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We Can Do More Than Unite.

A new chancellor and athletic director will face old questions and a passionate fan base at Tennessee.

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NCAA Football: Tennessee at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know enough to say whether John Currie will do a good job as Tennessee’s athletic director. Neither do you.

David Blackburn has always been the people’s choice in a process that went on far too long, an additional sign of a larger leadership problem at the University of Tennessee. I don’t know if Currie will do a better job than Blackburn would have. I do know the people don’t get to choose.

Some combination of a search firm, a search committee, and a new chancellor got to choose. I’m not here to criticize the choice, and I wish nothing but the best for Currie, as should we all.

But if what Jimmy Hyams reported is true, the process leaves much to be desired and a new group of names involved were no less problematic than the previous leadership.

You should read all of this by Hyams. Go read it if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.




Of its many noteworthy points, I’m not bothered by Beverly Davenport wanting someone with power five experience (ruling out Blackburn and Phillip Fulmer). She’s in charge and that’s certainly a reasonable request. I’m not bothered by which booster pushed for which candidate. I’m not bothered (but not thrilled) by a non-unanimous recommendation of the search committee.

What I am definitely bothered by is this:

Not all members of the search committee were aware that Currie was instrumental in having Fulmer fired in 2008 and didn’t know Currie and Fulmer have a strained relationship.

And, if the implication is accurate, this:

Fulmer got a call from a search committee member Monday morning, leading Fulmer to believe he had the job.

Maybe you think we shouldn’t have fired Fulmer. Maybe you think we should have. Either way, to not have all members of the search committee aware of this particular dynamic between the man who is now in charge of the athletic department and the man who was its face for 17 years is unbelievable. And to have someone involved in the decision-making process make a call like that the same day we hired someone else is a sign of further dysfunction.

Hyams closes his story with a question to Raja Jubran, vice chair of the Board of Trustees and a member of the AD search committee:

Asked if he thought Currie’s hire would unite the UT fan base, Jubran said, “We’re very hopeful it will,” noting that Currie has a UT grad degree.

Uniting the fan base is a noble goal. But we’d better do better than that.

On the Sunday before the election I preached a sermon on hospitality. The winners the following Tuesday were bound to call for a unity which would be neither heard nor heeded by the losers. Unity for the sake of unity is fruitless, and sometimes when we sound its cry we do a disservice to the importance of our disagreements. Because of course we’re going to disagree. Learning how to disagree well is more important than pretending we’re going to be unified. As Henri Nouwen wrote, we can reach from hostility to hospitality. We can create a better space to disagree.

Perhaps the politics of governments and athletic departments don’t naturally lend themselves to hospitality. But regardless of setting, a good diagnosis comes from good dialogue. Quite literally, thorough knowledge comes from thorough conversation. And if those with decision-making power didn’t know or discuss the relationship between Currie and Fulmer, that’s a red flag to me.

Currie himself comes with a history; “arrogant, cocky and condescending” make an appearance in Hyams’ piece. Now he’s the new man in charge under a new chancellor at the end of a process that feels too much like the same old dysfunction. He’ll go before a microphone today and might lift up unity, and that’s fine. But there’s bigger, harder work to do, and I believe much of the success or failure of this new administration will depend on its communication and relationship skills.

Currie doesn’t need and won’t get everyone to agree with him, and neither will Davenport. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they did, and they certainly don’t need me to tell them that. But when the level of inherited dysfunction is this high, there’s a lot of work to do. In my opinion great leaders carry themselves with humility: enough to believe in diagnosis through dialogue, even and especially with those with whom they disagree.

As for us, the fan base? What really unites us is all that ever has: Tennessee itself. Winning helps and common enemies can be fun, but we keep coming back even when those two aren’t around. Tennessee is its own glue.

People wanted David Blackburn on top of his accomplishments at Chattanooga because he was a connection to the days when Tennessee was Tennessee. There are some similarities to the quest for Jon Gruden at the end of another disappointing football season in 2012: when patience doesn’t pay off, we’re even more enamored with what we believe will be a quick solution. If Butch Jones had beaten South Carolina and Vanderbilt, people would have been less emotionally invested in this hire. Gruden might have done a great job then and Blackburn might have done a great job this time. But they’re not the only ones who can do a great job at Tennessee. And none of those great jobs will come quick or easy.

Here’s hoping John Currie and Beverly Davenport can and will do a great job at Tennessee. And here’s hoping all of us can continue to create a better conversation about the orange and white that holds us all together.