It’s probably not about John Currie

Tennessee football is broken, and it’s becoming more and more evident with each passing moment that it’s broken in ways that aren’t limited to just the team or whoever the current coach happens to be. It goes much deeper than that.

We all know what has happened. What we haven’t gotten clarity on yet is why it is happening. Much of the national media lays the blame on common fans for believing they have a right to influence the decisions of the athletic department. Fans blame the coaches when the team does poorly, and after Sunday’s very public Contractus Interruptus, fans were screaming for a similar fate for athletic director John Currie. At the basketball game the other night, the arrows started reaching another rung up the ladder to Beverly Davenport.

This morning, fans got their wish as to Currie, but it came just as he’d done something right in reportedly landing Mike Leach, a win that seemed to please most Vols fans. That deal now appears to be off, if it was ever really on.

What the heck is going on here?

It’s tempting to believe that firing Currie or firing the Chancellor or whoever is at the top of the totem pole will fix the problem, but we’ve experienced an unending series of issues for nearly a decade now, and every time one problem is uprooted, another one pops up in its place.

Maybe it’s something much deeper. Maybe it’s time to stop focusing on the people who’ve been hired and fired and instead start wondering whether those people are being improperly influenced by the wrong people. Maybe there’s a common thread lurking in the shadows, shielded by the scapegoats.

This is why it is so irritating to have national media calling out the common fans for what happened Sunday. I said this in many more words a couple of days ago, but let me try to say it more succinctly this time: If you think Sunday was the first time a fan base influenced an athletic department, you’re just wrong. What was notable about Sunday was that common fans were pushing back against the rich ones.

Big money boosters (a small number of fans with a ton of money) have always had influence over the athletic department to which they give money, while common fans (a ton of fans with a little money) have never had the same privilege until technology enabled them to aggregate their influence. At most places, common fans don’t mind the big money boosters because they don’t actually screw anything up.

No, common fans wouldn’t have any problem with rich fans having influence over the department if they were actually making the program better. But if they’ve been screwing it up for a decade and there’s no way to get rid of them, your athletic department has a very serious problem.

The growing perception of common Vols fans is that the Tennessee athletic department has long been beholden to rich men with terrible judgment about football. On Sunday, the collective voice of the common fan revolted, not necessarily because the athletic department wasn’t listening to them, but because it was becoming more and more clear that some really rich guy had optioned the right to make decisions for the entire fan base and was ruining the program in the process.

The view from the stands

Common Vols fans aren’t allowed behind the curtain on The Hill, so we can only rely on whatever information we can gather from media members with sources to help us figure out what’s going on.

But when you start to see comments like this from credible national media members, you have to wonder:


So, if that’s DING DING DING true, just who is it that had Currie’s hands tied until last night?

I’m telling you right now that I don’t have sufficient sources to know, but I do know that when you venture onto Twitter or message boards or Tony Basilio’s radio show for any amount of time, the name you’ll see or hear most often is Jimmy Haslam’s.

I am not taking a position on whether Haslam is the sole problem, a problem, or not a problem at all. I’m only saying that I do believe that the program is suffering from too much influence from one or several big money boosters and that there are a lot of common Vols fans who believe that it’s Haslam causing the most trouble.

Why are Vols fans suspicious of Jimmy Haslam?

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and you’re okay
Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Money, by Pink Floyd

Jimmy Haslam is rich beyond comprehension for most of us. He’s the CEO of Pilot Flying J, the 15th-largest private company in the United States. According to Forbes, he’s worth $3.6 billion.

Haslam loves football, but he’s terrible at managing a program. He bought the Cleveland Browns back in 2012 for $990 million. Since that time, Cleveland has been considered the worst franchise in the NFL, finishing dead last in the AFC North every year since Haslam bought the team. Over the past six years, the team has gone 5-11, 4-12, 7-9, 3-13, and 1-15, and they are winless this year. One Browns fan has purchased a permit to hold an 0-16 parade around FirstEnergy Stadium at the conclusion of this season. They are 1-29 in their past 30 games and 4-44 dating back to 2014. It’s the worst 48-game stretch in NFL history. They are not just bad, but historically, terribly bad. People are beginning to seriously wonder whether the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft this year might refuse to sign with the Browns if they’re the ones to pick him.

Of course, you can’t buy a college football team like you can an NFL team. But you can give a boatload of money to one, and Haslam is a major donor to the University of Tennessee. He was part of three generations of the Haslam family that donated $50 million to the UT College of Business back in 2014.

To my knowledge, there have been no reports of big money boosters causing any serious problems at Tennessee, but it’s no secret that donating large amounts of money earns you certain privileges at the schools to which you donate.

And there are, in fact, some reports that Haslam has been and is involved in important decisions for the athletic department. Jimmy Hyams reported that when the school was hiring someone to replace outgoing athletic director Dave Hart, Haslam was not only on the search committee, but was “the search committee member that pushed for Currie.”

And regarding the current search for a new coach to replace Butch Jones, Mike Griffith recently reported that:

Currie declined to use a search firm, and he has instead been consulting with the family of Vols booster Jimmy Haslam and Tennessee legend Peyton Manning, according to the source.

Griffith also said via Tweet that Manning has merely “been involved” and that Haslam is “at the point.”

Subsequent reports suggest that Haslam’s involvement after last Sunday has been limited. But up until then, at least, a guy who’s owned a terrible team for five years and has given millions of dollars to the University was reportedly involved in some of the most important decisions they make. And so many of those decisions have not gone very well at all.

But does any of that mean Haslam is forcing himself on the University? Not necessarily. Maybe they want his help.

But let me ask you this: Would you?

We’ve already established that the NFL team he’s owned for five years is historically bad, so why would you ask him for advice on football matters?

In addition to that, there’s that not-so-small matter of the current Pilot Flying J scandal. This article is not about that case, so I won’t spend too much time on the details, but here’s the gist: Pilot Flying J, the company of which Jimmy Haslam is CEO, is embroiled in an ongoing fraud case against the company. The FBI and IRS raided the corporate headquarters in 2013, and 14 former employees have already pled guilty. Four more former executives are on trial for conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. The company has already paid $92 million in fines (and the board of directors reportedly confessed criminal responsibility in connection therewith), and the company paid another $85 million to settle with customers. So far, Jimmy Haslam himself has not been charged. This week, though, feds began to look into his potential knowledge or involvement based on a recording purportedly showing that he was present at a meeting during which the fraud was allegedly being taught to staff.

None of that is to suggest that Jimmy Haslam himself is guilty of anything, but whether he’s guilty or not is not the point.

The point is this: When you Google Jimmy Haslam’s name right now, what you get is a page full of news associating his name with fraud.

Who in their right mind would think it’s a good idea to send him out on a coaching search to represent a school with its own reputation problem?

Separation of powers

So, when a highly-respected national media member endorses the idea that the real problem at Tennessee was something improperly influencing the athletic director, well, that should get your attention. So should someone as respectable as Bruce Feldman mentioning in an article published this morning that, “there is a lot of in-fighting, finger-pointing and back-stabbing taking place amongst Tennessee brass.”

Does that verify the common fans’ belief that Haslam’s been wielding too much influence over the process? Does it mean a coup is underway among the most influential boosters, and if so, is that a good thing? Is the department finally headed toward stability? Are we possibly at risk of trading one tyrant for another? Or has someone with a white hat finally rode in to save the day?

It’s too early to tell, of course. But it would seem that a re-balancing of power at this time might be a very good thing, even as ugly as it’s been. Especially if whoever ends up in control knows that they are also going to be held accountable by the collective voice of the common fan.

11 Comments

  1. I began to to believe that it wasn’t just Currie when Clay Travis tweeted about an offer Brohm accepted but was withdrawn due to Beverly. However with everyone pointing to Travis’s reputation I brushed it off as Currie screwing up. I also thought Currie screwed the Leach offer until he was fired for literally trying to do his job. It’s corrupt much higher than Currie. I can’t​ say 100% who’s fault it is. It’s probably distributed over multiple people. However there’s only one guy involved who’s facing an FBI investigation and ruins franchises.

  2. For as long as I can remember (@ 40 years of following UT football) the Haslams have been the major power brokers at UT. It seems like the Haslams’ influence increased when Fulmer was fired in 2008. Since then we have seen a number of disastrous decisions made with the football program. So if this past week of turmoil and national humiliation results in the dethroning of the Haslams and other pernicious power players, then it will be worth the short-term negativity. I am trying to take the long view and accept that this recruiting class will take a hit. If Fulmer and the others who make the decisions for the football program can turn around the culture on The Hill, we can have hope that the future will be better for Vol Nation. Now we play a waiting game to see what the next episode of this Game of Thrones brings us.

  3. This really is an excellent article, Joel. I posted earlier this week that we needed to get Currie off the search and regroup and hadn’t even considered the possibility (and actual PROBABILITY, looking back on it,) that Currie was simply doing as he was instructed from above, or outside, depending on how you look at it.

    There seems to be a near-unanimous feeling of relief in Knoxville now, as if bringing Fulmer back is some kind of talisman that will instantly transport us back to the 1990s. I just don’t get it. Did everyone forget the last 5-ish years of Fulmer’s tenure? (And that’s leaving aside the rather Machiavellian manner in which Fulmer ascended the UT Athletics throne yesterday, which really didn’t sit well with this fan of a certain age whose childhood hero was Johnny Majors.)

    I obviously have complicated feelings about Fulmer. His tenure provided some of the highest highs of my entire life and I will forever be grateful for that. And I have no doubt that he loves Tennessee and has given more of himself to the school we all love than probably anyone we can name. But the way this whole thing went down really doesn’t sit well with me, from all sides of this mess. The opening paragraph of your article remains as true today as it was before the conquering hero returned.

Leave a Comment