KNOXVILLE — When University of Tennessee system president Joe DiPietro announced legendary former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer was returning to the university as a special adviser in June, it seemed like a public burying of the hatchet.
The university's new chancellor, Beverly Davenport, had passed over Fulmer for the open athletic director position and hired John Currie, who was part of the administration that forced Fulmer out as coach in 2008. With that behind them, they gathered in front of cameras and reporters on a sunny afternoon and talked about working together.
"We've had such dysfunctional things happen to us in the last few years with coaches and all those things," Fulmer said as he discussed his advisory position.
Friday topped them all.
The day started with an expectation among many outside the program that Washington State's Mike Leach could be named the next football coach by Currie. Before lunch arrived, Currie's tenure as athletic director had been "suspended" by Davenport. By dinner, Fulmer was announced as the new athletic director.
The wild turn of events in one of the most unruly coaching searches of modern college football came on the exact date that Lane Kiffin was announced as Fulmer's replacement nine years ago.
Now, after being forced out as coach then and passed over for athletic director less than a year ago, Fulmer will make arguably the most important football coaching hire in the history Tennessee's storied football program. The Tennessee native and former Tennessee player, assistant and head coach will do so while the university and the athletic department he is tasked with leading grapple with the fallout of an unhinged saga.
Fulmer's appointment letter explained Currie's suspension with pay comes amid a "pending investigation or decision relating to termination of his employment agreement for cause."
In essence, Tennessee plans to explore a way to fire Currie with cause and avoid owing him a buyout of more than $5 million after he interviewed Leach on Thursday in a move that Davenport implied was not approved.
"We don't have all the financial details worked out," Davenport said in a late afternoon news conference that began with a cheery introduction of Fulmer and turned tense as the duo was drilled with questions about a dysfunctional coaching search that is growing costlier by the day.
Currie, if fired without cause, is owed $100,000 per month for the remaining time on his contract, which totals 55 months.
"Early yesterday afternoon, I asked John Currie to return to Knoxville before going forward with the search," Davenport said. "That request had nothing to do with any specific coach. When there are high expectations about a great place, those high expectations come with challenges, and challenges require tough decisions. Today required one of those decisions."
If Tennessee ultimately ended up owing Currie money, that financial obligation would come as fired football coach Butch Jones and his staff are owed a buyout of around $13 million. The amount owed to Jones and his staff will be reduced by the salaries they receive at their next jobs. But to this point, Jones' name has not publicly surfaced in connection with other college football coaching vacancies.
Then, there is the possibility that Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano could pursue litigation against the university after he nearly became Tennessee's football coach on Sunday at the beginning of a bizarre six days.
Schiano was never introduced as coach after Tennessee backed out amid outrage from fans and other university stakeholders. But Currie did reportedly sign a memorandum of understanding with Schiano. That document was never signed by Davenport, according to her spokesperson.
There is also widespread speculation that installing Fulmer as athletic director could anger the university's most prominent financial boosters, Jim and Jimmy Haslam. The father and son duo are the owner and CEO, respectively, of travel center chain Pilot Flying J and are widely known to be involved in most major athletics decisions at Tennessee. Attempts to contact the Haslams for comment were not immediately successful on Friday night.
The ousting of Currie comes just a month after he received Board of Trustees approval to proceed with a revamped $340 million Neyland Stadium renovation plan.
At the time, Currie expressed that fundraising for the project was ahead of schedule. But with the university now seemingly in turmoil and Currie out just eight months into his tenure, oversight of that project will be left to someone else.
Davenport said in her news conference that the university "absolutely" plans to proceed with the Neyland Stadium renovation project.
"We would have never brought forward a project that we didn't feel was needed," she said.
A 2017 analysis by The Wall Street Journal ranked Tennessee as the nation's ninth-most valuable college football program, while a similar piece published in May by Penn Live ranked Tennessee as the second-richest football program in the country.
Football ticket sales account for 21.7 percent of the athletic department's $134 million budget, according to an overview of the 2017-18 budget. Those tickets are the department's second-largest source of income behind SEC/NCAA distributions, a category that includes money from television-rights deals and comprises 29.9 percent of the department's budget. Gifts to the Tennessee Fund are the third-largest category at 21.2 percent.
Hiring Fulmer, who won the 1998 national championship as coach, figures to please most Tennessee fans, but gifts to the Tennessee Fund could be a budget category at risk if fans and boosters decide the program's direction is unsatisfactory as the athletic department navigates a storm of national scrutiny.
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.