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The many twists and turns of Tennessee’s bananas coaching search, which ended with the Vols hiring Jeremy Pruitt after 25 days

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Take a ride through the Vols’ 2017 roller coaster search, updated with the best from the 2018 document dump.

John Currie, Jeremy Pruitt, and Phillip Fulmer.
USA TODAY Sports

I’m not sure how to really reconcile this, but Tennessee’s coaching search that was so wild for so long ended up coming to an end in the most normal way possible. Or, sort of. Let’s take a walk down memory lane.

Our journey began on Nov. 12.

The inevitable finally happened, after months of fan calls like this one:

That’s when Tennessee coach Butch Jones was mercifully fired by Tennessee. The end was ugly, with threats of a fan boycott among the more overt showings of discontent. Jones made his share of faux pas and rarely won a game worth writing home about, but to his credit, he did leave Tennessee’s better than he found it.

That was not near enough to overcome a 34-17 record, and a loss to Missouri was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In Jones’ last game, Tennessee fans hated it when the marching band played “Rocky Top” to celebrate a blocked extra point while the Vols trailed 50-17.

Setting the strange tone right away, Tennessee’s biggest rival reached out to UT AD John Currie to help.

From Rocky Top Insider, one of many documents dumped by the Vols three months after Pruitt’s hire:

My name is Kyle Vasey and I am an assistant AD for strategic planning at Alabama. Greg Byrne asked me to send you some analysis we performed on head coaches recently. You’ll find an excel spreadsheet which ranks head coaches based on a metric we created called: coaching efficiency. This metric is a weighted score which incorporates various factors such as national championships, final AP ranking, overall win percentage, etc. You’ll also find a pdf file which analyzes coaches based on their previous coaching experience: Power 5 Head Coach, Power 5 Assistant Coach, former NFL head coach, etcI am happy to answer any questions you might have on the data.

Like always, Tennessee fans’ white whale was Jon Gruden.

It was GRUMOR time. A near-decade-long fever dream to bring Gruden to Knoxville kicked up into a new gear with reports of a $10 million offer to unseat him from his Monday Night Football perch.

There was a Periscoped stakeout of a Knoxville airport, in which a Tennessee fan waited and hoped that Gruden would step off of a plane, that 4,500 people watched at once.

The GRUMORS culminated with an erroneous report that the former Bucs coach was dining across the street from Neyland Stadium on the night of a Vols game with Peyton Manning.

It wasn’t, giving us a RESTAURANT GRUMORS STATEMENT.

Currie was reading articles on this very website, USA Today Network says:

Gruden’s name is mentioned only once in an outgoing Currie text message: He sent a link to an SB Nation article while the “Grumors” reached their peak in mid-November.

“Note the gruden cam at preds gam,” Currie wrote on Nov. 20 in reference to an on-screen jab taken by the Nashville Predators after the UT coaching search reached what was the most absurd level at the time.

Even Gruden thought the search was taking forever.

“Hopefully will be a matter of time,” Gruden said during a Dec. 4 Monday Night Football broadcast he was working. “It’s been a long while since they solved that.”

So many other coaches were linked to this job at one time or another.

Below is a non-chronological list of just about every coach I could find even tangentially linked to the Vols job once Jones was canned.

The Rock, a Tennessee icon where students can write messages, became a hub for pro-Lane Kiffin messaging.

Vols fans had come a long way from this a few years earlier:

(Kiffin would’ve been a defensible hire, though an odd one, given his UT past.)

The Rock was a popular spot throughout the search, actually.

Some other points made on it:

Schiano’s failed courting signaled the truly rarified air.

Plenty of schools get turned down for their first choice and their second and their third. Plenty of schools get tantalizingly close to getting their man. Plenty of schools have fans unhappy with the new coach. Plenty of schools have people within the athletic department choosing sides during the search.

But what happened at Tennessee was on a different level.

First, there’s Schiano. Schiano wasn’t just close to being Tennessee’s head coach. He’d signed a memorandum of understanding, arguably making him the coach.

That’s before a social media firestorm and public protest outside of school facilities forced Tennessee to go back on the deal:

It included former players:

And state politicians:

Currie even asked a national reporter to help him manage “PR” after his attempted hiring of Schiano. Oh, and he called Vol fans “wacko.”

Tennessee did not save face.

This was the start of a bad week for Currie.

There were multiple sporting events in which dozens, if not hundreds, of people chanted for him to be fired.

Days later, Currie’s failure to hire Leach became at least his third bungled hire in a year. Add it to Schiano and the time Currie, at K-State, tried to hire respected defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt as coach-in-waiting behind Bill Snyder.

Professional wrestler Kane offered Currie one obvious solution.

This is him:

Kane was also a candidate for Knox County mayor, making him one of a handful of politicians to have weighed in.

Former Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer took Currie’s job.

Fulmer was a reported candidate for the job the previous winter, before Tennessee decided to hire Kansas State AD (and former Tennessee administrator) Currie. And then Fulmer staged a palace coup:

Tennessee looked to be on the hook for a combined $13 million-plus in buyout money to Jones and Currie, though Currie’s portion would be negotiated down. That’s on top of any potential dollars Tennessee might owe Schiano for backing out of his deal, plus logistical costs.

It was later revealed that Tennessee got mad at Currie because of a wifi outage on a flight, while he was going to meet with Leach.

WBIR has details from Currie’s final hours in the AD job. Currie didn’t meet with Leach, because he landed in Los Angeles to this text from his boss, UT chancellor Beverly Davenport:

“We need you to come back to Knoxville tonight.”

Currie responded, “What should I tell coach Leach?”

”Tell him you have nothing more you can talk with him about,” Davenport replied.

Currie wrote an email to several UT officials, including Davenport and President Dr. Joe DiPietro, saying:

”I have been trying to call for 45 minutes to discuss situation but I understand from the text that I have been instructed to end my visit with Coach Leach and return to Knoxville. I am not sure I can get a flight tonight but I will head to the airport as soon as I talk to and let him know.

“I am very sorry for the stress I caused by the wifi outage on the Delta flight,” Currie added to his email. He had wanted to tell Tennessee administrators they could’ve gotten a deal done with NC State coach Dave Doeren, another candidate who had infuriated fans. Davenport then called Currie in for a meeting the next morning.

The Vols eventually announced a settlement with Currie in March that will pay him $2.5 million.

The Fulmer takeover happened amid booster infighting.

Cleveland Browns owner and Pilot Flying J truck stop magnate Jimmy Haslam — the brother of Tennessee’s governor — reportedly called one politician after she criticized the attempted Schiano hire. Haslam’s also reportedly the guy who pushed for Currie over Fulmer in the first place and was previously interested in Schiano when the Browns were doing one of their nearly annual coaching changes in 2014. Fulmer might’ve lost previous battles here but clearly won the war.

To Fulmer’s credit, once he took control, things were fairly normal.

The Vols got some candidates, vetted them, and interviewed them in a timely and low-key manner. No fireworks. Fulmer took the helm on Dec. 2, and Tennessee announced the Pruitt hire on Dec. 7.

This now ends one of two ways. Either Pruitt leads the Vols to the promised land, and Fulmer & Co. have the last laugh, or he’s unable to engineer success and we’ve got another Tennessee coaching search on our hands in a few years.

Relatively speaking, even hiring a Saban assistant was made weird.

For one thing, Pruitt did not know what asparagus was until 2005. We know this because Pruitt was an assistant at Hoover (Ala.) then, when the school was featured on MTV’s Two-A-Days.

Also, there’s this point about Fulmer and Alabama:

Still, Pruitt’s the fourth Saban assistant with a current SEC head job.

He joins Kirby Smart at Georgia, Will Muschamp at South Carolina, and Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M. Hiring ex-Saban hands is something teams do.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Things were supposed to continue to hit the fan, and Fulmer was supposed to pull some wild rabbit out of a hat. But perhaps Tennessee just exhausted itself.

These nine FBS teams completed an entire coaching change cycle between Tennessee’s official Jones firing and Pruitt hiring:

  • Arizona State (Todd Graham out, Herm Edwards in)
  • Arkansas (Bret Bielema out, Chad Morris in. And the Hogs carried out an entire athletic director search in this span, with an interim AD handling most of the Morris hiring process, despite having their own wild booster culture.)
  • Florida State (Fisher out, Willie Taggart in)
  • Mississippi State (Dan Mullen out, Joe Moorhead in)
  • Nebraska (Mike Riley out, Scott Frost in)
  • Rice (David Baliff out, Mike Bloomgren in)
  • Texas A&M (Kevin Sumlin out, Fisher in)
  • UCF (Scott Frost out, Josh Heupel in)
  • UCLA (Jim Mora out, Chip Kelly in)

The Vols’ search was approximately 100, in coaching search years.