Neither John Grisham nor Tom Clancy could have concocted a more suspenseful, convoluted or dramatic plot than has taken place the past week inside the University of Tennessee athletic department. It will go down as the largest public relations blunder in sports history and its case studies should make the next printing of collegiate PR textbooks.
If you have even remotely followed college football for the past few years, you couldn’t miss the fact things haven’t been going well for Tennessee’s football program. A series of coaching changes, combined with a steady decline in season wins, lawsuits related to Title IX and locker-room antics, changes in university leadership and a handful of seemingly minor missteps, placed a former national championship program in dire straits.
Fans and alumni of the Volunteer football program had lost patience in the school’s leadership because the last three coaches, Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and most recently Butch Jones, proved incapable of leading the Vol’s to Rocky Top’s summit or for that matter, achieving a double-digit winning season.
The final straw came on November 11 when Jones suffered a humiliating 50-17 loss to Missouri. Attention now focused on John Currie, a first year athletic director who previously served as a Tennessee assistant AD when former coach Philip Fulmer was fired in 2008. Currie decided not to retain a search firm, instead shouldering total responsibility in finding a savior for his beleaguered university.
Corporations such as Chrysler, Wells Fargo, BP and Volkswagen spent hundreds of millions building their brand (image) before suffering significant public relations setbacks. Some recovered, a few never have. Tennessee football brand is damaged and they road to recovery will be rocky.
Nevertheless, there are numerous public relations blunders to learn from. Here are a few:
When Your Brand Is Damaged, Controversial Decisions Should Be Avoided
Tennessee fans spent the night receiving visions of Jon Gruden ascending from the Rocky Top to save the Vols. It was a pipe dream; like chasing the pretty cheerleader you never had a chance with. Gruden was never an option. Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly looked attractive, as did Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. Kelly’s decision to accept the UCLA job eventually paved with way for Mullen to return to Florida. Currie reached out to a few other possibilities but found no interest.
Faced with “third and very long” scenario, Currie thought he found his guy in Ohio State assistant Greg Schiano. What he believed was a nice catch turned out to be disappointing incompletion after Volunteer fans placed a huge social media hit on Schiano over his alleged association with Penn State’s sexual abuse case.
When your brand and reputation have taken major hits, be humble and recognize your failings. Making controversial decisions or hires is not a good idea. For Currie is was the next to the last straw.
Social media can build you up or tear you down.
If you’ve never been convinced of social media’s awesome power then the Schiano fiasco is your proof.
Within hours after news leaked Schiano would be named Tennessee’s new coach, fans took to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and whatever platforms they had access to in an effort to discredit both the potential hire and the university official who offered the position. Schiano, with Currie in tow, was convicted and executed in the court of social media public opinion.
Social media is a powerful tool and like it or not, fans have figured out ways to pressure and manipulate college administrators, athletic directors and coaches.
It’s possible to go from bad to really bad to worse within twenty-four hours.
Was Currie acting as a lone wolf or did he have the blessings of UT’s elite’s such as Pilot Flying J CEO and Cleveland Brown Owner Jimmy Haslam, Jr., Peyton Manning or Fulmer? As for the Schiano decision, I certainly hope not.
With fourth and long, Currie looked toward Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, who had engaged in previous conversations before Tennessee offered Jones the job in 2013. But a late evening Gundy tweet informed the world he was a “Cowboy for Life!”
Currie checked at the line of scrimmage, looking toward former Vol assistant and current Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, who didn’t look back. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm was next, followed by North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren.
Meanwhile, Vol fans were screaming the names and former Vol national champion quarterback Tee Martin and gasp, even Lane Kiffin, whose late-night escape to USC in 2014 prompted fans to all but place a bounty on his head. Fired Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was contacted. Even former LSU coach Les Miles was conveniently floating his name. Nothing was sticking.
The play clock was ticking down on Currie when he reached out to the quirky but brilliant architect of the spread offense, Mike Leach, who indicated he would move from the Pac 10 to the SEC in a heartbeat. Sources say Currie met with Leach in Los Angeles on Wednesday night before being summoned back to Knoxville on Thursday by Chancellor Beverly Davenport, who was apparently feeling intense pressure from the Haslam and other key supporters. With no time remaining, the whistle sounded and a flag was thrown.
Returning to your roots is sometimes all that’s left.
In a previous statement Davenport indicated Currie had carte blanche in finding a new coach. Apparently either Davenport didn’t include or Currie didn’t read the fine print indicating any decision had to be approved by Lord Jimmy (Haslam).
On Thursday morning Davenport asked Currie to return the keys to the university’s private jet and sent him packing with what looks like a $5 million dollar cushion.
Was Lord Jimmy was yanking the chancellor’s chain and finally assuming full control of the program? Well, maybe not, because within hours Fulmer, who blamed Haslam for being forced out in ’08, was named as Currie’s replacement.
Where Tennessee goes from here is anyone’s guess. The Volunteer brand is now damaged so badly it’s barely recognizable. Is the coaching equivalent of Lee Iacocca out there somewhere? Maybe. I certainly hope so.
My bet is Fulmer will fill the void with the likes of a Les Miles or someone else who is either close to or already eligible for the senior citizens discount at Waffle House. In football terms, someone familiar with the Fulmer/Cutcliffe strategy of two off-tackle runs and third-down pass will win out as opposed to a Mike Leach “run and gun” playbook.
Is this the largest public relations blunder in sport history? Time will tell. Can Tennessee football be rebranded and their name restored to elite status in college football? The obvious answer is yes. But there is also a big difference between “can” and “will.” And Philip Fulmer wants to be person who goes down in Tennessee’s record book as the program’s saving grace. Maybe even have a field named in his honor. Stay tuned because the story is not over yet.