The reported courtship of Washington State football coach Mike Leach took a bizarre twist Friday morning when Tennessee athletic director John Currie, who had met with Leach in Los Angeles on Thursday, was suspended.
Several reports said Currie had drafted a memorandum of understanding with Leach, but someone at Tennessee had objected to Currie’s courtship of Leach and shortly after the MOU was sent to Tennessee’s general counsel, Currie was recalled to Knoxville.
Currie was suspended after a meeting with Tennessee chancellor Beverly Davenport.
In a brief news conference Friday afternoon to announce the appointment of former Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer as acting athletic director, Davenport refused to answer any questions about Mike Leach’s status with the Vols.
More on Leach and Tennessee
To explain why she suspended Currie, Davenport said, “Early yesterday afternoon, I asked John Currie to return to Knoxville before going forward with the (football coaching) search. That request had nothing to do with any specific coach.”
It appears that Currie did not immediately comply with this directive, but went through with his plans to have lunch with Leach in Los Angeles to discuss the job.
Consequently, “this morning, I decided to make a change in leadership,” Davenport said. “It was a decision I felt was in the best interest of our university.”
Tennessee’s ongoing drama aside, I’m skeptical of reports that said Leach had agreed to terms with the Vols. (See this piece to understand why: The unstable leadership situation in Knoxville is not something that would be attractive to Leach under any circumstances.)
Here is what we know:
- Leach met with Currie on Thursday about his football opening.
- Before that meeting, Leach met with WSU president Kirk Schulz to discuss a contract extension.
- Schulz has said he wants to do everything he can to retain Leach.
- With Bill Moos now at Nebraska, the Cougars are looking for a new athletic director, preferably one who gets along with Leach.
- Currie is suspended, and his departure from Tennessee appears imminent.
- Schulz hired Currie as Kansas State’s athletic director in 2009 when he was there.
Do those facts form a chain? And how will things play out now?
Well, expect Leach, his agent and Schulz to re-enter contract negotiations. If they can reach an agreement, something will be announced sooner than later.
Meanwhile, the search continues on the WSU athletic director front, but sources close to the situation say it would be presumptive to assume Currie jumps to the front of the line because he could be available and has a relationship with Schulz.
“I think that would be a real stretch,” said a source who requested anonymity. “They’re doing a national search. They’re taking a look at a broad view of candidates. They’re going to take their time. I hear it’s going real well.
“They’re going to take their time to do it right and get the right person.”
That doesn’t mean Currie would be out of the running if he is fired. Until this Tennessee saga, he had a strong reputation nationally from his eight years at Kansas State. He led fundraising efforts that raised more than $200 million for Kansas State athletic-facility improvements, and he helped the Wildcats become financially solvent. It’s also worth noting, however, that he did not get along with Kansas State coach Bill Snyder.
Despite the tension with Snyder, Currie’s hiring by Tennessee in February was lauded. Now, some reports have said former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer is trying to sabotage Currie’s coaching search to position himself for the athletic-director job. It worked, as Tennessee on Friday named Fulmer AD.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) December 1, 2017
The coming days will likely shed more light on whether Currie was the scapegoat of a dysfunctional Tennessee administration. But regardless of what unfolds, he’ll have questions to answer about his messy coach search if he tries to find a new job.
WSU’s job opening could pique Currie’s interest, but he would have to go through the process like everyone else, sources say.
WSU spokesperson Phil Weiler said this week, before news of Leach’s meeting with Currie broke, that the Cougars hope to name an athletic director by late January or early February but do not anticipate a decision coming any earlier.
Either way, the Cougars’ priority is someone with a strong background in development and fundraising.
WSU is trying to change the perception that it should accept a fate of mediocre contribution levels to its athletic department because it’s a smaller school set in a rural area with an alumni base that’s less affluent than its peers.
According to a stat sheet circulated by CougsFirst, a WSU alumni business network, the average WSU graduate earns $49,200 annually early in his or her career – compared with $44,100 for the average Oregon graduate, $48,600 for the average Oregon State graduate and $54,000 for the average UW graduate.
However, according to figures researched by the Cougar Athletic Fund, WSU gets an average of $833 per annual donation compared with, for instance, Oregon State’s $2,235 average annual donation. With Currie now almost certainly looking for a new job, it’s worth noting that the average annual donation to his former school, Kansas State, is $2,176.
WSU officials want its annual donation levels to catch up to that of its peers institutions, and Currie has a track record of increasing athletic revenue.
But there would be no concessions made for him, sources believe. If he wants the WSU athletic director job, he would have to earn it just like anyone else.