Wednesday, November 29, 2017

UT Football Coach Search--The Plot Thickens

Author's note: Sometimes, writers hear stories from sources that want to remain anonymous, which means those stories won't work in the context of regular journalism. That's where blogs can come in handy. And if I HAD heard any allegories from...say...4 or 5 boosters who didn't want to be named, I imagine the story would sound remarkably like this. Take from that what you will. 

You folks know I’m a novelist by profession, so I decided I would have a little fun with the ongoing UT coaching hire nightmare —just for fun and laughs — and tell you the story I would write if this was one of my books. I'd market it as a behind-the-doors business intrigue work of fiction that spans the gamut from the hiring of a football coach at a state university to big-money boosters and corruption.

First, the foreword. I’ve already inflicted poetry on you folks, so might as well go ahead and quote the Bible here:
Matthew 6:24 — No man can be the bondservant of two masters; for either he will dislike one and like the other, or he will attach himself to one and think slightingly of the other. You cannot be the bondservants both of God and of gold.
In my book, the real problem in the coaching search all along is that the UT athletic director, John Currie, is serving two masters. One is the university, and the other is top booster Jimmy Haslam. Currie follows Haslam’s lead to the detriment of Tennessee, ignoring the other boosters or deliberately misleading them, and condescending to the opinions of the fan base who are, in the world of big money college sports, relatively unimportant and unnecessary to his fundraising goals. And let’s make no bones about it — he’s not the first UT AD to do that. His two predecessors set a precedent for doing exactly that, and now it seems to be UTAD policy.

Harsh? Yes. But acceptable to all concerned. And while the boosters believed that big-time elite coach Jon Gruden has agreed to come to UT, down to the dollar amount of the deal(between $9-10 million dollars per year) and prospective assistant coaches to hire, somehow that deal isn't what happens. Currie, at the instruction of Haslam, tries to bring someone completely unacceptable through the back door as head football coach. The other boosters are shocked because no one told them anything about a deal with Greg Schiano. But the backlash from the fan base is so violent that UT has to back out of the deal. Currie then goes to Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, who flirts for a minute with a big money deal but then declines.

Meanwhile, in my fictional account…the fan base is screaming two names over and over. One is Tee Martin, the last quarterback to bring a national title to UT. But he’s not called, and rumors state that Tennessee favored son, Peyton Manning, also a former and beloved UT QB, has a problem with Tee as the next head football coach. If that’s the case, at the end of the day Manning should suppress his dissent in favor of the fans who have supported him throughout his whole career. But if that’s not the case, then who threw Peyton under the bus by claiming it was his doing? Peyton Manning, who is rumored to be under consideration for the front office of the Cleveland Browns? The GOAT, most beloved son of Rocky Top? More on that in a minute.

The other fan favorite is Lane Kiffin, who a lot of alumni and boosters would have a difficult time welcoming back to Knoxville after what he pulled the last time he was here. And since the narrator agrees with them (don’t @ me; just my personal opinion), I’ll just leave that conversation to sit.

So, in my totally fictional novel, while the fans want Tee or Kiffin, the university just got rejected in advance by Chad Morris of SMU and in minutes by Jeff Broehm of Purdue. Unthinkable.

Now the crazy train starts again, as Currie tries to find a candidate that Haslam will somehow approve of but who won’t be met by furious protesters outside the athletic department. Even as a novelist, I would imagine that list of names is very short. And then next — 

But…wait. As a novelist, I know that when something is bugging me about my story, I need to stop and think about it for a minute. I storyboard plots, like the evidence boards you see on TV crime shows. And in this case, I keep running into the same question.

Why would UT boosters have thought to a man that Gruden was coming to Knoxville, and how did they get surprised by the Schiano deal? A university doesn’t just up and change course on a decision if the boosters are all on board, right? Not without telling someone.

But the boosters’ shock and dismay was so evident and so universal that I can’t think anything other than they weren’t told. And if that’s the case, then the reasonable conclusion for any fiction writer is that there was a deal with Gruden that somehow fell through at the last possible minute. Who knows? 

Maybe that deal was actually signed . Maybe an actual MOU, even, say in some super secret facility at a country club, but Gruden's side amended it so Currie backed out of the deal. Then Currie went rogue at the instigation of Haslam and tried to hurry a new deal through and get Schiano installed before anyone could react. Especially the boosters, who thought they were getting (and perhaps had donated money to get) Jon Gruden. 

So how does that impact my story’s plot? And how do I bring this nightmare back around for the happy ever after ending? Difficult questions to answer. Obviously, getting rid of Currie’s not the entirety of the answer, because Haslam would be at the center of any new AD hire as well. If Currie was forced out, and he would be soon after this point of the story for rank incompetence if nothing else, then the next AD would be a Currie Lite. 

No, the real cancer eating away at UT’s guts from the inside is named Haslam. That’s what must fall if the good guys are going to win. 

You know, the narrator of this story lives up in Ohio so she(thankfully) avoids almost all of the cesspool influence named Haslam — except, of course, for the worst-run franchise in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns. (Coincidentally, where Peyton is rumored to be heading to the front office.) Apparently, Haslam likes to ruin proud, storied football heritages because he’s certainly done so for Cleveland and is single-handedly undertaking the same at UT. 


And yes, people that pony up millions to build a football legacy at a university absolutely are and should be involved in some decisions within the process. No one’s unrealistic enough to think otherwise. But involved, not dictating, and never to the point where one booster is basically running the whole show despite the other boosters, the alumni, fans, and the best interests of the university overall. Anyone with a grain of common sense could see the answer to UT’s woes — ditch Haslam and Currie, put Blackburn or Fulmer in at AD, and bring back a UT guy to change the narrative of this coaching hire. Make a popular hire, pay the staff well, and put the football team’s fate in the hands of the program and not some fat cat’s plush office where he sits like a spider in the middle of a destructive web. 

Easy, right? 

But common sense is a rarity these days, it seems, especially on the Hill where apparently no one from the university president on down seems to see the danger of UT’s continued association with Jimmy Haslam. Oh, and it’s oh so dangerous, too. As in a bringing down the whole house of cards in one stroke dangerous. Everyone, literally from the governor’s office on down, is in danger of losing more than they realize as the result of a football coaching search debacle. So when the university manages to hire someone — if that ever happens — the UTAD can take a deep breath. Disaster averted, so now the fans can shut up.

But the narrator is still bothered, and it all goes back to one thing — how so many prominent boosters and alumni were of the belief Jon Gruden was coming to UT and instead got Greg Schiano.
That seems…strange, doesn’t it? Almost as if those boosters were misled somehow into believing what everyone in the national media said was a pipe dream. In and of itself, that doesn’t seem possible. Those boosters are savvy businessmen from top to bottom. 


Unless those boosters were misled — say, for example, when the Gruden deal fell through and they weren’t informed of that after ponying up a rumored $20 million to make the deal happen. 

Unless the decision to go after Schiano was an AD going rogue. 

Unless the only other guy aware of and supporting the Schiano hire was the same guy who tried to get Schiano hired for a pro franchise…say maybe…in Cleveland. 

That’s the only thing that makes sense to me. I’m an extremely logical person, and I certainly try to be level-headed, although Twitter makes that challenging at times. But I am also a novelist, and pulling plot strings together into a story is what I do for a living. So if I were writing this as a novel, I would have to assume that there actually was a done deal with Gruden, maybe even a signed MOU that was amended at the last minute so that UT rescinded the offer, and that the Schiano offer was an attempt to sneak a malleable candidate through the back door without the knowledge or approval of the other athletic boosters but with the full support of one. 

In my book--a fictional book, mind you--I don’t think any athletic director would have been inept enough to present Greg Schiano as the “home run hire” that UT would “open the checkbooks” for in order to bring a man of “integrity” to run football. No one sitting at an AD’s desk is stupid enough to think that’s anything other than Bad PR 101. And obviously, the university had not called one other coach prior to last week.

Not. One. 

If I’m right, and if that’s the case, then in my fictionalized account of the UT shinola show, the story isn’t over with an acceptable football hire. UT has to look to the future, and future hires, to keep this from happening again. So what has to happen to prevent future horrors is that the regular guy fan base needs to come together with the folks in the sky boxes they never meet. The boosters. The boosters not named Haslam. Because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how much money one guy has, it’s not enough to supersede the rest of the boosters, the season ticket holders, the donors, the former players, and the alumni. Between major UT donors, boosters, alumni, and season ticket holders alone, Tennessee stands to lose $100 million if those groups unite and stand up to the one fat cat Svenagli at the top of the heap.

That's an insurmountable number. 

In my fictional world, Jimmy Haslam should not be the real power running the show at the UTAD. The fact that he is, quite frankly, should be a massive legal conflict of interest since his brother is currently the sitting governor in the state of Tennessee. That kind of power over a state-run entity like a university stinks of corruption, and corruption always goes up, not down. With Governor Haslam mulling a Senate run, the last thing he needs to be tainted by his brother’s shenanigans in Knoxville. And the last thing Tennesseans should tolerate is the continued involvement of anyone named Haslam in the decision-making processes that impact not just their everyday lives, but what they love. 

The University of Tennessee. 

So anyone up to his nose in Jimmy Haslam’s armpits, who botched this hire so horrifically from the get go, needs to be kicked out of his — or her — office too. 

But as Currie continues to woo sitting head coaches with the hopes that one of them would be ambitious enough to be starry-eyed over the name of Rocky Top or dumb enough to ignore Haslam pulling the purse- and puppet-strings to actually agree to coach at UT, the real problem at UT leaned back in his custom-built chair, smoking those Cuban cigars, swilling his “no one can afford this but me” Scotch, and congratulating himself on being the Machiavelli that really runs the UT athletic department.

How does my novel sound to you folks? Think it’s bestseller material? I do. Because at the heart of this fictional story is how a big-time university screwed up the biggest hiring deal in a century of college sports and subsequently tried to kowtow to a booster’s demands to the detriment of everyone. 

I’m not a world-famous author. Not yet. Plan to be. But what most people don’t know about me is that I am a pretty damn good editor by God, and that I edit for writers who are on the NYT and USA Today bestseller list even as we speak. Believe me — I can spot a story from two states away. I can pull those strings together as well as anyone in the business. And if I were writing a (wholly fictional) story about corruption in big-money collegiate athletics? This plot I’ve outlined here would be a bestseller. Not because it’s fanciful, but because it’s credible. The problem with big-money boosters is that they’re universal when it comes to big-time football programs. You don’t think there’s a similar story in Tuscaloosa? 

Or South Bend? Tallahassee? 


Think again. 

But in this novel of football desperation, all the big money boosters (but one) were taken off-guard as well. In order to get the happily ever after ending in my fictional account, those boosters and the fan base would have to come together fast and create such an uproar that the real cancer at the heart of the UTAD woes would be cut out: Haslam is prevented from dictating university policy, Currie is fired along with any UT officials part and parcel of this deal with the devil, a native son like David Blackburn is brought in to clean up the UTAD mess, and a new coach with integrity starts to put the pieces back together of the football team. Of course, in my story that denouement would involve sirens and jail time and shots fired and maybe some gore, but hey — that’s what I write, right? Sci fi? Horror? 


At the end of the day, I’m just a struggling writer, making ends meet by editing for big name authors, who every once in a while finds a way to spin a little fancy with her one guilty pleasure — Tennessee sports. The problem with me writing this fictionalized account of a botched coaching hire, is that at the end of the day I’m not sure this is fiction. And if it’s not, the story will be written by someone with a lot more power in the publishing and sports media world than me, who can convince people to step up and corroborate this story. That’s how the publishing business goes. 

More than likely, that’s how the hiring of a football coach at a big university goes too. Fortunately for fat cats and their minions, no one pays any attention to the stories a struggling novelist tells. 

All fiction when you get right down to it. Just…100%, complete, nothing to see here fiction.

No, really. It's fiction. Promise.