Wade Payne/AP


  • John Currie's misadventures as Tennessee AD made him the laughingstock of college football, but he has a chance to prove what he's learned from that debacle at his alma mater.
By Andy Staples
March 05, 2019

Days after he got yanked off the Tennessee football coaching search and handed the suspension that would ultimately lead to his firing as the Volunteers’ athletic director, John Currie found himself at a reception in New York, surrounded by friends and colleagues. Other ADs told him to hang in there. Conference commissioners offered their support. University presidents told him he’d bounce back.

Noticing the wave of support for the man whose misadventures had captivated the world of college sports, College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock offered some words of wisdom. “You know, John, what you’re experiencing right now is like going to your own funeral,” Currie remembers Hancock saying. “All your people are saying great things to you because they love you that they wouldn’t otherwise say unless you'd died.”

Hancock’s joke produced two different effects. It immediately lightened the mood. And the more Currie thought about what Hancock had said, the more Currie realized his career hadn’t died. All those people coming up to him and telling him to keep his head up were people who either hired ADs or influenced the AD hiring process. There may have been a segment of people in the business who wouldn’t touch him after the Tennessee debacle, but the ones he knew best weren’t turning their backs. Eventually, he’d get back in somewhere.

That somewhere turned out to be his alma mater. Monday, Currie was introduced as the new athletic director at Wake Forest. He got his start there working in Ron Wellman’s athletic department shortly after his graduation in 1993. Now he’ll replace Wellman, who got the job in 1992 and had been the longest serving AD in the Power 5.

A Tennessee fan is going to read this and say, “Why in the world would they hire that bozo?” A non-Tennessee fan might say the same thing after reading through the document dump Tennessee conveniently included last March with Currie’s separation agreement, which paid him $2.5 million to no longer work in Knoxville. The documents paint a picture of an AD struggling to hire a coach in 2017 following a fan revolt that caused him to dump his first choice after reaching terms with him. And the machinations do look bad, from the hire-then-renege with Greg Schiano to getting okey-doked by Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy to the courtship of NC State’s Dave Doeren—who, like Schiano*, also wouldn’t have worked out there—to the final meeting with Mike Leach, who probably would have been a great hire if Tennessee chancellor Beverly Davenport hadn’t ordered Currie back to Knoxville to ultimately face ritual disembowelment by open records request.

*Currie and I agree to disagree about how Schiano would have fit at Tennessee. Unlike several of my colleagues, who backed the hire and proceeded to tell Tennessee fans they were stupid for opposing it, I think Schiano would have struggled there for many of the same reasons Butch Jones did at the end of his tenure in Knoxville. It takes a special temperament to survive in the cauldron that is the Tennessee football coaching job. Pruitt, who doesn’t appear to have ever worried about what anyone thinks of him, seems more equipped to deal with one of the most intense markets in sports. That doesn’t mean he’ll win; it does mean he won’t waste time worrying about things that don’t affect winning and losing.

Currie is under no obligation to say nice things about Tennessee. His separation agreement doesn’t include a non-disparagement clause; it merely orders him to refrain from discouraging a recruit to attend Tennessee. But when people ask about Tennessee, he’ll say, “It wasn’t a good fit.”

He won’t mention that he was one of many people caught up in a power struggle that went back years and that he had been hand-picked by the losing side to run the athletic department. Also on that side was Davenport. The chancellor who hired and suspended Currie got swept out last May. Currie was going to face opposition no matter whom he hired as the football coach, but the revolt and subsequent second search weakened him to the point where he had no chance. Phillip Fulmer, who once marshaled enough support to get himself named head football coach instead of Johnny Majors, marshaled enough support to get himself named AD.

Vols fans are thrilled with Fulmer now. They are cautiously optimistic about Jeremy Pruitt, the coach Fulmer chose to lead the football program. They are over the moon with Rick Barnes, the men's basketball coach hired by Currie’s predecessor Dave Hart who has turned Tennessee into one of the nation's best teams. They will remain happy until they aren’t, something Fulmer should remember all too well from his final years as Tennessee’s football coach.

Currie doesn’t need to mention any of this because it won’t do any good. The firing allowed him to spend more time with his family and allowed him to spread his wings by teaching a class at Columbia and working as a consultant with AD Chris Del Conte’s staff at Texas. A segment of people will always define Currie by the events of late November 2017. But most of those people don’t hire or fire athletic directors. Most of the people who do that like Currie. And why do they like him? Because he’s a friend. But there are lots of friends you wouldn’t hire. So why wouldn’t these people hesitate to hire Currie? Because he’s great at raising money, which isn’t easy.

As Kansas State’s athletic director from 2009 to ’17, Currie helped get the athletic department out of debt and raised the money to help build $210 million worth of facilities. He also convinced them to give until it hurt at Tennessee, first as a lieutenant to Mike Hamilton and then as the AD. His skills will come in handy at Wake Forest, which is the smallest school in the Power 5 by enrollment. He can’t tap into a massive alumni base like Bubba Cunningham down the road at North Carolina. He has to cultivate relationships and keep the donors giving.

At Wake Forest, Currie probably will not have to hire a football coach anytime soon unless the Demon Deacons have a truly exceptional season, which would be a good problem to have. Coach Dave Clawson has been excellent and routinely has Wake Forest outpunching its historical weight class. Ironically, Clawson has been passed over for other jobs because of a perception formed during an ill-fated one-year stint as offensive coordinator at—you guessed it—Tennessee. Clawson was hired to rescue the offense in what would be Fulmer’s final season in 2008, but it proved beyond saving.

Currie’s first order of business will be fixing Wake Forest basketball. The Demon Deacons once boasted stars such as Tim Duncan and Chris Paul and enjoyed regular NCAA tournament appearances. Currie was a young Deacon Club employee in 1995 when he sat in the Greensboro Coliseum and watched Randolph Childress score 107 points in three ACC tournament games to lead Wake Forest to a title.

The program’s consistent success ended following the death of coach Skip Prosser in 2007. The Demon Deacons have been to the NCAA tournament only three times since then. A First Four appearance in 2017—Wake got bounced by Kansas State—prompted Wellman to give current coach Danny Manning an extension through the 2024–25 season, but now that contract looks like an albatross as the Demon Deacons sit at 11–17 and 4–12 in ACC play.

Currie has experience dealing with a successful basketball program, but that’s complicated as well. When he left Kansas State for Tennessee in 2017, fans were still mad at Currie because of a perception that he had run off Frank Martin, who wound up taking South Carolina to the Final Four that year. The guy Currie hired, Bruce Weber, was not very popular at the time. Weber is much more beloved now after taking the Wildcats to the Elite Eight last season. After Monday’s win at TCU, Kansas State can either win or share the Big 12 regular-season title with a win Saturday against Oklahoma. So maybe Currie knows a little more about hiring basketball coaches than he got credit for upon his departure from the Little Apple.

Currie definitely knows how critical it is for that program to rebound. “It’s really dyed into the fabric of this state,” Currie says. “It’s important for Wake Forest to be good at basketball.” Just as he did with Jones at Tennessee, Currie will say all the nicest things about Manning. At some point, though, there will be a cold analysis of the program if it doesn’t get better.

Then Currie will get judged again. It will be up to him to prove he learned from that last coaching search and its aftermath.

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