By Alex Norman
Well, it finally happened.
More than 6 months had passed since Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart announced that he would be retiring, leaving behind a legacy of Title IX problems, unnecessary lawsuits that cost the University millions, a coach vetting that would have been better done by a 12 year old with google, and pretty much the end of the most successful brand in women’s athletics. But on February 28th, Tennessee announced that Hart’s replacement had finally been hired. Lo and behold it was someone that actually had Tennessee ties!
Was it David Blackburn, the ultra-popular athletics director at UT-Chattanooga that had decades of experience at Tennessee?
Was it Phillip Fulmer, the national championship winning Tennessee football coach that had the support of Peyton Manning and big Vols boosters?
Was it Charles Davis, the former Tennessee football player and widely respected broadcaster?
New Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport decided to hire Kansas State athletics director John Currie, a former associate athletic director and graduate from Tennessee.
In a statement release by the University of Tennessee, Davenport said, “This is truly an exciting day for the University of Tennessee and our athletics department. As I said when we began this process, we were looking for the best candidate, and we feel strongly that we have him in John Currie. John exemplifies all the qualities we were seeking in an athletics director. He is a man of high integrity, strong values, a progressive thinker, he fully understands the importance of being compliant in everything we do, and he is a leader who will put the well-being of our student-athletes above everything.”
In that same statement, Currie said, “It is a very exciting time for my family and me as we return to a place that remains very special to us. We spent 10 years in Knoxville prior to taking the job at K-State, and I appreciate Chancellor Davenport and the University of Tennessee for providing us this special opportunity. As a graduate of the University of Tennessee, I know how much UT athletics means to the people in the state, and I look forward to serving all of the Big Orange Nation, its wonderful coaches, staff and student-athletes, for many years to come. We are excited to return to Rocky Top.”
The reaction was mixed. A majority of Tennessee fans seemed perplexed by the decision while the majority of national media members thought it was a great hire. Most wondered why Turnkey Sports & Entertainment was paid $75,000 (plus expenses) to find a guy that probably still has a working keycard on the UT campus.
The reality is this. No hire short of Blackburn was going to bring the Tennessee fan base together. The fact that Blackburn was never given a formal interview is extremely concerning, and brings back echoes of Kippy Brown’s sham interview at the same time Derek Dooley was dotting the i’s on his contract in 2010. Also, the optics of hiring an important member of former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton’s staff isn’t great. That group fired Fulmer, hired Lane Kiffin and Dooley, as well as baseball coach Todd Raleigh.
Even the hiring of Bruce Pearl… tremendous for five years before blowing up in year six, opens up questions about Currie’s ability to make productive changes.
That all said… Currie is a good choice here for a few reasons. He spent eight years in charge at a Power 5 conference. He is a solid fundraiser. He is a Tennessee guy that knows what the fan base and donors desire, things Hart never quite grasped. He is a stickler in terms of NCAA rules, which is not a bad thing for an athletic department that has had its share of run-ins with the governing body in the past decade.
In addition, Tennessee didn’t hire Cincinnati AD Mike Bohn. Going back to the Cincinnati well yet again (Davenport and football coach Butch Jones came there UC) would be been a public relations calamity.
Whether or not Currie is successful at Tennessee remains to be seen. If nothing else, his hiring (first day at work for Currie is April 1) finally closes the Dave Hart chapter, and brings stability to an athletics department that has been sorely lacking leadership.