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The Great Tennessee Coaching-Search Disaster Somehow Just Got Even Messier

Athletic director John Currie is out in Knoxville. Widespread dysfunction, outrage, and Phillip Fulmer are apparently in.

Phillip Fulmer Wade Payne/AP Images

Just when you thought that things couldn’t get any rockier on Rocky Top, the most tumultuous week in Tennessee football history has taken another ridiculous twist. Athletic director John Currie, who was hired in February with the nudge-nudge implication that he’d be the man to hire the Volunteers’ next coach, has himself been fired after each of his seemingly countless attempts to make that hire exploded. He will reportedly be replaced by Phillip Fulmer, the former Vols head coach who won a national championship in 1998. College football is a sport known for its high ceiling for ridiculousness, and I can’t remember any college football story being as patently absurd as this.

A quick rundown: Last Sunday, Tennessee reached a deal with Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to be the successor to Butch Jones. To date, Schiano is the worst coach the school has attempted to hire, and also the only person who has accepted. After he and the Volunteers came to an agreement, Tennessee’s fan base protested so loudly and relentlessly that the school reneged on its decision.

Next, the Vols tried to hire Duke’s David Cutcliffe (nope, he loves Duke too much), Purdue’s Jeff Brohm (apparently the Purdue job is better than the Tennessee gig these days), Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy (who used the opening as leverage to get a raise from his current school), NC State’s Dave Doeren (who has gone only 15–25 in ACC play and also used the vacancy as a negotiating tactic), and, last but not least, Washington State’s Mike Leach. Not to mention that the fan base’s pipe dreams to score Jon Gruden never turned into anything real, and the school couldn’t get a sit-down with Chip Kelly before he signed with UCLA.

John Currie
John Currie
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The potential Leach hire, toward which things seemed to be progressing on Thursday, appeared to make sense for all parties: The pass-first, pass-second, and pass-third coach just closed his most successful season at Washington State, and he’s reportedly been antsy in Pullman since AD Bill Moos left for Nebraska. Tennessee could use a coach who thinks unconventionally — or any coach, for that matter — but any momentum toward an agreement has since been killed. Currie’s decision to discuss a contract with Leach without clearing it with his superiors was the final straw that cost him his job.

Brett McMurphy reported that Fulmer intentionally sabotaged Currie’s coaching search. Currie reportedly was instrumental in having Fulmer fired as Tennessee’s head coach in 2008. There appear to be two factions here — those aligned with Fulmer, and those aligned with Currie and Cleveland Browns owner (slash brother of the governor of Tennessee, slash embattled truck stop CEO) Jimmy Haslam, who initially pushed for Tennessee to hire Currie and seemingly was the one who wanted Schiano in the first place. And, as of Friday afternoon, Fulmer appears to have won the battle over Currie, Haslam, and the school’s entire fan base. Whether he’s motivated by revenge, a lust for power, or a genuine desire to improve the Tennessee football program, Fulmer has established himself as the Machiavelli of Knoxville.

I’ve seen prolonged coaching searches where schools settle for their 12th option. I’ve seen booster-administration beeves. I’ve seen fans upset with firings and hirings. But I’ve never seen a school burn to the extent that Tennessee is burning now, with its failures and scuffles laid bare for all to see.

Hire Dolly Parton, an exceptional businesswoman with a knack for sustaining fan support in East Tennessee, as the school’s next head coach. Hire Smokey, a good boy who is loyal to Tennessee and has a polished ability to follow directions. Anything is better than this.

Well, anything besides hiring Schiano. At least Tennessee didn’t do that.