KNOXVILLE — John Currie has been Tennessee’s athletic director since April, but he has a Masters degree from the school and spent nearly a decade of his professional career working for the Vols before taking his first AD job at Kansas State.
Currie, in short, loves Tennessee athletics. And of course he loves Tennessee football.
So, no, Currie isn’t happy about the Vols’ heartbreaking, 26-20 loss at Florida on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. He isn’t happy to see Tennessee open SEC play with a loss that will put it one game back in the standings with plenty of tough games left on the schedule.
Anyone expecting Currie to stick a For Sale sign on the front yard of Butch Jones’ Knoxville home at the quarter pole of the regular season will be sorely disappointed, though.
Jones’ approval ratings have probably never been lower during any of his four-seasons-and-three-games tenure at Tennessee. There are justifiable questions to be answered in the wake of yet another how-did-that-happen loss in a game that was tough but should have been won. There were many decisions in Saturday’s game that were easy to question as they were being made, let alone 48 frustrating hours after the fact.
What Currie is choosing to focus on at this point, though, is the promise he saw for much of Saturday despite Tennessee kicking off in The Swamp without a quarterback who had started a college road game and a 10-point deficit late in the fourth quarter — a deficit that was erased to seemingly send the game into overtime before Feleipe Franks fired a 63-yard pass perfectly in stride to Tyrie Cleveland as time expired.
There were, arguably, several potential lens through which to view that game.
Currie, at least publicly, has chosen the sunniest lens.
Tennessee’s new athletic director saw a group of coaches and players who refused to quit in a tough situation — even though they put themselves in that tough situation in the first place
“If you look at that game, obviously neither team was particularly sharp, especially early, which is not unsurprising in a game that’s an emotional game with two teams that are still kind of feeling their way, so to speak,” Currie told GoVols247 on Monday in an exclusive, one-on-one interview from his Anderson Training Center office. “I was proud of the way our team competed, and the bottom line is we’re one play away from sitting here talking about a miraculous comeback win facing a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit, and the incredible play that Justin Martin made. It was real easy to figure the game was lost right then, and he runs all the way down the field and closes a 20-yard distance to make that incredible hustle play to give us a chance to win.
“Again, like the Georgia Tech game, we got the ball back at the end, but we didn’t have any points. Then we went down and got a touchdown. I thought that was positive, how our team came back from that adversity.”
Currie had little to say aside from that, though, at least as it related to anything resembling a remark on Jones’ current standing with his new boss and other powers-that-be at Tennessee.
All the athletic director added was that his relationship with Jones has continued to “evolve very positively” throughout their first six-plus months together in Knoxville.
“He’s working very diligently and very hard to lead our program,” Currie said. “This is a challenging conference. Every team has it strengths and every team has its weaknesses, so to speak. I enjoy the time that we spend together.”
The rest of Currie’s Monday comments were much more general in nature, but the athletic director did give some insight into the decision-making process he works through for all of Tennessee’s programs.
Currie’s clear focus seems to be on the bigger picture.
Asked how he planned to handle major decisions — including coaching decisions — as an administrator who couldn’t possibly know every single thing about every single sport, Currie circled back to the five-point mission statement of Tennessee’s athletic department and the five-word, bottom-line mantra that’s quoted in arguably the largest sign in his office: “Will it help us win?”
“First and foremost, we’re in an enterprise that’s about education and about creating opportunities for young people and about an environment where young people can grow to be their best. That’s the first thing we start with, with any of our coaches and support people around the staff,” he said. “The reality of it is that it’s a very interesting job, because while we think about the near-term of a painful loss, we have to spend, … you know, my job is to spend just as much energy thinking about what’s the long-term situation for our program — not from a football program wins-and-losses standpoint, but about the kind of facility improvement that has to be done now for the next 50 years, or implementing policy as it relates to whatever the policies are on campus, or just getting ready to host 100,000 people for another football game next week.
“There’s a lot of stuff we do, a lot of stuff we focus on, and certainly we want all of our student-athletes to have successful experiences.”
Currie, who along with UT-Knoxville Chancellor Beverly Davenport announced last week a decision to reinstate the Lady Vols branding as an option to all the women’s teams at Tennessee, said he understands all the things at stake with the biggest decisions he’s made and will continue to make for his department, and that he never wants to prioritize short-term comfort over long-term success.
“I do feel very blessed that I’ve worked around great people throughout my life,” he said. “I’ve been in some complex situations, so that has certainly helped me. But all decision-making, whether it’s an individual family decision that someone out in Vol Land has to make about which hospital to take their child to, to have surgery or whatever it is, they’re all big decisions for everybody. We’ve just got to go back to our core values and what our true beliefs are. One of the reasons we wanted to define, for us, our core vision of Tennessee athletics, and those five mission goals, is to ensure that when we’re making decisions, we need to look back at that. Whether to do something or not to do something or to change something not to change something, we need to look back and make sure that something we’re spending time and energy on corresponds to one of those mission goals.
“It’s too easy to get distracted by peripheral deals if you let yourself.”
Contact Wes Rucker by email at firstname.lastname@example.org