PULLMAN – Tennessee has suspended athletic director John Currie one day after reports surfaced about him meeting with Washington State’s Mike Leach in Los Angeles to discuss the coaching vacancy in Knoxville.
Tennessee has promoted former football coach Phillip Fulmer to the position of interim AD and UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport dismissed questions regarding Leach and the Volunteers’ coaching vacancy during a press conference in Knoxville Friday afternoon.
“It’s been a tough week for us,” Davenport said. “It’s been a series of events. There’s not a single event.”
Added Davenport: “I want to be clear today that we’re here to talk about the change in the leadership of the athletics department. I’m not going to talk about coaches at any other schools or at any other places.”
Chris Low of ESPN had previously reported that the Tennessee had “parted ways” with Currie Friday morning, “on the heels of what has been a disastrous Tennessee coaching search.” The Tennessee AD was prepared to hire Leach to become the Volunteers’ coach, according to college football insider Brett McMurphy, but “university officials wouldn’t allow him to.”
McMurphy also reported that: “Fulmer has been sabotaging (the) search process in hopes to become Tennessee’s AD.”
Fulmer said he hasn’t set a timetable to find a new football coach, but “I definitely think that there will be people that will be interested,” he said during the press conference.
The latest twist would seem to be good news for Cougar fans who wish to see their coach back in Pullman next season and on the sidelines when WSU (9-3) plays its bowl game later this month.
Leach was in Los Angeles recruiting when he reportedly met with Currie, who once worked as an AD under current Washington State President Kirk Schulz when both Currie and Schulz were at Kansas State.
The WSU coach returned to Pullman just after midnight and told Cougfan.com, “If I had (met with Currie), I wouldn’t tell you and if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t tell you.”
Leach also said: “I’m right here trying to get a first down, we’re trying to win a bowl game.”
And so the hunt for a new coach at Tennessee, it appears, will live to see another day.
Tennessee fired former coach Butch Jones on Nov. 12 and the Volunteers reportedly offered the job to Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, but then backed out of the deal due to backlash from Tennessee boosters and fans. Since, Tennessee has reached out to a number of candidates about the job, but to no avail. That list includes Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, Duke coach David Cutcliffe, North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm and recently-fired Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.
Leach’s name was the latest to get caught up in the firestorm that’s become Tennessee’s coaching search.
Newy Scruggs of NBC Sports Dallas/Ft. Worth reported on Twitter Thursday that Leach “is working on a deal to become the next coach at Tennessee,” and that “a deal could be announced Friday.
On Thursday evening, Leach reportedly told Dan Harralson, a Tennessee beat writer for Saturday Down South, that “I’m on my way (to Knoxville).”
Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports also reported that a “source tells me the meeting with Mike Leach went very well. And… stay tuned.” Feldman co-authored Leach’s popular book, “Swing Your Sword.”
But later Thursday night, ESPN reported that “no deal (is) imminent” between Leach and the Volunteers.
Leach didn’t respond to a text message from The Spokesman-Review and a WSU spokesperson did not wish to comment on the situation.
Even if Leach doesn’t land at Tennessee, WSU may have to go above and beyond to ensure its football coach is happy in Pullman. According to another ESPN report, Leach’s representative and the university had begun negotiations on a new contract prior to the coach’s meeting with Currie. The representative was “underwhelmed” with the school’s offer, the report said.
Sources also told ESPN that Leach was unhappy about the “lack of communication” regarding WSU’s search for a new athletic director. Bill Moos left to take the same position at Nebraska midway through the football season and WSU has stated that it plans to have a new AD in place by approximately Feb. 1.
Leach’s departure would’ve signaled the end of a six-year run with the Cougars. During that span, the WSU coach registered a win-loss record of 38-37, had three winning seasons and secured four bowl berths for a program that went 9-40 in the four seasons prior to his arrival.
The 2017 Cougars finished with a 9-3 record – the first time WSU won nine games in a regular season since 2003 – and notched wins over USC and Stanford, the two teams playing for a Pac-12 title Friday night in Santa Clara. The Cougars set themselves up with an opportunity to play for the conference championship in each of the last two seasons, but were tripped up by Washington in the 2016 Apple Cup at Martin Stadium and again last Saturday in Seattle.
Initial reports linking Leach to the Tennessee job surfaced on Saturday, hours before the Cougars and Huskies played in the Apple Cup. FootballScoop reported that Leach “seems to have a very good shot at being offered the position” and that the WSU coach “would accept the position if offered.”
Asked about the rumor, and if he expected to be back at WSU next season, Leach said, “Yeah, I do. I’m strictly focused on the Washington State Cougars. I have a limited knowledge of the internet, which is pretty clear. I don’t even turn anything on, other than my phone. And then when it gets stuck, my kids turn it on. So you guys are on your own with that because I can’t speak to rumors I don’t know anything about, really. But the biggest thing is I’m focused on is Washington State, excited about that and we’re going to a great bowl and I for one couldn’t be happier.”
The FootballScoop report also noted that if Leach did elect to leave, WSU would move “without hesitation to promote defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.”
FootballScoop on Thursday named Grinch one of seven finalists for Defensive Coordinator of the Year. Under the third-year DC, the Cougars have made significant strides and are currently ranked 15th in the FBS, allowing 313.6 yards per game. In addition, they’re tied for fourth in the country with 27 turnovers gained and rank seventh in tackles-for-loss per game (8.4).