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Documents reveal 12 ways Tennessee’s coaching search was even more bonkers than we thought

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Newly reported documents show a PR effort to prop up a doomed hire, some weird Mike Leach texts, and how a Delta internet outage helped push out the Vols’ AD.

NCAA Football: Tennessee Press Conference
Now-fired Tennessee athletic director John Currie.
Wade Payne-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee’s search for a new football coach last winter took 25 action-packed days. Nine FBS teams fired their old coaches and then hired another in the time between UT’s dismissal of Butch Jones and its hiring of Jeremy Pruitt on Dec. 7.

This was the most bananas coaching search in years, maybe ever. Vols fans wanted then-Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden so, so badly, but athletic director John Currie appeared to hire ex-Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, who was then (and is now) Ohio State’s defensive coordinator. Vols fans shouted down the hire for various reasons. Currie lost his job and got replaced by ex-coach Phillip Fulmer. Along the way, seemingly every coach in the region was connected to the job.

But the search was somehow weirder than any of us realized, according to documents that began surfacing Friday.

Tennessee’s biggest rival reached out to help.

From Rocky Top Insider:

Hello John,

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, etc

I am happy to answer any questions you might have on the data.

That was reportedly sent one day after Jones’ firing, before things got really bad for the Vols, so maybe the Tide were emphasizing head coaches to try and keep UT away from Pruitt?

Currie called Vols fans “wacko” and asked a national reporter to help him manage “PR” after his attempted hiring of Schiano.

Regarding the above, welp:

We also got a peak into how Tennessee trustees dealt with the Schiano disaster as it was unfolding. One said a top donor had called him and indicated he or she would cut off their donations. Another decried the vibe around the attempted hire:

Regarding the bad odor, it is so disappointing that our fan base and our media are wiling to condemn a man of being a criminal even though he might be totally innocent.

A former Penn State assistant who was a key witness in the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case once said under oath that he’d heard from another assistant that, years earlier, Schiano had claimed to have seen Sandusky “doing something with a boy.” That claim about Schiano has never been substantiated.

Brady Hoke sent an all-caps text to hype himself for the job.

The former Michigan coach was the Vols’ interim for the last two games of the season. He’s now the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator.

A full text from Hoke to Currie, reported by 247Sports:

“JOHN I HOPE YOU DO KNOW I WOULD LIKE TO BE YOUR HEAD FOOTBALL COACH I DO KNOW THE ENVIRONMENT WE LIVE IN AND WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE AT TENNESSEE!”

Another:

JOHN VERY SORRY TO HEAR WHAT HAS HAPPENED THIS IS THE BULL CRAP THAT COLLEGE FOOTBALL HAS BECOME. IF I CAN BE OF ANY HELP PLEASE LET ME KNOW.

Tennessee got mad at Currie because of a wifi outage on a Delta flight, while Currie was going to meet with Mike Leach. He was then fired.

WBIR has details from Currie’s final hours in the AD job:

On Nov. 30, Currie took a six-hour flight from Tennessee to Los Angeles. We already knew that Currie was seriously considering Washington State coach Mike Leach. This was after the Schiano debacle had ended in flames. But others at Tennessee didn’t want Leach, and they tried to reach him en route. But they couldn’t, because his plane wifi didn’t work.

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.

Dear John,

Thank you for the email. I trust you are on your way back to Knoxville as I requested in my text this afternoon. This morning we tried for six hours to contact you about the state of the search. After finally connecting, you informed me that you were in California heading into a meeting with Mike Leach. This was the first I had heard of this meeting. Because of the confusion from earlier in the day with the other candidate, I asked you not to pursue any discussions about employment with any additional candidates. I would like to meet with you in my office at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow (Dec. 1)to continue this discussion.

Thank you,

Beverly

The next morning, after that meeting, Currie was suspended.

Leach’s texts are extremely Leach, even as he’s talking about a job interview.

Some texts/Twitter DMs Leach sent to Currie, per WBIR:

“Text whenever you’re ready. I’m on the bike path by the water”

Currie didn’t get the chance to meet with Leach, who had to leave LA anyway for a recruiting trip. That spawned this terrific exchange:

Shortly after midnight, Leach messaged Currie letting him know he had landed at his destination. “You’re a good man and I hope you come out of this ok and we can work together,” Leach said.

Currie responded at 1:44 a.m. to let Leach know he had landed in Knoxville, to which Leach replied, “Let me know if I can ever do anything for you. I truly wish I had gathered you up and we had the first of many beers together. I wis you and your family the best.”

It’s all so quintessentially Leach.

To Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy, Currie touted UT’s ability to avoid flight-tracking websites.

And yet, here we are reading about it anyway.

Currie and Gundy resumed communication the following day and met in Dallas on Nov. 28.

”Looks like Tenn orange,” Gundy wrote to Currie that morning.

Currie responded to Gundy’s quip with a multimedia message, apparently of the plane he hoped Gundy would board with him to Knoxville.

”As does this - on the ground here to take us where ever we go next! (Blocked from tracking too),” Currie wrote.

Gundy didn’t come to Knoxville.

Tennessee straight-up ghosted Doeren, the NC State coach.

USA Today in Knoxville reports on texts between Currie and Doeren’s agent, Jordan Bazant:

“Let’s get this done,” Bazant wrote to Currie on Nov. 28.

Two days later, on the morning of Nov. 30, Bazant wrote: “He is fired up.”

When Currie didn’t respond, Bazant wrote: “Really need to hear from you.”

Doeren received a new deal from NC State later that day.

In addition to all those other coaches we knew about already, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson had interest in the Vols’ gig.

Via 247Sports, a text from a Johnson rep:

“Mr. Currie I represent Paul Johnson of Ga Tech. He has interest in your HC position. I can be reached at (redacted). Best Regards Jack Reale.”

Former Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who ultimately took the Florida job, also comes up in the documents. Currie apparently tried to get Mullen a memorandum of understanding to sign, but eventually Mullen stopped answering UT’s texts.

Les Miles also wanted the job, which isn’t notable because Les Miles seems to want every job — and because pro wrestler Kane already hyped him for this one.

Rich Bisaccia, a longtime NFL assistant who was then the Cowboys’ special teams coach, also reportedly had interest in the job. Currie asked who he was. Bisaccia wound up on Gruden’s staff with the Oakland Raiders, because life is a big circle story.

One coach who might actually not have been on Tennessee’s list: Chip Kelly.

UCLA beat out Florida for the former Oregon coach, with reports that the Vols were in the race as well. However:

Currie, in his Nov. 22 text message to Davenport, said the report that Tennessee had made an offer to Kelly “is a complete fabrication planted by his agent [Trace Armstrong] to incite competition w (sic) other schools & drive up his price and perceived desirability.”

Currie cautioned Davenport that “as we head into the weekend the rumors & crazy speculation etc. will pick up as people throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks.”

Currie was tuned into the Grumor mill just like you were.

He 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.

I think Currie’s talking about this post here.

Even Tennessee’s just-graduated quarterback wanted to know about Gruden.

WBIR published this little back-and-forth between Josh Dobbs, then a rookie with the Steelers, and Currie. The former Vols QB was seeking Grumor details:

“Good evening Mr. Currie. Sooo are the rumors true?” Dobbs asked.

When Curried asked which rumors he was talking about, Dobbs said, “A lot of buzz around Coach Gruden. Wasn’t sure if it is legit or hearsay.”

”Geez even you?” Currie replied.

It’s not clear that Currie ever gave him a straight answer.

This ends with Tennessee officially paying a newly hired athletic director $2.5 million to walk away after one messy coaching search.

When Tennessee pushed Currie out of his job at the beginning of December, he had 55 months left on his contract, which ran through June 2022. The terms of Currie’s deal called for him to get $100,000 in buyout money for every remaining month of the deal. That put Tennessee on the hook for about $5.5 million buyout to get rid of him.

Tennessee tried to fire Currie for cause and save that money. (What was the cause? Being bad at hiring football coaches? I can think of lots of ADs like that.) The Vols announced a settlement with Currie on Thursday that will pay him $2.5 million in total.

On the one hand, good for Tennessee for cutting down its costs. On the other hand, Tennessee just paid $2.5 million to fire an athletic director whom it hired at the end of February 2017 and who lasted less than one year in the job.