In an unprecedented move in College Football, the University of Tennessee backed out of hiring Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano on Sunday due to an overwhelming outcry from their own fan base. It was one of the most surreal days in the history of the sport.
Rocky Top Revolt: The Real Story
The story of the Rocky Top Revolt is long and complex. It’s more than disgruntled fans unhappy with the selection of Schiano as head coach. It is about years of dysfunction in the administration of the athletic program, both leaders and boosters. It’s about eroding quality, hypocrisy, and cronyism in sports journalism. And it’s about the power of social media — and how that threatens the aforementioned sports journalism profession.
To dismiss this fan uprising as uneducated fans having undue influence on a coaching search is both ill-informed and short-sighted. We take a four-part look at everything that happened on Sunday, and why. We also look at the implications.
Yesterday, we focused on Greg Schiano and his very average coaching history. While Schiano was the central figure in Sunday’s drama, he wasn’t the antagonist. If not Schiano, then who was the antagonist?
In Part 2 of our series, we examine the Tennessee administration. This is the group that the fans are most angry with. The outrage on Sunday wasn’t really directed at Schiano. The Rocky Top Revolt is directed squarely on three key figures of Tennessee’s administration.
Part 2: Administrative Malpractice
The real Revolt here is against Tennessee’s administration. It’s far less about the potential hire of a coach than it is about gross negligence by a university chancellor, an athletics director, and the school’s primary athletic benefactor. And it’s a revolt that’s been brewing for quite a long time.
The back story begins in November, 2008, almost nine years ago this weekend. Long time Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer was suffering through a 5-7 campaign, only his second losing season in 17 years in Knoxville. The previous season, Tennessee had won their third Eastern Division title in the past five seasons. Regardless, Tennessee athletics director Mike Hamilton made the decision to fire Fulmer. His primary associate athletic director at the time was John Currie, the current Tennessee A.D.
The Past As Prologue?
After Fulmer’s dismissal from Tennessee, Hamilton hired Lane Kiffin. It was the first time since 1964 that Tennessee hired someone without ties to the school to be their head coach.
In the last nine seasons, Hamilton resigned under pressure. Dave Hart was brought in to right the ship financially and with compliance matters. Hart left earlier this year after a tough tenure that included eliminating the popular Lady Vols brand and continued compliance issues with basketball coach Donnie Tyndall. Tennessee hired John Currie in his place.
Also in those nine years, Tennessee saw Kiffin bolt for his dream job at USC, hired Derek Dooley from Louisiana Tech, and Butch Jones from Cincinnati. In the first 110 years of Tennessee football, they had 20 coaches. In the last nine seasons, they’ll have had five once the new coach is hired.
It’s this preamble that sets the stage for the emotion and anger that the sports nation witnessed on Sunday.
Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport hired John Currie in February of 2017. Currie had served under Mike Hamilton at Tennessee for many years. Currie moved to Kansas State, in 2009, shortly after the dismissal of Fulmer.
Davenport herself was hired just weeks before she brought John Currie on board. She chose Currie over Phillip Fulmer and David Blackburn. Blackburn also had history in the Tennessee athletics department and was the A.D. at Tennessee-Chattanooga. He was well respected at UTC and had success hiring coaches in football and basketball. Fulmer and Blackburn were thought to be the strongest contenders.
The Currie Hire
But 13 days after her official announcement, she hired Currie. For Currie’s part, he had a tumultuous relationship with both Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder and men’s basketball coach Frank Martin. Currie’s friction with both Snyder and Martin reportedly centered around Currie’s insistence that the coaches adhere to some of his program and sport-specific policies.
While this might seem like small details for the casual fan, it’s important to remember that Tennessee fans were very unhappy with both Hamilton and Hart. Davenport’s predecessor, Jimmy Cheek, also wasn’t considered a fan favorite. Many fans were perplexed when Davenport picked out Currie less than two weeks onto the job. Particularly with the strained relationships with Snyder and Martin.
In retrospect, Davenport’s decision to hire Currie seems eerily similar to Sunday’s fiasco. A relatively new administrator seemingly rushes into an underdog hire that is unpopular.
Either way, Davenport owns the Currie hire. And with the past decade of administrative malpractice at Tennessee, she’s now part of the problem.
Enter Jimmy Haslam. He is the missing piece that most people around the nation don’t know about with regards to what happened on Sunday. Haslam has been the primary benefactor and largest booster for the University of Tennessee athletics program for the past decade.
Jimmy Haslam is part of a very powerful family with deep ties to the Tennessee athletic program. His father founded the Flying J/Pilot interstate gas station and convenience store chain. Haslam’s brother, Bill, is the Governor of Tennessee. Of course, as governor, he has tremendous influence over state run institutions.
That is especially useful when you’re the athletic director and you’re asking for 340 million dollars of state money for stadium renovations.
Haslam’s Track Record
Haslam himself was a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers until he bought the Cleveland Browns in 2012. Under Haslam’s leadership, the Browns are a combined 20-71 over the last six seasons. They are 4-39 over the last 43 games. The Browns are now the standard-bearer for futility in the National Football League.
And Haslam’s decade as the lead booster at Tennessee isn’t much better. The “Past as Prologue” section above was authored primarily by Haslam himself.
According to local radio host Tony Basilio, Haslam was the primary force behind the Greg Schiano hire. Remember, in 2014 Peter King wrote an article about how Halsam’s desire to hire Schiano as coach of the Browns essentially fractured the Browns’ front office. So, this is not the first time Haslam has tried to hire Schiano. And it’s not the first time that it has ended in disaster. Since Joe Banner left the Browns, they are 4-39. In the NFL. Curiously, the front office fracture caused by Schiano in 2014 didn’t raise nearly the amount of national media activism that it did on Sunday.
It’s also strange that in a season where NFL owners are struggling to maintain a working relationship with their players and making statements about the “inmates running the prison” that Haslam would so fervently push for coaches known to be disciplinarians — specifically Schiano and new candidate Dave Doeren. Does Haslam think that Tennessee has a locker room discipline issue? Was he really the decision maker behind the dismissal of popular player Juaun Jennings after an Instagram outburst before the Vanderbilt game? Is Haslam the reason why Tennessee hasn’t called Tee Martin? These are all questions that one must think about with Haslam’s actions in the past few years.
On top of all of this, the Knoxville News Sentinel is reporting that Haslam is on tape regarding a Pilot/Flying J trial over cheating trucking companies on diesel rebates.
Money might buy you teams, but it can’t buy you success. It also can’t replace leadership.
His Biggest Sin?
It’s also being reported from multiple people that Haslam asked Tennessee legend Peyton Manning to sign off on the Schiano hire and rally support from former players.
I’m gonna make this as clear as I can even though I know it won’t be popular: Peyton Manning had everything to do with this Schiano fiasco & if Tee Martin doesn’t get a call, you can point straight at the QB that didn’t win Tennessee a national title.
— Janna Abraham (@SportsPundette) November 28, 2017
Remember — Manning once cursed out Schiano at midfield after a game due to Schiano’s penchant for calling all-out blitzes in victory formations (See Part 1). So, why would Manning advocate for a guy that he despises? Remember, Manning wants to work in the front office of an NFL franchise, ala John Elway. Also remember that Jimmy Haslam owns an NFL franchise. Haslam’s turning of Manning is akin to Emperor Palpatine turning Anakin Skywalker to the dark side.
For Tennessee’s athletic program to get back to success, Jimmy Haslam must be replaced as the primary benefactor. More than any other single factor, Sunday’s revolt was about the inordinate amount of influence wielded by a utterly incapable football decision maker.
Enter John Currie, stage right. Currie was hired as Tennessee’s ninth athletic director in February, 2017. His past at Kansas State is detailed above. We will examine his role in the Rocky Top Revolt here.
Currie is either one of two things. He is either simply a bag man for Haslam, or he is completely in over his head as Tennessee’s A.D.
If it’s the former, then Currie is ineffective as an administrator at a top program nationally. All programs have influential boosters and influential former players. No Athletic Director at a Power 5 school has complete control or autonomy. But effective A.D.s know how to make things happen. And effective A.D.s know that while they might not be the only powerful person, they are the most powerful person. Moreover, effective A.D.s know how to lead a program as well as merely manage it. Currie has displayed none of these traits thus far.
If it’s the latter, then Currie is lost. At his announcement of Butch Jones’ firing, Currie provided fans with a glimmer of hope for positive change when he mentioned a big explosive hire. He even mentioned a coach with the “highest integrity and character” as qualifications. Yesterday’s Part 1 detailed in depth Greg Schiano, his coaching record, his coaching methods, and of course his connection with the Sandusky scandal.
Having laid out all that Schiano had to offer, there is no way — absolutely no way — any person could justify Schiano being at the top of Tennessee’s list. It was administrative malpractice of the highest order. Currie would have known this had he consulted people within the department, former players, and boosters other than Haslam.
But Currie not only bungled the coach, he bungled the process. Currie was hell-bent on a secretive hiring process, even going so far as having the athletic department schedule false flight manifests to throw off the local media. Had Currie selectively leaked some indications of Schiano, he would have known the depth of his failure before he was forced to back out of a signed MOU and fly back to Knoxville empty-handed.
Even more damning is this: Currie likely had Schiano lined up for at least two weeks. If you listen to Jarrett Guarantano and Trey Smith’s post game comments following the Vanderbilt game, they talk multiple times about discipline and getting on board with whoever the new coach is. Additionally, Currie spent several days in the Bahamas with the Tennessee basketball team. With a hire as important as this, and with an early signing period coming up, can an A.D. really spend three days out of town without having a coach already committed? If he does, that’s malpractice as well.
It’s very likely Currie wasted two weeks of recruitment while Schiano played out Ohio State’s last two games. Meanwhile, other quality coaches who were far better fits for Tennessee were deep in conversation with other schools (See Mullen, Frost, et al).
A Fractured Program
The glaring concern here about Currie’s absolute mismanagement job, is it shows just how fractured he’s made the program. Former players were consulted, but clearly weren’t listened to. Current players are asking for honesty out of a coaching staff, yet their A.D. is pulling out of contracts. The fan base was essentially trolled for a month. And several big boosters were kept in the dark on the engineering of the Schiano contract.
It’s almost as if Currie’s plan of domination for the athletic department is to divide and conquer, rather than unite the many factions.
But it didn’t turn out that way. In fact, Currie’s utter failure in this coaching hire has only served to unite almost every Tennessee supporter in one way: they are all demanding change. Starting with Currie.
A Decade of Poor Leadership
That’s what this is really about. It’s about Tennessee fans being fed up with a decade of incompetent leadership in the athletic administration. Davenport and Currie, both less than a year into the job, are no different than those that have come before them in the previous ten years. And super booster Jimmy Haslam continues to captain the ship right into the storm.
No, Vols fans weren’t directing their anger at Greg Schiano, they were directing their anger at their own leaders.
And if things don’t get fixed soon, the anger might turn into action.
Part 3: Tomorrow we take a look at the inexplicable national media reaction to the Rocky Top Revolt, including interesting connections between Greg Schiano and some prominent voices, the hypocrisy and disconnect of the national sports media, and the impact of social media on modern college football.
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