Could AD Search Process Divide UT? has partnered with LexisNexis to bring you this content.

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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)


Neither Fulmer nor Blackburn ever really had a shot at the job, despite what they were led to believe.

After the Currie hire was announced, new Chancellor Beverly Davenport made it clear she was only interested in someone who was currently an athletic director at a Power 5 conference school.

A week has passed since Tennessee hired John Currie as its athletic director. And many Tennesseans are looking forward to what they hope will be a new and improved era in UT athletics.

But that future could be impacted by the process that led to Currie's hiring.

That's the same process that eliminated two prominent AD candidates, Chattanooga AD David Blackburn and former UT football coach Phillip Fulmer. Both are native Tennesseans and UT graduates.

And that's the same process that apparently slighted another ex-UT football player, Charlie Anderson, one of the school's most prominent donors.

Doug Matthews, a former Tennessee assistant coach who still has many contacts in the UT athletic department, addressed the subject passionately and thoroughly on his Nashville radio show "Big Orange Sunday" on 104.5 The Zone last Sunday.

Matthews is biased. He's a friend of Fulmer's, and the two do a weekly radio show together during football season. He also made it clear that he thought UT needed to hire a "Tennessee guy" for AD - if not Fulmer, then Blackburn.

Biases aside, Matthews made valid points about the process, which led to the hiring of Currie after UT couldn't hire North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham. And I agree with most of his points.

For starters, neither Fulmer nor Blackburn ever really had a shot at the job, despite what they were led to believe.

After the Currie hire was announced, new Chancellor Beverly Davenport made it clear she was only interested in someone who was currently an athletic director at a Power 5 conference school. That eliminated both Fulmer and Blackburn.

However, when she addressed the subject before the Currie hire, she wasn't as specific. She said she wanted someone with "administrative experience."

So why did both Fulmer and Blackburn meet in New York with the search firm hired by UT? That was a waste of time and money.

Blackburn never even got a call back from Turnkey Search. Fulmer subsequently interviewed with Davenport and select members of the search committee in Nashville. That turned out to be a charade, too.

Fulmer didn't know it at the time, though.

"I think he felt he was going to get the job," Matthews said Tuesday in a phone interview.

In fact, he probably thought that right up until the moment Currie's hiring was announced. Anderson might have thought the same thing.

Never mind that Anderson was on the search committee or all the money he and his family have contributed to Tennessee. He wasn't even included when Fulmer and Currie were interviewed for the job, according to Matthews.

"Charlie was not involved," Matthews said. "There's no doubt in my mind about that. And Charlie was the one person on the committee who wanted Fulmer for AD."

Once UT decided on Currie, it moved swiftly, so swiftly that neither Blackburn nor Fulmer had a chance to bow out gracefully. Matthews also was miffed about that.

"They weren't treated in a classy way," he said. "And you're talking about two people who had over 50 years of service to UT (Fulmer as a coach and Blackburn as an athletic administrator)."

The hiring of Currie took place so quickly that there was no media scrutiny. For months, Fulmer and Blackburn were subjected to such scrutiny.

I wrote a column on unsavory incidents that occurred during Fulmer's time as UT's football coach. There were so many unfounded rumors, including health issues, about Blackburn that he had to address them through the media. And then he was criticized for "campaigning" for the job.

Currie sailed into the job without any scrutiny.

When I first heard that Currie was an AD possibility, two days before he was hired, I asked several people about his days at Tennessee as an associate athletic director. One former UT athletic department employee said he never had a problem with Currie but others did. Because of that, he didn't think UT would hire him as AD.

He was wrong.

And based on Currie's resume at Kansas State, you can see why. He has developed a great reputation as a fundraiser and money manager. And, as an acting AD at a Power 5 conference school, he fit the chancellor's criteria.

While the chancellor set the criteria, Matthews believes the decision to hire Currie was made by search committee member Jimmy Haslam, acting on behalf of his father, Jim Haslam.

"He was the placeholder for Big Jim Haslam," Matthews said. "I understand why (Jim Haslam) has the impact he does. He's given hundreds of millions of dollars to the university. ... You can bet your bottom dollar he had the final say."

But you have to wonder how this hire will affect other donors, Anderson in particular, if Matthews is correct about him being cut out of the hiring process.

"I know a good number of people at the $100,000 (a year donor level to the university)," Matthews said. "I've heard from three or four of them."

The reviews were mixed. One told Matthews he had a great relationship with Currie when Currie was at UT. Another didn't like him and a third was ambivalent, according to Matthews.

"Eventually, (controversy over the hiring process) will blow over," Matthews said. "But there will be a tremendous amount of scrutiny on Currie.

"People will watch him like a hawk watching a mouse in the field."

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JohnAdamsKNS.

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March 9, 2017


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