Jim Harris: Thank Goodness for the Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee Volunteers Troubles Hide

Ongoing Scuffle for Hogs New AD, Coach

Remember the scene from the fantastic 1985 “Back to the Future” movie with Michael J. Fox, when he’s on a makeshift skateboard leading Biff and a carload of other teenage town thugs around the square and right into a manure truck? Lots of laughs for everyone but Biff and the boys.

That’s the Tennessee head coaching search right now.

If not for Tennessee’s plight – where a big-money booster and a frugal chancellor and other big-money players and a crazed fan base and a national writer/TV face with cachet and now a defrocked athletic director all are going different ways around the town square yet right into the manure truck – that would be the description of Arkansas’s athletic director and coach search right now.

A real “manure” show for TV pundits such as Clay Travis to laugh at. Unfortunately for Travis, he’s a UT fan (and a Vandy law grad turned writer turned sports TV talking head) who has been more concerned that the Tennessee Volunteers couldn’t hire Jon Gruden or someone just like him, to the point that he helped ignite a fan revolt repeating unfounded rumors about Greg Schiano and his time at Penn State. From there, Tennessee has had a parade of coaches say “no thanks,” or say “yes” only to their being told, “Oops, we have to take back our offer.” 

Rest assured, if Tennessee had been more organized on the Butch Jones firing and finding his replacement before Florida and Mississippi State hired solid replacements and Ole Miss took the “interim” tag off Matt Luke, Travis would be happy now and taking his Twitter potshots at Arkansas.

So would the rest of the SEC media and any of the national guys who still care about Arkansas’s “brand,” the one Jeff Long diminished before he was dispatched in mid-November. While Long fiddled for nearly 10 years and bean-counted and built up the UA treasure chest at the expense of relationships, a small number of anti-Long folks on the UA Board of Trustees suddenly swelled to a majority as the Razorback football fortunes crumbled before everyone’s eyes, and he was done.

Of course, after Long was out of the way, UA Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz gave the OK for interim AD Julie Cromer Peoples to hand Bret Bielema his pink slip outside the UA locker room a few moments after the 48-45 season finale loss to Missouri.

Long, the athletic director, was fired without a replacement in hand or one even within reach. Bielema was fired with the idea being spun by a delusional mass of Gus Malzahn worshippers that the Auburn head coach and Arkansas native, who now is one game away from the College Football Playoffs, would return home to coach the Razorbacks.

Cromer Peoples held a press conference last Friday about two hours after completion of the Hogs’ loss to Missouri. The UA gave the appearance it was a sudden announcement with a press release handed out to the media just a few minutes after the game. The thing is, I know the crew that handles setting up for such events already was aware Friday morning that it had to have Barnhill Arena set up for the press conference (at that point, the crew was told it would be at 6:30 p.m., but the game ran way long). The press release handed out after Bielema had been told he was out clearly was not typed up, proofread and passed through the proper UA channels all in about 5 minutes. 

Yet, in still another way that the UA typically does business and looks stupid doing it, Cromer Peoples tried to sell that she and Steinmetz came to the conclusion (as the final 5 seconds were winding down following Missouri’s winning field goal?) that Bielema had to go. However, she also said it wasn’t fair to tell him before the game. Telling him immediately after the game allowed the coach to address his team about his firing before they apparently were expected to skip town for a day or two and would find out instead by social media. 

And Bielema, for his part, first uttered that he’d been told as he walked off the field that he was being let go. He “clarified” that later in his press conference to the media that it didn’t quite happen exactly as he first said. After five years of Bielema-speak, why are we not surprised? And, besides that, he was OK with the way it went down. Jeff Long briefly referred to himself as “embittered free agent” on his Twitter account before dropping the “embittered” part. Millions in compensation for these guys for not working at the UA will ease the bitterness, we’re sure.

Now, I must have sat in a different press conference led by Cromer Peoples than what most of my media cohorts saw. At its conclusion, one of my longtime friends in the business immediate turned around to me and said, “Man, she was kinda arrogant.” He wasn’t the only one who took her tone as overly aggressive and not suited for the occasion. Another few saw it for what it surely was, an audition to take the “interim” off her title.  Yes, JCP (as the message boards now refer to her) noted that she didn’t think having an AD in place was necessary to hire a coach, but that “we have an AD,” her. Again, I had no problem with what she said. 

Mainly, I really didn’t believe she’d be hiring the coach. She said she would, and would lean on “advisers” she’d come to know both here and in her jobs elsewhere and in helping Indiana hire Kevin Wilson as IU’s head coach six years ago. But while Frank Broyles did all the hiring while he was AD – until then Chancellor John White twice made the mistake of taking that out of Broyles’ hands, for hiring the football coach in 1997 and then after the Dana Altman basketball fiasco in 2007 – and Long did a rather underwhelming job of hiring during his tenure, this one would have “big-money boosters” written all over it.

It appears to be happening with Long’s replacement as well. Steinmetz, I believe, wants a sitting AD to replace Long, and I believe he had his man Thursday in Tulsa’s Derrick Gragg, who checks off all the boxes and then some of what Arkansas supporters would want out of their AD, beginning with having worked from 2001-06 doing the job’s heavy lifting for Broyles while Frank held the title. Somewhere, Steinmetz’s plan got sidetracked by either the Board or boosters or a combination of the two. 

Gragg’s not out, but Steinmetz might need more than a vetting search firm to back up his choice. And some people who we know are putting their nose into this seem to have no idea what a 21st century big-time college AD has to do. It’s far more than glad-hand. But then there are others who just want “their guy” in place to assure a connection to this power. That’s nothing new anywhere.

Meanwhile, some of this big-money crowd seriously thinks that Gus Malzahn is a legitimate possibility EVEN IF HE BEATS GEORGIA on Saturday. I can only imagine the college football world being turned on its ear if Auburn were to beat the Bulldogs for the second time in four Saturdays and, as the current No. 2 in the CFP, assure its place in the playoffs, with Malzahn announcing, “Hey, winning my second SEC title is fantastic, and now I’ve taken the Arkansas job, so good luck to y’all.”

The gulf between Malzahn and the next group of Hog head coaching hopefuls is as wide as the Grand Canyon. You have Chad Morris, who in his only head coaching job is 11-24 in three years at SMU, or Mike Norvell at Memphis, who’s done exceptionally well in two years in the same conference in which Morris coaches, 10-1 this season with a league title game Saturday at UCF. Mike Leach, who has brought Washington State back from the trash heap to competitive in the Pac-12, seemingly wants the job and has had Barry Switzer touting him twice for Arkansas (Switzer urged the Hogs to look at Leach when he was at Texas Tech in 2007). And, if Tennessee’s coaching search couldn’t get any bizarre, Leach suddenly popped up Thursday night as a likely hire by UT athletic director John Currie before the Vols’ big money stepped in and silenced Currie.

And thank goodness for that, because Arkansas has pretty much same thing going: A chancellor wanting to make his decisions, an interim AD wanting to make her decisions, boosters wanting to make all the picks, Malzahn lovers who will take only Gus even if it’s a pipe dream they can’t seem to wake up from, and at least one big-moneyed Trustee whose past efforts to be helpful already include helping set Arkansas basketball back 10 years and who let a grudge with Jeff Long fester until it enveloped enough of the board to set all this in motion. 

Remember, when chasing the uncatchable, keep your eyes ahead for the manure truck.

Tennessee Volunteers

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