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:
The fire Butch Jones sign made it to Monday Night Football. pic.twitter.com/kjAz09Drfl— RockyTopTalk (@RockyTopTalk) October 17, 2017
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.
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.
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.
We’d like to take a moment to clear things up as well as apologize. We got excited- like everyone. Please read: pic.twitter.com/AIyVvmppKC— Calhoun's (@calhouns) November 19, 2017
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.
The Preds just announced Gruden was in the house from Knoxville and showed a pic of some random dude on Jumbotron. Great trolling.— Mark Block (@chuyblock) November 19, 2017
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.
- Greg Schiano (we’ll come back to him, too)
- Now-Florida coach Dan Mullen (who actually seemed pretty plausible)
- Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson (sure!)
- Interim coach and eventual Panthers defensive coordinator Brady Hoke (who hilariously sent all-caps texts to throw his name in the hat)
- Jets defensive coordinator Kasey Rogers (OK?)
- Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker (at least he got a trip to New York out of it)
- Washington coach Chris Petersen (not a cultural fit at all)
- Purdue coach Jeff Brohm (aight, maybe)
- Now-UCLA coach Chip Kelly (which later we learned may have all just been a ruse by his agent)
- FAU coach Lane Kiffin (who viciously owned UT on social media throughout the whole process)
- Rich Bisaccia, a longtime assistant who once worked under Gruden (Currie had never heard of him, per released text messages)
- Tennessee legend and USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin (when mama calls, as they say)
- Duke coach David Cutcliffe (who would rather see things out in Durham)
- Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy (apparently by touting UT’s ability to avoid being on flight-tracking sites)
- Former LSU coach Les Miles (have a nice day)
- Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele (he was bad at Baylor)
- Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables (I just needed an excuse to share this email I got from some random person that wasn’t remotely true but, whatever, it’s funny.)
- Kevin Sumlin (seemed much better off unemployed than in Knoxville anyway)
- NC State coach Dave Doeren, whom Currie ghosted after an apparent agreement
- Mike Leach, who did his best by sending very Mike Leach texts
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:
UT fans now begging Lane Kiffin to take the HC job... here was "The Rock" on campus when he left...— SkyDog59 (@SkyDog_59) November 27, 2017
Consistant bunch, ain't they... pic.twitter.com/q7ej9EHMvP
(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:
What’s on the rock today? This. pic.twitter.com/AWDXsB7GiA— Donovan Long (@WVLTDonovan) December 1, 2017
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:
I’m just going to say this if we hire Greg Schiano as our next head coach my options will be open to which college program I will Be donating my TIME and MONEY to. (No disrespect to GS) but if UT leaders don’t take football serious then I will find the program that will!!!— Albert Haynesworth (@haynesworthiii) November 26, 2017
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.”
That text where an AD calls diehard UT supporters wacko and seeks the help of a national sports writer to help with a positive narrative. pic.twitter.com/puy0HczLdD— Joel Barker (@joelabarker) March 23, 2018
Tennessee did not save face.
This was the start of a bad week for Currie.
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:
Sources: John Currie was prepared to hire Mike Leach but university officials wouldn’t allow him to do so. Phillip Fulmer has been sabotaging search process in hopes to become Tennessee’s AD— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) December 1, 2017
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:
Who would have ever thought that Phillip Fulmer, who reveled in beating Alabama and is despised by Alabama fans to this day, would turn to an Alabama native, Alabama grad and Alabama assistant coach to lead the Vols' program? Not sure this search could have a more fitting ending.— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) December 7, 2017
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.