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College football circus on full display in Tennessee coaching search

Tom Newby/flickr

It’s normally not our habit to be concerned with the University of Tennessee’s football team.

Goodness knows there are enough issues with the state university football squad in this area, or hadn’t you noticed the 66-3 thumping that Penn State administered to Maryland a couple of weeks ago to close the Terps 4-8 season?

But, in attempting to fill their head coaching vacancy, the Volunteer athletic program and the school’s fan base provided prime ammunition to folks who believe that sports in this country are warped beyond recognition.

The saga begins three weeks ago when Butch Jones was fired near the end of his fifth season with two games to go in the regular season and in the midst of a 4-6 campaign.

That Jones won 56 percent of his games at Tennessee, including a bowl game last year, seemed to be of little interest to the Volunteer faithful.

What happened next is weird. Tennessee’s athletic director, John Currie, reached out to Greg Schiano, who was formerly head coach at Rutgers and of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL.

Schiano is currently the defensive coordinator at Ohio State and he and Currie reached a memorandum of understanding that Schiano would become the new coach at Tennessee.

That is, until word leaked out last Sunday that Currie and Schiano were simpatico. Volunteer Nation went into full attack mode, playing the role of the guy that speaks up when asked if anyone at a wedding has just cause that the marriage shouldn’t take place.

The consternation stemmed from what appears to be a mistaken notion that Schiano, while an assistant at Penn State under former coach Joe Paterno, may have witnessed some of the abuse that fellow former assistant Jerry Sandusky administered to children.

The rumor about Schiano has largely been disproven and he has coached at places where that kind of thing would have been discussed since then.

But that wasn’t enough for a core of Tennessee fans, who made their displeasure known to the school’s chancellor, Beverly Davenport.

She forced Currie to break off talks with Schiano, and the weakened athletic director began negotiating with other coaches, some of whom used Tennessee to get better deals at their present schools.

Currie was in Washington state, negotiating with a coach there near the end of the week, when Davenport summoned him back to Knoxville and let him go.

She replaced him with popular former football coach Phillip Fulmer, who had been rumored to be privately undercutting Currie.

Davenport has yet to specify why she cut Currie loose. But Currie, who like Davenport, had only been on the job for less than a year, is owed more than $5 million on his contract.  

In addition, Jones and his coaching staff are owed $13 million on their deals, meaning the university owes $18 million to people who were working there three weeks ago. And they still haven’t settled on a new coach, who will certainly demand at least $5 million a year.

Oh, and that memorandum of understanding might be legally binding, so there might be more money to pay out.

College football fans are famous for their love of dear alma mater, but the Tennessee saga demonstrates that love needs limits.

And that’s how I see it for this week. 

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