By Brian Rice
John Currie has started his tenure at Tennessee by successfully doing what no one else at the University has done in probably a decade. He does the easy thing. The natural thing. The thing that every single person outside of campus thinks should be done. It sounds simple, but if you followed Tennessee athletics for the last decade, you know it was easier said than done.
Currie’s tour of rational thinking hit its pinnacle to this point with Thursday’s announcement that the Lady Volunteers brand and logo would return to the women’s teams at Tennessee. It was the latest in a series of moves that have undone some of the less popular changes made under Dave Hart’s administration.
It’s almost like John Currie, rational human being, walked into the Brenda Lawson Center at Tennessee, looked around and said “What have you people been DOING here?”
During the process to select Tennessee’s next athletics director, I thought that David Blackburn or Phillip Fulmer would be the only selections that Tennessee fans could rally around. They were the only direction you could go to get the implicit trust from fans that is necessary for an athletic director.
The decisions the AD makes are typically not obvious winners or losers. The things that determine whether they are or are not successful typically take many years to play out. The “natural” decision that fans demand isn’t always the right one. An AD has to make plenty of unpopular decisions because he often has far more information than the average fan. When that happens, the AD has to provide a clear explanation as to why the “natural” decision is not the one that was made.
Tennessee fans never felt they received that under Dave Hart. A series of moves, including the removal of the Lady Vols brand, were never explained beyond a few buzz words and an air of “Because I said so.” And many times there was a hire to be made in the administration, Tennessee went with an outsider, leaving few in positions of power that had long term connections to the University. Because of that, with the way fans have felt the last decade at Tennessee, I didn’t see a way that anyone else beyond the familiar faces of Blackburn and Fulmer could unify the fan base.
Currie didn’t listen to any of that when he took the job. Most of us in the media didn’t even have him on the short list of candidates for the job. He was in the midst of a highly successful run at Kansas State. A run that, while successful, was often criticized by fans for his alleged inability to get along with his coaches.
So to gain momentum at the start of his tenure, Currie didn’t employ any tricks or tactics or anything like that. He simply started making sound decisions. It’s mind blowing if you follow the program, because it seems like the opposite of how things have run. Coaches found someone eager to listen to the challenges they face and the things they need to be competitive. He sat back, watched, and listened to people, then went about his business fixing the obvious issues that stood out.
Then, he started doing the easy thing, the thing that everybody knows needs to be done, but somehow had not been done by anyone on campus.
He moved forward with new directions for the men’s tennis and baseball programs, promoting Vol legend Chris Woodruff to the former and hiring rising coaching star Tony Vitello for the latter. Hearing feedback from fans on Tennessee’s messaging to the public, he promoted Tom Satkowiak, a two-time Tennessee grad, to lead the Athletics Communications staff. He then gave Satkowiak the resources to go out and get the best football communications director available, which just happened to be UT grad Zach Stipe. Callers to our show have noted on several occasions the vast improvement in the Vols’ messaging since those moves were made.
Now, it has been the most obvious move, correcting what fans, alumni and former student-athletes all saw as the biggest misstep in recent Tennessee memory. Currie provided perhaps the best summary of the issue in his remarks Thursday:
“How would the most passionate Tennessee football fan react to a drastic diminishment of our checkerboard end zones?” Currie said. “What emotions would be felt if the checkerboards were removed from Neyland Stadium?
“My guess is that they would be similar to the emotions felt these past few years, for instance, by a former Tennessee swimmer who competed with the Lady Vols logo on her swim cap, or a women’s golfer who was part of our inaugural Lady Vol team 25 years ago.”
Currie came to Tennessee with a set of fresh eyes and saw many things the way fans have. It’s a great start, but there is still a long way to go.
Ultimately, the tenure of an athletic director is judged on how a school’s most visible sports perform. But Currie bought himself a lot of time, trust and goodwill with Tennessee fans by doing the simple thing. The easy thing. The right thing.
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