Wiedmer: Did UT rebuff cost Blackburn his UTC job?

Wiedmer: Did UT rebuff cost Blackburn his UTC job?

June 14th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 7/14/16. David Blackburn, Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics for The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, stands in McKenzie Arena where his office is located.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

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When it comes to Tuesday's shocking news that David Blackburn had resigned from his position as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics director, a lot of folks want there to be a smoking gun. Malfeasance perhaps. Maybe a DUI. Insubordination. Even an undisclosed illness, though hopefully one that's curable rather than terminal. Something. Anything.

But what if it's a lot less dramatic than that?

What if Blackburn, his heart still broken by not getting his dream job as the University of Tennessee AD — the post that went to John Currie, once a UT athletic department contemporary of Blackburn — just doesn't have the will or energy to continue as the boss of the Mocs?

Call it depression. Call it stagnation. Call it sad and tragic and regrettable for all concerned. Even call it crazy and without merit.

But at least consider it for a moment or two as a possible alternative explanation to a darker, more sinister scenario.

After all, Blackburn's UT-Knoxville rebuff wasn't a job rejection suffered behind closed doors, playing out under complete anonymity save a whisper here or a rumor there.

This was a rejection pretty much tried in the court of public opinion, running its course not in days, but in months, filling up message boards, talk radio and social media for weeks on end, and not all of it supportive of Blackburn.

In the beginning, way back in late September, he seemed to be the frontrunner for the UT job. Then, by November, he didn't. Then, Christmas drawing near, he seemed to have it again. Then his old coaching boss, Phillip Fulmer, got involved and Blackburn's Big Orange dreams were apparently done. But by then it was January, more than 90 days after the rumor mill had begun and still at least 45 days from Currie's hiring.

The UT brass will rightly say this was all unofficial, and mostly without merit, and that the serious searching didn't begin until late January at the earliest, or possibly not until new chancellor Beverly Davenport took over on Feb. 15th of this year.

Though few believed Blackburn was a serious contender by then, having your name bandied about from September through Valentine's Day is a long time to twist in the wind. Your emotions can understandably get the best of you. Your heart is stubbornly clinging to any sliver of hope that you might still land your dream gig in Big Orange Country. At the same time, your mind is repeatedly reminding you that you would do well to focus on the job you have just in case you don't get the job you want. The stress would make a mess of most of us.

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And there were certainly things Blackburn should have done differently, starting with the weekend of Oct. 15, 2016. That's when the UTC football Mocs, Blackburn's Mocs, the Mocs whose university coffers were paying their AD at least $180,000 a year, were fighting for a probable Southern Conference championship at The Citadel. Both teams were undefeated and ranked in the top 10 of the Football Championship Subdivision standings. The winner was all but assured of capturing the league title.

But where was Blackburn that day? He was reportedly in a Neyland Stadium skybox watching the Tennessee football team he hoped would soon be under his watch play Alabama.

Now to be fair, almost every football fan in the Volunteer State — even many of those who support the Mocs — would have opted to be with Blackburn in one of those posh Neyland skyboxes filled with wonderful food and drink and HD televisions for the annual Third Saturday in October showdown rather than at The Citadel's far smaller and somewhat more spartan Johnson Hagood Stadium.

But most fans aren't being paid by UTC. Most fans aren't the Mocs' coaches, players and parents of those players who had every right to expect their university's athletic director to join them in Charleston, S.C., that weekend. That the Mocs lost that game only deepened the wound.

Was it the beginning of the end? Almost certainly not. But the story started a wee bit of grumbling among those who supposedly knew. It may have fueled then-head coach Russ Huesnman's desire to look elsewhere, which he did after the season, jumping to Richmond.

At the very least, if true, it sent a message to all who heard about it that Blackburn cared far more about UT than UTC, which is never a good thing, especially at a school where many boosters already feel unloved by the UT system.

At some point soon, if there is a smoking gun, if Blackburn resigned from his job before it was taken from him, that truth will come out. The world's ability to keep a secret has never been less secure. Tongues and keyboards will work overtime. Social media will blow up. The sensational will trump the sensible.

And that sensational story may eventually prove true, especially since not many folks voluntarily walk away from a gig paying $180,000 a year or more. But for now, on the 14th of June, Blackburn's resignation may be as simple as that — that he no longer has the heart or the stomach to do a very hard job. If that's the whole truth, it's truly a tragedy for both Blackburn and a UTC athletic department he almost always served so well.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com