America can stop laughing. The comedy of errors is over. A hint of sanity has returned to University of Tennessee athletics.
Chancellor Beverly Davenport on Friday replaced athletics director John Currie with Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer, 67, and directed him to restore order and find a football coach.
Fulmer said OK and all the other right things. He recognized components of UT past greatness, from fans to faculty, and called for unity in the forward march. He sounded as if he won’t settle for a hired gun as coach. He said he’d find someone who wants to be at the University of Tennessee.
He said he would help rescue recruiting. He said he has no interest in being interim coach. He did have on his national championship ring as a prop.
Dr. Davenport didn’t say much that mattered. She said Currie is suspended with pay, an apparent financial ploy that means something different from immediate dismissal. She said Fulmer will head up the athletics department for the foreseeable future and will lead the coach search. She did admit she has learned just how much Tennessee fans care about the Volunteers.
I thought I saw the hand of Dr. Joseph A. DiPietro, UT president, in the chancellor’s choice of Fulmer. Nine months ago, she insisted on an athletic director with on-the-job experience at a major university. She now sees that Fulmer’s Vol for life experience is more valuable.
DiPietro figured that out in June. He hired the old coach as a special adviser for community, athletics and university relations with the thought of bringing back fans who were still fretting that Fulmer or David Blackburn should have been chosen as athletics director when Bev picked Currie.
Fans “fired” Currie last Sunday after the first public blunder in what became an embarrassing, devastating week of trial and error. In the beginning, Currie wanted to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, an acquaintance from several years ago.
Because he had coached at Penn State during the Jerry Sandusky era of sexual abuse of children and because Schiano was mentioned as a possible witness who didn’t come forth, he was discarded as damaged goods and Currie took the hit for the turnover.
Somebody “fired” Currie in black and white paint on the famous campus rock. UT students chanted “Fire Currie” at the Wednesday basketball game, so loudly the pep band could not drown them out.
Meanwhile, Currie was chasing around the country trying desperately to hire a coach. He measured interest or offered big money to Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Duke’s David Cutcliffe. North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, Dan Mullen when he was still at Mississippi State and possibly unemployed coach Kevin Sumlin, late of Texas A&M.
For sure he talked with Washington State’s Mike Leach on Thursday, at about the same Dr. Davenport told him to return to campus for a Friday morning meeting.
National sportscasters and writers mocked the mess. Former Vols protested. Politicians piled on.
I must admit that never, in my more than six decades of monitoring the university, have I seen so much confusion and hostility. I can’t believe one man, Currie, caused it all by himself. Somebody, behind the scene, had to be helping with the disaster.
Fulmer will promote stability and find some help to scrub the tarnished image. The coach will be in New York next week for Peyton Manning’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. They’ll look good together again.
Current coaches with no interest in Tennessee under previous circumstances, may suddenly develop an interest. No way Fulmer can do worse than Currie.
Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org