would have reacted the same way Tennessee’s did. That is, Auburn would have never been able to introduce Chizik, they would have walked away from the hire too.

Now, Chizik ended up winning a national title thanks to Gus Malzahn and Cam Newton, but absent those two hires the fan opinions of Chizik were correct. Chizik went 8-5, 8-5 and 3-9 and Auburn went back and hired Malzahn as its new coach.

So, really, the fans were right again.

What happened at Tennessee in 2017 isn’t new, it just all happened quicker. Tennessee fans could tell Schiano would be fired in three or four years after being mediocre and they didn’t want to wait for that. They wanted a hire who offered something more than mediocrity, they wanted a winner. And they wanted him now.

That’s what Jon Gruden really represents — an opportunity for excellence, for Tennessee to ascend back to the heights of college football where, historically, the Vols have found themselves. Gruden is a convenient vessel upon which to project a return to past glory. He immediately makes Tennessee matter on the national scene like Tennessee should matter on the national scene.

It’s easy to lose perspective and history in our rapidly moving country, but if social media had existed in 2006, when calls to Paul Finebaum’s Alabama talk radio show led to Rich Rodriguez turning down the Tide job, social media would have been awash in people Tweeting that Alabama football fans were the Tide’s biggest enemy that Alabama would never return to the glory of Bear Bryant and that fans should get over themselves.

The national media would have clucked their tongues and shook their fingers at Tide fans and said, “Y’all need to behave, you need to know your place. Alabama’ doesn’t matter anymore. The fans are the problem.”

But, guess what, Alabama fans had high standards, they demanded excellence.

And excellence eventually found them. Without those high standards Mal Moore wouldn’t have spent days in Miami desperately seeking an opportunity to meet with Nick Saban. Go back and read about that search, Mal Moore literally sat in the car on the curb outside Saban’s house and begged for Terri Saban to let him come inside and talk. He also booked a hotel room around the corner from Saban’s house and refused to leave Miami. If that happened today somebody would have taken a picture of Mal Moore sitting outside Saban’s house and it would have gone viral.

“Look how pathetic Alabama is, they are literally sitting outside Nick Saban’s house and he won’t let them in!”

Why did Mal Moore do that? Because he was terrified of going back to Alabama without Saban. The expectations of the Alabama fan base demanded greatness, and he had to deliver for them.

The same is true of Tennessee now only we don’t have a Mal Moore.

We have an AD who couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse with a stack of $100 bills. John Currie isn’t trying to make Tennessee football great again either, he’s trying to win six or seven or eight games for the next five years and hopefully get lucky and contend for an SEC East title.

But, guess what, Florida and Georgia both have good, proven coaches now. Do you think Dave Doeren or Greg Schiano were going to beat Dan Mullen, Kirby Smart and Nick Saban? I mean, ever?

Of course not.

If the Tennessee fan base was making this hire do you know who they would hire? Lane Kiffin. Do you know why? Because this fan base saw Lane Kiffin kick Georgia and South Carolina’s ass and come within a field goal of beating Alabama in his only year with the Vols. Oh, and he was also poised to sign the number one recruiting class in the nation.

Since that time Kiffin has run Saban’s offense for three years and gone to FAU and turned a three win team into a nine win team that is undefeated in conference games. Sure, he left Tennessee for USC, but if you haven’t had sex for nine years do you blame the girlfriend who left you if she wants to have sex again with you after nine years?

But even if it wasn’t Kiffin the fan base as a whole knows there are many coaches out there who offer the opportunity of a return to greatness.

So far Tennessee hasn’t been willing to pursue those coaches.

Why?

Because they think they know better than the fans.

But doesn’t the recent track record of Tennessee administrative decisions and the modern day success of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix teach us that they’re probably wrong?

The Tennessee fans would be better at picking a coach than John Currie would. And if he would just listen to what they want, I truly believe success would follow.

Because in the end the fans aren’t the inmates running the asylum, this administration is.

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