Last week was when epic Tennessee Volunteers athletics dysfunction completed a nasty circle.
In 2008, John Currie was an assistant on the staff of then-Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton at the time of Phillip Fulmer’s controversial ouster. The firing of the longtime coach — and Fulmer’s perception of Currie’s role in how it went down — reportedly left simmering ill will.
On Friday, the roles were dramatically reversed. Only eight months after starting as AD after beating out Fulmer for the job, Currie was essentially dismissed. The move came after Currie had as bad a week as an AD has ever had in a college football coaching search.
Currie was replaced by Fulmer, 67, a former Tennessee football player who went 152-52 from 1992-2008 as head football coach, including the 1998 national championship.
Yet before the ex-coach’s ascension was officially announced, various national college football writers, including Bruce Feldman and Brett McMurphy, took to Twitter to report that Fulmer had spent the week sabotaging Currie’s quest for a replacement for the deposed Butch Jones. Fulmer’s goal, they reported, was becoming Tennessee AD himself.
Apparently, revenge is a dish best served orange.
The hot mess the University of Tennessee has turned itself into carries lessons from which other major schools, including the universities of Kentucky and Louisville, can benefit.
What a fiasco the last week was for UT. Last Sunday, Tennessee reached a memorandum of understanding with former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, now the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, to become its new head coach.
After a fevered fan revolt in the social media against Schiano, Tennessee folded and pulled out of the deal.
Were I a Tennessee fan, I would not have been excited about the hire of Schiano. But as precedents go, it is beyond dangerous to give in to a Twitter mob on a major public decision.
By Thursday, Currie reportedly flew to the west coast and reached an agreement with Washington State Coach Mike Leach to come to Knoxville. The pass-happy, swashbuckling Leach, a Hal Mumme-era Kentucky assistant, seemed to be a popular choice among restive UT backers.
Yet with Currie possibly on the verge of salvaging his search, UT Chancellor Beverly J. Davenport called the AD home. She suspended Currie with pay as a first step toward dismissal, then installed Fulmer in the AD’s chair.
So on your “Tennessee athletics dysfunction scorecard,” these are now the statistics:
Fulmer is the fourth UT AD since 2010.
Rick Barnes is the fourth UT men’s basketball coach since 2010-11.
Whatever poor soul agrees to coach football for the Rocky Toppers will be the fifth Vols’ head coach since 2008.
As to the lessons we here in Kentucky should take from the chronic turmoil on Rocky Top, there are two main ones:
Lesson one: Constantly changing coaches is a self-defeating trap.
Obviously, there are scenarios in which a fresh start is best, even after a very short coaching tenure. See Gillispie, Billy, and the University of Kentucky.
Yet the example of Tennessee shows that an always-swinging, coaching revolving door leads nowhere.
So if you are among those Kentucky football backers, disappointed by missed opportunities in 2017, currently agitating for a Mark Stoops departure following back-to-back winning seasons, you might want to take a breath.
Lesson two: Allowing resentments to fester into factions is dangerous.
Coming to UT from the University of Cincinnati, Davenport, a one-time UK professor, may not have been aware of the negative history between Currie and Fulmer.
Yet the resentments lingering from 2008 seem to have played a major role in undermining Tennessee athletics in 2017.
Another scandal-plagued university, Louisville, would do well to draw a lesson from that.
Now that the U of L administration has fired longtime Cardinals athletic director Tom Jurich “for cause,” it may be too late to prevent a nasty parting that divides the Louisville fan base into pro- and anti-Jurich factions for decades.
Nevertheless, it would behoove Louisville to try to reach a financial settlement with Jurich that mitigates as much bad feeling as possible. That would give Jurich a chance to move on and allow the Cardinals fans a chance to heal.
If the crash and burn this week at Tennessee proves nothing else, it is that unresolved disputes from the past have a way of torpedoing a school’s present.