I’ll start with an admission: The initial intent of this piece was to beg Tennessee to hire their athletic director before their new football coach. Recommending that sequence should go without saying, but given the tremendous level of Tennessee present in the for-cause firing of Jeremy Pruitt amidst a NCAA investigation and the amazingly timed “retirement” of athletic director Phil Fulmer, it bears stating the obvious whenever possible. And this is a program that has long since voided any benefit of the doubt.
It turns out the Volunteers are hiring UCF A.D. Danny White, a man with administrative experience in the SEC (Ole Miss), a healthy resume of fundraising with the Knights and a reputation of picking smart PR battles to rally his donors.
If you grew to find UCF’s campaign against the college football playoff, ESPN, the national media or anyone who looked at them funny insufferable, blame White, but give him his due: That piece of political theater yielded national attention and rallied fundraising around Orlando. (Also, just for funsies, watch how fast White walks back all those “Power 5 Conspiracy!” talking points as a member of the SEC.)
He’s got a great resume for this kind of work, but White’s best attribute is that he has no previous connection to the University of Tennessee’s athletic department, a shambling, babbling, embarrassment for the better part of the last two decades.
He’ll also — I think — run point on hiring a new football coach, the most important move any SEC A.D. outside of Lexington can make during their career. Until White’s hiring, the only name associated with this UT coaching search was Peyton Manning. I’ll mention for no reason at all that Peyton’s father Archie oversaw the hiring of Ole Miss’ football coach in 2011 after the removal of both Houston Nutt and former A.D. Pete Boone.
The elder Manning’s search yielded Hugh Freeze as head coach (despite having only one year of FBS experience at the position). New athletic director Ross Bjork, himself a SEC neophyte, was installed afterwards, with no real authority over a head coach destined (and damned) to learn on the job. What followed was a sex scandal, multiple recruiting violations, two wins over Alabama, four-plus years of NCAA investigations, a roster bored out by sanctions, and this wonderful documentary, currently free to view on YouTube.
So while I have nothing against Peyton personally, it would benefit all of college sports to tap the brakes on all this white-knight-former-star-player-saves-the-day-horseshit. No one in 2021 wakes up one day and wants to look more like Nebraska.
What White faces is daunting, by sheer virtue of the fact he said yes to the gig I have to believe some of what’s below isn’t worst-case. I’ve broken the worst areas of concern up into a few key areas:
1. How Bad Is It? UT fired Pruitt for his alleged role in a recruiting scandal that’s drawn an active NCAA enforcement investigation to campus. Pruitt is not going quietly and will almost certainly force the school to either settle for a sizable amount of the buyout you’re trying to deprive him of or use a lawsuit to spill the tea on God Knows What But I Can’t Wait. Either way, your SEC football program is, in the very best case, a luxury rental car with considerable off road mileage and a strange smell in the seats. The likeliest scenario is that it’s some degree worse. And regardless of the NCAA’s involvement, you’re losing talent at an alarming rate.
2. Where Is Phil Going? Fulmer has “retired” as athletic director, but that doesn’t mean he’s been excommunicated. Whether he’s held an official title or not, Fulmer’s history with the management of Tennessee football is so pocked with ruthlessness a drug cartel capo would file an H.R. complaint on this man. No one should believe Fulmer won’t be an issue to contend with at some point, nor should anyone think his myriad piles of error and neglect as A.D. have been cleaned up. When you’re this dumb, what’s publicly known is only the tip of the malfeasance iceberg.
A good rule of thumb, re: Tennessee palace intrigue — where you find the Haslam family, you usually won’t find Fulmer. White would be wise to pick a devil who wasn’t once head coach and A.D., and stick with them.
3. Will UT Eat Another A.D. Alive? This is a fair question! They’ve done this recently! And we must discuss the performance and subsequent treatment of former A.D. John Currie WITHOUT arguing the merits of Pruitt vs. Greg Schiano. That binary does not foster meaningful debate; It’s “Sophie’s Choice” directed by McG. Move on.
In order to hire a top candidate like White you HAVE to foster and maintain that they can do their jobs. This entails time, money, and some insulation from the madness spewed by both the rank and file and the charity golf event crowd. Phil Knight has untold levels of influence at Oregon, but Rob Mullens ultimately makes the calls. If that process loses a level of believability inside or outside of the building, the whole thing falls apart.
4. How Mad Is The Money? An A.D. isn’t tasked with worrying about the football team’s identity crises. That’s that job of the coach (ideally one White hires). A modern A.D. worries about traditional revenue (ticket sales and licensing agreements) and agonizes about the temperature among big-check writers. You’ve probably noticed the hypocrisy here — how do you coo piles of money out of the same people you often need to gag — but that’s the riddle of college athletics. There are no shortage of rumors about Tennessee boosters at the moment, but the unifying detail is that they’re exhausted with years of ineptitude and no longer willing to pay for each other’s mistakes.
5. Can An A.D. Actually Do Their Job? Full disclosure, this seems like a dumb question and a bit of an extension of No. 3, but I’m adding it after conversations with FBS athletic directors following this week’s news, because they kept asking this exact question. So you, Tennessee fans, need to hear this: When asked to diagnose why the Vols have fallen from college football’s elite over the last two decades, there’s a variety of reasons supplied, but only one constant — there is no singular, progressive plan executed by a universally (among Vols) recognized authority.
That “authority” position is in some cases a coach (Bama, Georgia), but in most cases an A.D. or singular booster with cohesive, two-way communication to an A.D. Tennessee has lacked a sideline despot publicly and an iron fist privately, left instead to mortgage its value piece by piece as various monied factions attack one another with scorched-earth diplomacy.
White is described as “ruthless” with admiration. I can attest from my own experience that, win or lose, tactful or not, White is anodyne to the kind of fecklessness that came before him in Knoxville. The Vols now have leadership. Likability and old politics cannot enter the equation, or UT should be prepared to fire its next football coach in three more years.