Mark Story

Can Tennessee finally end its era of constant turmoil?

Butch Jones is Tennessee’s fourth football coach since the start of the 2008 season. Entering his fifth season in Knoxville, Jones (30-21, 14-18 SEC) has yet to get the Volunteers back to their first SEC championship game since 2007.
Butch Jones is Tennessee’s fourth football coach since the start of the 2008 season. Entering his fifth season in Knoxville, Jones (30-21, 14-18 SEC) has yet to get the Volunteers back to their first SEC championship game since 2007. Associated Press

If you want to see the impact that years of instability and division can have on a historically successful organization, one need look only 171 miles south down I-75 to the athletics department of the University of Tennessee.

Only seven NCAA schools spent more on athletics in the 2015-16 school year than Tennessee, according to data compiled by USA Today. Yet the Volunteers were only 34th in that year’s Directors’ Cup standings, a measure of an athletics department’s all-around success.

It got worse in the just-concluded 2016-17 school year, with Tennessee finishing 46th in the Directors’ Cup.

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After his controversial firing as Tennessee Volunteers football coach in 2008, Phillip Fulmer has returned to UT as a special adviser to the university president. Ed Reinke Associated Press

That’s why even those Tennessee fans who have grown weary of fifth-year Volunteers football coach Butch Jones and his “champions of life” and “five-star hearts” bromides would be well advised to hope Jones finally breaks through and claims an SEC East title in 2017.

If there was ever an organization screaming out for stability at high levels, it is the University of Tennessee.

When Beverly J. Davenport was named UT’s chancellor last December, she became the fourth person (counting an interim executive) to hold that position since 2007-08.

When Davenport passed over in-state favorites Phillip Fulmer and David Blackburn to hire Kansas State’s John Currie as UT athletics director in February, he became the third person to hold that position since 2010.

In all the years from 1977 through 2008, Tennessee had two football coaches — Johnny Majors (1977-1992) and Fulmer (1992-2008).

Since the start of 2008, Tennessee has had four football coaches.

Current UT men’s basketball head man Rick Barnes is the fourth person to hold that job since 2010-11.

Tennessee Barnes Basketball
Rick Barnes is Tennessee’s fourth men’s basketball coach since the 2010-11 season. Wade Payne Associated Press

No organization can endure that much tumult in high-level positions and not eventually pay a bottom-line price.

This is the cost UT athletics has paid: From the time the Directors’ Cup standings started being compiled in 1993-94 up through the 2010-11 school year, Tennessee finished ahead of Kentucky every single year.

Starting in 2011-12, however, UK has finished higher than UT in the Directors’ Cup six straight school years.

With a chance to turn the page and begin a new era in 2017, Tennessee has instead seemed to generate more turmoil.

Last summer, former UT AD Dave Hart Jr. announced his resignation. Only weeks before, then-Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek had revealed his own plan to step down.

That meant Tennessee could not hire an AD until it had a new chancellor in place.

With a long lag time between known vacancy and hiring date, then-Chattanooga AD Blackburn — who had previously worked for more than two decades in the UT athletics department — initially seemed the favorite.

Momentum then seemed to pass to the candidacy of Fulmer, whose national championship-winning tenure as Volunteers football coach ended with a controversial pink slip.

Yet once Davenport came from the University of Cincinnati, it turned out her “must have” was an AD with previous experience running a power-five conference athletics department.

That eliminated both Blackburn and Fulmer.

Tennessee Currie
The reaction in Tennessee seemed mixed when new University of Tennessee chancellor Beverly Davenport, right, introduced former Kansas State athletics director John Currie, left, as UT’s new AD in March. Caitie McMekin Associated Press

From the outside, it made Currie, a former assistant AD at Tennessee who had run the Kansas State athletics department since 2009, a logical choice.

There was more to the story, though. Currie had been an assistant under then-UT athletics director Mike Hamilton in 2008 at the time of Fulmer’s firing as football coach. The firing and how it went down apparently left bad blood between Fulmer and Currie.

Veteran Knoxville sports journalist Jimmy Hyams reported that Fulmer pursued the UT AD job primarily to block Currie.

As fresh starts go, this was a dud.

Since then, in an apparent effort to mend fences, UT has hired Fulmer as “special adviser to the president for community, athletics and university relations.” The former Volunteers football coach is preaching unity among all factions of Rocky Toppers.

“It’s time that we come back together,” he said in a recent appearance on Knoxville radio station WVLZ.

In the short term, what would best unite all Vols factions would be Jones leading UT football to its first SEC championship game since 2007.

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Even with all the turmoil that has engulfed University of Tennessee athletics since 2008, one thing hasn’t changed: Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones, left, is 4-0 against Kentucky and coach Mark Stoops. Pablo Alcala palcala@herald-leader.com

If that doesn’t happen, especially if Tennessee is more mediocre than good, Jones (30-21, 14-18 SEC) could find himself on a very hot seat. Currie could find himself facing a very vexing coaching decision.

For a university that needs anything but more high-level turmoil, there’s a lot riding on Tennessee playing winning football in 2017.

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