The relationship between Tennessee’s decision makers and Tennessee’s fan base is at an all-time low, at a moment when Tennessee’s football program just concluded its all-time worst season.
Things are bad. How can Tennessee make them better?
We’ll get to how a good hire would help in a minute. But first, the relationship itself.
Fans don’t usually get to be the decision makers, which is what made yesterday’s events so remarkable. A diverse cross-section of Tennessee fans, local politicians, former players, and local media raised their voices in varying degrees of negativity on the impending hire of Greg Schiano. Our combined noise became the sound of change. The powers that be made their choice, but the people got the last word. And not at the end of a season’s worth of protests, but in a matter of hours.
The list of Tennessee’s decision makers, in this case, seems to be exceptionally short. John Currie played this search close to the vest to ensure secrecy, but far too close to ensure receptivity. I applaud his ninja skills; they simply would have come in far more handy if paired with any ability to take the pulse of the fan base.
The fact that Currie, Chancellor Davenport, however many Haslams and whoever else was on the short list believed this was both a right and acceptable hire for Tennessee is beyond alarming. When those making the decisions are so out of touch with the people, you get new decisions and, perhaps, new decision makers. It just happened a lot faster yesterday.
I don’t want Tennessee’s next coach to be decided by a vote of the fan base. I assume the powers that be have access to information I do not. This turned out to be the case six years ago, when Tennessee went against the vast majority of fan opinion and fired Bruce Pearl. I argued the Vols should keep him in the face of up to a one-year show-cause. Turns out he was looking at three. The powers that be made the right move then, even when it was unpopular.
Tennessee’s decision makers don’t need to act on every request from the voice of the fan base. But they do need to hear it. And they need to know it well enough to recognize and, in Schiano’s case, predict it. If you are so out of touch you couldn’t see this reaction coming, this isn’t a functional relationship.
John Currie’s statement today didn’t do anything to repair this relationship. At an obviously crucial juncture, what Currie essentially chose to communicate today was that he worked hard on this search, did thoroughly research Schiano (including Penn State), and actually knew him well. But he clearly doesn’t know the fan base well.
At some point between now and a press conference introducing Tennessee’s next head football coach, it is a very good idea for John Currie to address the media. Hold a separate press conference, do an interview, something. You cannot answer questions (or refuse to answer questions) about Schiano for the first time when you’re supposed to be introducing the next guy. It’s unfair to the coach, the fans, and the media. No coach should be asked to sign up for that. Even if Currie is non-confrontational by nature, now is the moment for maturity.
When we do get around to hiring a new coach? Tennessee would appear to have a few options.
The Familiar Faces
- David Cutcliffe, Duke (reportedly staying at Duke as I type)
- Tee Martin, Southern Cal offensive coordinator
Both would scratch an itch many in the fan base have had since Phillip Fulmer was forced out nine years ago. These are our guys.
More than a feel-good story, if Tennessee’s brand has in fact been significantly damaged by the events of this weekend, securing someone with a direct connection to the university may be the smartest play. There are plenty of jobs open and plenty of situations that will look more stable than ours. Cutcliffe and/or Martin may in fact be Tennessee’s best play.
As the one was the other’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Cutcliffe is 63 years old and spent six seasons at Ole Miss as a younger man, fired far too soon. Since leaving Tennessee a second time Cutcliffe has been at Duke, putting together a remarkable run including five bowl appearances in the last six years and a division title in 2013. (As I was typing this, Chris Low reported Cutcliffe informed Tennessee he would be staying at Duke).
Martin has been at Southern Cal since 2012, serving as offensive coordinator the last two years. The Trojans are 16th in offensive S&P+ this year, 15th in yards per play. His name was attached to Jon Gruden’s fantasy staff for both his role as an OC but also his recruiting prowess. He knows Rocky Top, but has no head coaching experience. With both, you’re selling family.
- Jeff Brohm, Purdue
- Willie Taggart, Oregon
- Chad Morris, SMU
- Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama defensive coordinator
A few days ago, this was the tier below Dan Mullen. Now this could be where Tennessee finds its best play. Brohm and Taggart are at power five schools, but both are just finishing their first year. Morris, the former Clemson offensive coordinator, is finishing his third season at SMU in taking the program from 2-10 to 7-5. Pruitt has led some of the nation’s best defenses at Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama in the last five years, but has never been a head coach.
The sample sizes are small, and with that comes uncertainty. Brohm won two conference titles in three years at Western Kentucky following in Taggart’s footsteps, then got Purdue from 3-9 to 6-6 on the field, from 105th to 41st in S&P+. Taggart went 7-5 at Oregon after a 4-1 start before quarterback Justin Herbert was injured.
What you’re selling here is hope that early successful returns will lead to more of the same at Tennessee and in the SEC. All of these guys might be a good head coach in this league, or none of them. But there is enough reason to hope. (The most difficult name to sell I’ve seen on a hot board is Dave Doeren, who VolQuest had listed at the bottom of theirs today. Doeren is the guy NC State hoped would take them to the next level, but the last four years is 8-5, 7-6, 7-6, and 8-4. That may be fine for NC State, even if it’s awfully similar to what Tom O’Brien did, but there would be little to hope for in terms of someone like him doing more at Tennessee. Hope, even in the midst of uncertainty, is a far easier and more important sell.)
The Rick Barnes
- Les Miles, former LSU coach
When all of this started two weeks ago, I wondered at the end of our podcast about why Les Miles couldn’t even make a hot board. Proven winner, power conference, no buyout, great recruiter. These were more hopeful days of Gruden and Frost, so we didn’t spend much time on it, but it seemed strange to me. At this point, it might seem foolish if Tennessee didn’t include him in their search.
Tennessee has always been more than one step away from a national championship in this search; that truth is easier to swallow when you’re past your top choices. I’m not sure Les Miles could win a championship at Tennessee. But could he help this program take its next step? Is he the best option now that we’re at this point? I could buy it.
You may have your favorites out of these list, or might want to include another name or two from this tier. But all of them are guys fans could and would rally around, especially after last weekend. All of them would have important strengths. All of them could give us reason to hope.
I don’t know what the right move is for the powers that be. The choices aren’t as sexy as the first time around. But getting a good fit with greater transparency is a critical step for a fragile football team and a fragile relationship between the administration and the fans.