Tennessee’s John Currie is known in athletic director circles as a square, the type of high-strung and tightly wound leader who is better dealing with donors than coaches. Currie has preferred to stay behind-the-scenes as an athletic director during his tenure at Kansas State and his first few months at Tennessee, more comfortable in the background than up front.
Currie is not a fan of conflict, as shown on Sunday afternoon when he didn’t even call Greg Schiano’s representatives to personally deliver the news that the school was backing off its plan to hire him as its next head coach. With Tennessee fans sending him relentless vitriol on his cellphone and images of unrest back in Knoxville popping up online, Currie capitulated to public pressure. It wasn’t surprising to anyone who knows Currie that he had a third party deliver the news.
The outrage of Tennessee fans over Schiano’s hire was rooted in their football preferences and fueled by a tenuous and uncorroborated second-hand link to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (Read Dan Wetzel’s legal analysis of that, which breaks down the realities.) It provided a perfect storm of uncomfortable modern realities, where those screaming the loudest ended up getting their way without much regard to factual realities.
And that leaves Currie, the noted square and avoider of conflict, in the middle of a most public fight to save his job and salvage his reputation. As Tennessee picks up the pieces from an afternoon where they decided to let their fans dictate their coaching search “American Idol”-style, Currie’s role at the university will be directly tied to how he manages these awkward and unprecedented circumstances. For Currie, the reality of his future as Tennessee’s athletic director is that he’s tied to a search that’s rigged to go poorly.
Then there’s Schiano, who received an outpouring of support on Monday, including from Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. But after having his reputation torched because of an unsubstantiated piece of information, one veteran athletic director best summed up the whole mess this way on Monday: “Everyone loses.”
Let’s start with Currie, who now has a searing spotlight on him as he moves on in his search, a position he’s surely uncomfortable in. Currie’s insistence on running his own search and engaging few at the university may be backfiring on him, as it distanced him from key decision-makers when everything imploded on Sunday and no one was capable of managing it.
Will good candidates want to come to Knoxville? One coach that had been a prime Tennessee target who will not be involved is Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, as he agreed to a new six-year deal on Monday evening. Will others follow Campbell and steer clear of Tennessee or use the school for a raise?
If Tennessee is really operating “American Idol”-style, a popular name would be 63-year-old Duke coach David Cutcliffe. He’s Peyton Manning’s old coordinator and has an extensive history with the school from his tenure there between 1982-98. With Currie’s power in the search likely limited because of Sunday’s mess, the focus may well be on getting “a Tennessee guy,” the type of short-sighted and myopic overreaction that led to Sunday’s mess in the first-place. (The popular theory is that Cutcliffe would hire USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin, who won a national title as a quarterback at Tennessee.) A source said on Monday afternoon that Cutcliffe communicated with Duke officials on Sunday night that he’s “firmly committed” to Duke. (Cutcliffe did not return a call seeking comment.)
So who would be next? Jeff Brohm is a safe and solid hire, but would he risk the career stigma of leaving Purdue after just a year to take the seventh-best job in the SEC? Brohm has always coveted the Louisville job because of his family’s strong ties to the school and community. (And without Tom Jurich around, how long can the awkward second marriage of Bobby Petrino and Louisville really last?) Brohm would be a great hire, but would he want to dive into the Tennessee toxicity? Or does he wait for a Top 10 job or his dream job? Waiting seems like a more pragmatic option. (This is where things get dangerous for Tennessee, as it has lost leverage and needs to save face. The Vols are destined to overpay for a coach if they can lure a solid one.)
So who else? Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has been involved with the Tennessee job in past openings. He’s a proven winner, and his mullet and antics would likely be embraced by the Tennessee fan base. He and Currie would not be a good match, as they are about as similar as Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Gundy has been openly petulant with his bosses for years in Stillwater, which isn’t attractive to future employers (and Currie knows this well from his tenure in the Big 12). But Tennessee officials may not be making this decision with Currie’s preferences in mind. And, well, Gundy has won big – five seasons of double-digit victories in the past eight years. That could be six with a bowl win.
There’s always Washington State’s Mike Leach, a proven winner who delivers exciting offense and even better press conferences. But Leach’s spread system, despite a sterling track record, may get sneered at by Manning and those involved in the Tennessee search.
Once a coach is in place, it will be interesting to see what happens with Currie. He has a potential escape hatch available, as the Washington State athletic director job is open and his former president at Kansas State, Kirk Schulz, is up there. Could Currie see the whole situation at Tennessee so unmanageable that he bails? It’s too early to tell, but this slog forward at Tennessee doesn’t feel ideal for someone who dislikes conflict. Currie’s leash is short, no matter what happens, and that’s not a fun way to operate.
What’s next for Schiano? That may be the most complicated issue. In one afternoon, his character was attacked by an online lynch mob that appeared more worried about his football credentials than studying his tie to the deposition in question.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith backed Schiano with vigor on Monday, telling Yahoo Sports: “I’ll be strong supporting him.”
Smith went through his vetting of Schiano’s tie to the Sandusky case. The tie involved former Penn State assistant Mike McQueary saying in a deposition that he was told by another assistant, Tom Bradley, that Schiano told him he’d seen Sandusky “doing something” with a boy in a shower. Schiano was never charged, investigators never pursued the case and Smith said that Schiano was “never deposed.” Schiano and Bradley have both publicly denied the allegations.
Smith told Yahoo Sports that he and Ohio State officials studied all of the documentation involved with the case. No legal entities or anyone seeking civil suits view the mention as being credible enough to pursue legally. “He was never even called in,” Smith said. “The accusation, it all just fell off the face of the Earth.”
Schiano had just been hired at Ohio State when the document emerged. And Smith said he did his diligence, calling officials at Penn State, Rutgers and others who’d worked with Schiano over the years to verify his character.
Schiano had plenty of supporters Monday, including a Penn State trustee, Anthony Lubrano, who said on Monday that Schiano had “nothing to do with the Sandusky scandal.” He added: “Any stories about his involvement are completely uncorroborated and without basis in fact. To impugn Mr. Schiano’s character based on hearsay alone is irresponsible and unfair.”
Smith said he’s fully behind Schiano at both Ohio State and in helping him obtain jobs in the future: “I’m going to do my best to help him. He should be a head coach. Not just wins and losses. The way he handles kids. I care a lot about wins and losses, but I care a lot more about how you develop young men.”
As for what happened to Schiano on Sunday, Smith remained in disbelief. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “I’m a big believer in protests, fact-based protests. This one was not fact-based. It might be the new day of the electronic media at its height.”
And for Currie, the wave of interest in how his search imploded only ratchets up the pressure for him to land a strong candidate.
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