On Nov. 12, then-Tennessee athletic director John Currie stood at a podium and read from prepared notes as he announced the firing of football coach Butch Jones.
It was a reluctant move for the first-year Vols AD. While most fans had wanted Jones out since a 41-0 loss to Georgia on Sept. 30, Currie stood by Jones, giving the fifth-year coach every opportunity to save his job. But after a 50-17 loss to Missouri, which dropped Tennessee to 0-6 in SEC play, Currie had to pull the plug.
“We will begin an exhaustive search to identify a coach of the highest integrity and vision to propel Tennessee to championships,” Currie said that Sunday afternoon. “This is an extraordinary and special place with unique opportunities and a tradition of excellence. This coaching search will be my sole focus, and I will be in regular contact with Chancellor [Beverly] Davenport. I want to emphasize my commitment to hiring the best coach for the University of Tennessee.”
Currie said he would not be hiring a search firm, a somewhat unusual move in modern coaching searches but hardly unprecedented. He talked about the reasons for the change, what Tennessee wanted in its next coach and how the program presented “a wonderful opportunity” for its next leader.
“None of us want to be in this position, but we are in this position,” Currie concluded the news conference. “And now we move forward.”
Currie began a search that will go down as the messiest in recent college football history.
Tennessee still doesn’t have a coach, but Currie and the school parted ways on Friday after Currie returned from Los Angeles, where he had met with Washington State coach Mike Leach the night prior. Currie’s ouster came amid rumors of internal sabotage, just six days after a fan revolt resulted in Tennessee backing out of a deal to bring Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to Knoxville.
What has happened in the 19 days between Currie’s news conference and his own departure will go down in Vol infamy.
Here’s a look back.
Phase 1: A wide net is cast
Tennessee’s coaching search began like many do, as Currie cast a wide net and began gauging the interest levels of potential candidates. The #Grumors started immediately, as Tennessee fans hoped ESPN analyst Jon Gruden would return to the place where he started his coaching career as a graduate assistant in 1986. One Grumor had Gruden and Tennessee legend Peyton Manning dining together at a Knoxville restaurant. Other Vol fans hoped the school could land ESPN analyst Chip Kelly, the former Oregon coach considered the hottest candidate of the cycle.
We’d like to take a moment to clear things up as well as apologize. We got excited- like everyone. Please read: pic.twitter.com/AIyVvmppKC
— Calhoun’s ?? (@calhouns) November 19, 2017
Realistically, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen seemed like a strong option at or near the top of Currie’s list. But when Kelly chose UCLA, not Florida, and Nebraska turned its focus to former quarterback and current UCF coach Scott Frost, Mullen became the pick for the Gators. Tennessee reached out to Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and other coveted candidates as angst began to build on Rocky Top.
Phase 2: The Schiano hire and the backlash
As Florida began finalizing its deal with Mullen, Tennessee also appeared to find its man in Schiano, the former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach who has spent the past two seasons with Ohio State after two years out of the game. Industry insiders had pegged Schiano and Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead as the two coordinators likeliest to land Power 5 jobs this cycle. Schiano had been a candidate for Oregon’s coaching vacancy the previous year.
Currie flew to Columbus, Ohio, where he and Schiano signed a memorandum of understanding. They planned to fly back to Knoxville together for Schiano’s introduction, but as word leaked out about the hire, Tennessee fans revolted. They cited as a grievance a 2015 court deposition in which former Penn State assistant Mike McQueary claimed another coach told him that Schiano had witnessed an incident involving Jerry Sandusky and a boy in the early ’90s. Schiano has denied that claim.
Although Ohio State had vetted Schiano and supported his candidacy, Vol Nation erupted in protest, ripping the hire on social media and at the school’s famous rock on campus. #FireCurrie began trending on Twitter.
Despite the signed memo, the deal fell through and Currie issued a statement, calling Schiano “among the most respected professional and college football coaches.” Currie defended Tennessee’s vetting of Schiano while not specifying why the hire didn’t go through. He ended the statement with: “I am grateful for your patience as our search for the next leader for the Tennessee football program continues, and I look forward to making that introduction soon.”
Phase 3: The B list, C list and D list
After the humiliation of the Schiano debacle, Currie hoped to follow through with a hire that would please the Vol faithful. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, with five 10-win seasons since 2010 and an iconic mullet, seemed like a great choice. Gundy had talked with Tennessee in 2013 before Jones got the job.
This time around, he spoke with legendary Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning by phone and met with Currie in Dallas to discuss the job. Sources said Tennessee was prepared to make Gundy one of the highest-paid coaches in the SEC.
Ultimately, though, he decided to remain at his alma mater. Monday night Gundy tweeted he was a “Cowboy for life!” Earlier that day, Campbell agreed to a new contract with Iowa State.
— Mike Gundy (@CoachGundy) November 29, 2017
Tennessee also reached out to Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who had spent 19 years as a Vols offensive assistant, but Cutcliffe decided he wouldn’t leave a comfortable situation in Durham.
The search then turned toward Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who guided the Boilermakers to a bowl appearance in his first season after a 30-10 run at Western Kentucky. But talks didn’t progress far and by Tuesday, Tennessee began focusing on NC State’s Dave Doeren, a coach with a similar profile to Jones. Vol fans prepared another revolt, but after talking with Tennessee officials Doeren opted to remain at NC State, where he finalized a new contract after several weeks of stalled negotiations. Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin, who led the Vols in 2009, continued trolling the program on Twitter, posting a photo of Kim Jong Un in a Tennessee pullover with the caption that the leader of North Korea had turned down the Vols job.
— Lane Kiffin (@Lane_Kiffin) November 30, 2017
Phase 4: Currie heads West, and then heads home
As Currie and Tennessee absorbed more criticism and embarrassment, the coaching search scramble continued Wednesday. Tennessee made contact with Kevin Sumlin, fired Sunday by Texas A&M but still boasting a winning record in SEC play and an overall mark of 51-26 with the Aggies. Former LSU coach Les Miles expressed his interest in the position.
Former LSU and Oklahoma State coach Les Miles is very interested in the Tennessee coaching vacancy, according to a source close to Miles who has discussed the Vols job with him in recent days. At this point, Miles has had no contact with Tennessee officials but would welcome the chance to discuss the position. LSU fired Miles in September 2016. Miles went 114-34 (62-28 in SEC play) at LSU.
Discussions didn’t get far with Sumlin, and Tennessee instead focused on Mike Leach, who had guided Washington State within a win of the Pac-12 North title.
Leach’s offense and quirky personality seemed like it could satisfy Tennessee fans after a turbulent week. Leach had grown restless in Pullman after athletic director Bill Moos, who had hired him, departed for Nebraska. But the two sides didn’t reach an agreement after meeting Thursday night in Los Angeles.
Currie flew back to Knoxville early Friday, where he met with school officials and the decision was made that they part ways. Hall of Fame coach Phil Fulmer is taking over athletic director duties, including finding a new head coach, now that Currie is out.