Wiedmer: No Big Orange Caravan would mean no guts by John Currie

Wiedmer: No Big Orange Caravan would mean no guts by John Currie

April 18th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UT head football coach Butch Jones signs the back of Abigail Lambert's jersey. The University of Tennessee Big Orange Caravan rolled into town at the Chattanoogan on Thursday May 5, 2016.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

On the first week of his hiring as Tennessee's athletic director last month, John Currie referred to his first months as the Kansas State AD in 2009:

"We had low confidence, and one of the things we did in the process was getting out there with our fans. There are some similarities between the schools. Tennessee has the Big Orange Caravan, K-State has the Cat Mover, so we got out and about and re-earned trust. So we will do some things over here from an athletics perspective to ensure that the Tennessee faithful and the whole Tennessee family feel like they have a good opportunity to connect and share their passion and feelings."

Just don't expect those connections to begin at this year's Big Orange Caravan, since — according to longtime Tennessee beat reporter John Brice — there isn't likely to be a Caravan this spring for the first time in 27 years.

KNOXVILLE, TN - MARCH 02, 2017 - Chancellor Dr. Beverly Devenport welcomes John Currie as University of Tennessees's new Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE, TN - MARCH 02, 2017 - Chancellor...

Photo by Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics

Wrote Brice — for the past two seasons a sideline reporter for the Vols Network during football games and a 15-year veteran covering UT athletics — on his new website: "University of Tennessee athletics has no plans to conduct arguably its most fan-friendly series of events this spring for the first time in decades. People familiar with operations in Memphis, Nashville and the Tri-Cities confirmed today that UT has not secured any dates and indicated it is unsure if it will even have a caravan this year."

So that bit of public-relations blather that Currie trotted out there about "It's really about people, and it's getting around and reconnecting with folks," well, what's the old line about talk being cheap, even if Currie is reportedly making $900,000 a year?

Put another way, just how badly must Volunteers football coach Butch Jones want to avoid any questions from a frustrated fan base for the school apparently to end 26 years worth of meet-and-greets with its most loyal supporters?

After all, the Caravan isn't so much about the well-heeled boosters who so often ultimately decide the fate of coaches such as Jones or women's basketball coach Holly Warlick or baseball coach Dave Serrano as it is the average fan in the stands, living room or tailgater.

The tickets for these gatherings in East Tennessee, Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis and other locations now and then (Atlanta and Charlotte, to name only two) are priced for the masses, no more than $25 a person for a chance to get a picture made with a coach or three, possibly collect an autograph, ask a question or two and enjoy a respectable dinner of barbecue or fried chicken with all the fixings.

Again, to bring up an earlier Currie quote: "We're going to be very intentional about being transparent and open and getting around and being accessible, and I think that's across the board."

There are certainly a lot of questions the Big Orange Nation may want to pose to Currie, Jones, Warlick and men's basketball coach Rick Barnes. They won't all be comfortable or easy to answer.

For instance, someone is almost certain to ask the new AD what it would take for him to fire Jones after the 2017 season. A similar question might be asked him concerning Warlick. Or Serrano, whose team again figures to miss the SEC tournament.

For $900,000 a year, Currie should be able to come up with some quote that can appease all sides for the time being, something along the lines of, at least where football's concerned: "While we all want to get back to the SEC title game as soon as possible, too much coaching turnover helped get us here and we want to fairly evaluate every aspect of the program — academics, off-field behavior and on-field performance — before making a decision we might regret down the road. I'm proud of much that Butch Jones has accomplished, and I have every faith in him moving forward."

How hard would that be?

But to a bigger point, how much longer must a frustrated UT fan base put up with what appears to be a completely tone-deaf administration?

It stubbed its toe on the Lady Vols name regarding women's sports. Though he may yet prove to be the answer, its hiring of Currie mostly brought to mind the collapsed regime of former AD Mike Hamilton, who was once Currie's UT boss. Even though her short time on the job should mostly forgive her this, new chancellor Beverly Davenport's recent comment about Thompson-Boling Arena being "Holly's House" — despite the court bearing the name of late Lady Vols legend Pat Summitt — apparently ruffled at least a few feathers.

But most of that might seem minuscule to this, to cutting the masses off from the men and women whom the fans pay hard-earned money to watch coach. For $4.11 million a year, Jones should have to do the Big Orange Caravan. And if he won't, the least Currie should do is let everyone know he won't, which, if nothing else, might achieve what the fan base already wants, which is to show Jones the door.

But to return to the new AD's words when he was hired, Currie said, "The Lord gave me two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason. I've got to get around and listen and see and learn and reconnect with folks. I can't wait to start doing that."

If Brice is right, that start, at least regarding the next Big Orange Caravan, might be this time next year. But barring a late reversal regarding the Caravan, the Big Orange Nation at least now knows that while Currie may indeed have only one mouth, he's become pretty good at speaking out of both sides of it.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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