This fall, the University of Tennessee welcomes incoming Athletic Director John Currie. As a new football season begins, the Vol faithful are eager to hear what Currie is bringing to the job, one with both a storied and controversial history. Cityview talked with the new A.D. in July to discuss both his past experience and his thoughts on current issues in athletics.
Keith Norris: At the All-Sports Picnic in Murfreesboro, you mentioned that you wanted to be “a good steward of the donors’ money.” What does it mean to be a good steward in your position?
John Currie: We’re self-funded, and we’d like to keep it that way. The majority of our dollars are coming from individuals and those individuals may spend fifty dollars, five hundred dollars, or five thousand dollars. When we make spending decisions we need to do so understanding that we’re spending somebody’s money, and they entrusted us with that money to make a good decision for Tennessee. Half of the dollars that we have come from individual fans. There’s a misconception about college athletics: that all of budget comes in massive corporate checks. That’s just not true. There’s no state money, tuition dollars, or taxes that go into the University of Tennessee’s athletic budget.
N: From time to time, one reads about athletic budgets negatively impacting academic budgets. How do you see the relationship between athletics and academics at the University of Tennessee?
C: At one point the athletics budget in Tennessee was about five percent of the system-wide university budget. It pales in comparison. But we do require a special degree of transparency and accountability because we’re so visible. One of the neat things about coming back here after eight years is how much the university—not the athletics program but the university—has transformed. We have these incredible new academic buildings: the John Tickle College of Engineering, a music center, a student union building. And all of the landscaping and beautification of the campus. It’s light years ahead of where it was eight years ago.
I am part of Chancellor Davenport’s cabinet. Most of the time there’s no discussion about athletics because there are so many broad issues that we are addressing in higher education. I love her energy. I love the fact that she is focusing on top 25 programs across the University. Academically, our student athletes are performing at an all-time high. And we have a number of athletic programs that are performing at a very high level right now—softball for instance. We were a couple innings away from another college world series appearance this year.
N: What did you learn at Kansas State that you didn’t know when you left here?
C: I felt very prepared to be the athletic director at Kansas State because of the experiences, training, and mentoring I got here at Tennessee. This is a very dynamic university, and there are lots of moving parts. I was trusted with many different responsibilities and was able to see many different projects. We did the Thompson-Boling Arena renovations, where we took a twenty-something year old building and gave it new life, very economically. And we got the Neyland Stadium renovation project started.
At Kansas State, we built a brand-new football building, the best in the Big Twelve. It’s an eighty million dollar building without any debt. We did two hundred and ten million dollars of athletic facility construction. They were a department in disarray. There had been two athletic director turnovers fairly quickly, our finances were bad, and there was a lack of trust among the constituents. When I left here, I thought that communication was an important part of a director’s job. What I found there, going into a bit of turmoil, was that communication is 75 percent of an athletic director’s job. The way we rebuilt trust at Kansas State was through communication and transparency.
We have to communicate with all of our constituents and all of the people involved with the University of Tennessee. For some people, it’s 140 characters on Twitter, and for other people it’s a three-page, long-form, emailed letter. We have to be varied, aggressive, and smart so that we can earn the trust that we’re going to need to continue to propel the university forward.
N: Fans might tell you that UT search committees have been spotty in the past. What are your criteria for an effective search committee?
C: It depends what kind of search we are talking about. In this day and age, coach searches are not going to follow the old school formal committee format. That’s just not the way it’s done anymore. The speed, intensity, loyalties, and realities of the marketplace ensure that if you put together a search committee for any head coach, you are not going to get very far. At this level of intercollegiate athletics, it’s about knowledge, awareness, and a full understanding of who you are and what you’re going to talk about when you go out to assess candidates.
A lot of it is about contacts. One of the things an experienced athletic director should bring to the table is a long-established, trusted network throughout college athletics. That enables us to discern who is going to be a good fit for the University of Tennessee. That doesn’t mean that searches are done in a vacuum. For instance, for our baseball search I sat right here in this room with a group of six or seven men and women, and we talked about what we needed, what the priorities were, and who was out there that we liked. Everybody in that room had an impact, even though the seven people came from different areas of the athletic department and from different points in their careers. For instance, even though I’ve coached my kids’ teams a couple times, I am not a coach. I need people around me that have more of a coaching background than I do. I was not a division one athlete, so I need folks around me who are division one athletes and who understand what that’s like. Joe Scoggin does a wonderful job here and understands what helps a coach be effective in our environment, so his perspective is important. Angie Keck—who was an athlete here and played on our original golf team for twenty-something years—manages five different sports. She understands our sports culture. Her perspective is important.
N: There have been some Title IX problems recently. Chancellor Davenport has made a commitment to ensuring that they are dealt with, both within the athletic department and across the college. What are you doing in that regard?
C: This is something we talk about every day. It’s really important to remember the processes that exist to handle problems and complaints in Title IX are not athletic department processes. As soon as we think there might be an issue, we don’t ask “Is this really an issue?” We put it into the system. Donna Thomas is our Deputy Title IX Coordinator for athletics, and we put it into Donna’s hands. She gets it to Jenny Rictor and the Dean of Students. We’re following the leaders; they’re the leaders. The important thing about those types of situations is that we want to get into the process as quickly as we can so we can assure that there is a fair, thorough, and untainted process. That’s why as soon as I hear something, I pick up that phone and I call that tower.
N: Student athletes do a job while directors and coaches make money to put on the show. Should college athletes be paid a fair wage?
C: First of all, college athletics is not a business even though people talk about it being a business. College athletics is an enterprise with some business principles. We have only two sports that generate more revenue than we spend on those sports. We have eighteen that don’t. We always need to remember that our athletes are students, and they are students first. We’ve gone to enormous lengths to ensure the quality of the student/athlete experience. If you look at the things that have happened over the last twenty years, there is no question that the value of an intercollegiate athletic scholarship is the highest it’s ever been. All you have to do is ask somebody who is paying tuition for their kid. They know what the tuition is now versus what it was twenty years ago. It is an enormous benefit when you talk about an athletic scholarship for four years at UTK. You’re talking about a roughly $250,000 benefit, tax-free. Then you add cost of attendance, nutrition benefits, the fact that we have fifteen or sixteen athletes right now who are in Vietnam on a trip of a lifetime…. The experiences we provide in intercollegiate athletics are reflective of enormous value for the student athletes without having to veer into a professionalized model, which would be devastating overall for the opportunities of young people.
N: Lady Vols is one of the most well-known brands in collegiate sports. Are you thinking about bringing that brand back?
C: The chancellor and I have been very intentional about listening and getting to know all of the different perspectives on that issue. My own perspective includes ten years of being at the University of Tennessee, of being at the final four with Pat Summit, and being here when Monica Abbott was pitching. We built Regal stadium and Pratt pavilion. I remember when Pat Summit walked into that building for the first time. I understand the history and heritage of women’s athletics, and of leadership in one of the first schools to truly embrace women’s athletics at a level equitable to men’s. I understand what that means for the University of Tennessee and who we are. And I understand what the Lady Vol brand means. When I heard the Lady Vol chant at our softball games this past spring, you know it brought a smile to my face.
N: I know that fans will be happy to hear that you’re listening!