FOOTBALL

Can Danny White restore Tennessee's image? Athletics directors weigh in

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

The Tennessee football program has not been nationally relevant for more than a decade. The Vols’ only top-25 finishes throughout the past 13 seasons came in the  2015 and 2016 seasons. Otherwise, Tennessee has been a pit of mediocrity.

Knox News spoke to several Division I athletic directors who said they see no reason that should remain the case — at least not long term — even before UT announced Thursday it had hired UCF athletics director Danny White. They also said running Tennessee’s athletic department is a job with more opportunities than pitfalls. 

Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione said he considers the Tennessee AD position to be "one of the big-time jobs there is in the country" and described UT's hire of White as "absolutely a fantastic hire."

"There’s just so much to like about Tennessee, so much to sell if you’re at Tennessee, or if you’re supporting the program, so much to love about its opportunities," Castiglione said.

“It’s one of the best situations in the country. The opportunity there is almost endless.”

The challenges, though, are significant, especially after Chancellor Donde Plowman fired foottball coach Jeremy Pruitt for cause amid an ongoing investigation into recruiting malfeasance that UT expects will lead to several major NCAA violations. The university also announced Monday that athletics director Phillip Fulmer would retire to allow his successor to name the new football coach.

“I don’t know if it’s a quick fix, particularly with what’s going on from an investigation standpoint, but in the not-too-long term, I think the University of Tennessee football program can and should absolutely be well, well on the road to recovery and back to where I believe it should be from a national prominence standpoint,” said Bryan Maggard, athletics director at Louisiana since 2017 and a who was a 21-year veteran in Missouri’s athletic department.

University of Tennessee leaders believe they took the first step by hiring White.

White had been Central Florida's athletics director since 2015, and he previously was Buffalo’s AD. His football coaching hires of Lance Leipold at Buffalo and Scott Frost and then Josh Heupel at UCF were notable successes.

White's first task will be making a strong hire to fill Tennessee’s football vacancy.

UT's leaders were wise to hire the AD first and allow that person to hire the next coach, rather than working in reverse, said one Division I athletics director with athletics administrator experience at an SEC program, who was granted anonymity so he could speak openly about Tennessee.

“From the outside looking in, given how fractured it appears that it’s been there, I think trying your best to get everybody on the same page by sequencing these (hires) in the way they are is a smart decision,” that athletics director said.

That athletics director said being Tennessee’s AD offers “a lot of possibility” with “a high ceiling” and is “a well-resourced job,” but added that the job comes with potential hurdles.

“Are they ready to kind of move past this decision-by-fan-survey type mentality?” the athletics director said. “And, it seems like they have, just even in watching the comments from the press conference (Monday).

"And then two, just how bad are the recruiting violations? Because any AD’s success there is, in part, going to be tied to the football program. How bad are the ramifications and the penalties going to be for the football program?”

That remains unclear.

Tennessee has not self-imposed penalties on the football program, although UT Chancellor Donde Plowman has acknowledged that is a possible next step.

The university’s investigation into the alleged violations is expected to conclude in the next few weeks, but then the NCAA takes the baton, beginning a process that can be years long.

White said Friday he doesn’t expect the investigation to be an insurmountable challenge for the football program.

“We can get through this, and we can get through it the right way,” White said during his introductory news conference, “and we’ll get the program back to where it needs to be.”

‘A very strong brand’ with a ‘really talented’ athletics director

Plowman said hiring White shows university leadership is “serious about Tennessee becoming a national brand.”

White is well-regarded within the field, and Tennessee will pay accordingly. He received a five-year deal and $1.8 million annual salary. He’ll receive a 5% raise annually and can earn $300,000 in bonuses each year. His contract will be extended one year every year, creating a rolling five-year contract.

“He’s really, really talented,” said Mike Alden, the former longtime athletics director at Missouri, who retired in 2015. “He’s also humble enough — he’s a servant leader — to realize that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s networked so well that he can make one phone call or two phone calls and get those answers. That’s a huge deal to have as an athletic director.”

White will step into an athletic department with some advantages. The Tennessee athletic department’s $143.8 million in revenue for the 2019 fiscal year ranked 16th nationally, including eighth in the SEC, among public universities.

Tennessee has quality athletics facilities, and, other than football, many of the Vols’ athletics programs have enjoyed top-25 national success in recent years.

“Tennessee has the history, the tradition and, I would indicate this from a distance, it would appear to also be the resources, to be tremendously successful across the board — throughout the primary sport programs, as well as the Olympic sport programs,” Alden said.

Maggard described Tennessee as “a very strong brand,” even as White admitted Friday he was attracted to the opportunity because he sees the brand in need of a polish.

“Certainly, the ‘T’ has been around a long time,” Maggard said. “There has been traditional, high-level success at the University of Tennessee, and Vol nation is extremely large and supportive.”

What about the Vols football program?

A few of the athletics directors who spoke to Knox News agreed that it is reasonable for Tennessee fans to expect a top-25 football program that should contend for the SEC East title, but they each cautioned that fans shouldn’t expect it overnight.

White and the next football coach deserve a modicum of patience, they said.

Patience often is in short supply around Tennessee football, which features one of the nation’s most rabid fan bases.

“That’s a program that absolutely should be contending for the conference championship, year in and year out,” Maggard said. “I would also think that the challenge could be, what will be the level of patience for new leadership? It could be something that takes a little bit of time, given the climate and circumstances around the football program right now.”

White has shown that, with the right hire, he can be an agent of warp-speed change.

UCF hired him in 2015 on the heels of an 0-12 football season. One of his first moves was hiring Scott Frost. By Frost’s second season, the Knights were 13-0, and White was branding UCF as the 2017 national champion, even though it was self-proclaimed because they were left out the College Football Playoff.

Climbing the ranks of the SEC is a stiffer road than catapulting to the top of the American Athletic Conference.

Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC East since 2007, which also was the last time the Vols won 10 games. The Vols have had a losing record eight times in the past 13 seasons.

“You’ve got five or six other schools — five in particular — in the East that have been getting after it for the last five to 10 years,” Alden said. “And in some ways, Tennessee is going to have to play a little bit — just a little bit — of catch-up there. When they do that, it should easily be the expectation that they should be a top-15, top-20 program in the country.”

Danny White helps rebuild UT's image

Tennessee’s reputation took a hit with some in the athletics director community in 2017.

AD John Currie had reached an agreement to make Greg Schiano the next Vols football coach. News of the impending hire leaked and was met by blowback from fans, donors and politicians. The deal unraveled. Currie’s search jumped the rails after that.

Chancellor Beverly Davenport fired Currie before he could close a deal with Mike Leach, who was coaching Washington State at the time.

“I said at the time that (Currie’s firing) was disappointing, because I hold John Currie in high esteem,” Florida athletics director Scott Stricklin said. “You could probably surmise that it didn’t go unnoticed (within the industry).”

Alden agreed, saying Currie's firing "for sure" affected Tennessee's image within the industry.

“John Currie is an unbelievably well-respected individual in our industry," Alden said, "and he’s certainly shown what he’s capable of. He did it at Kansas State, and he’s certainly doing a great job at Wake Forest.”

Within hours, Davenport replaced Currie with Fulmer, the former Vols football coach who had no experience in athletics administration.

Fulmer hired Pruitt and vowed to restore the football program to prominence. Fulmer failed, and he will step down after more than three years on the job.

The leadership involved in that 2017 fiasco are gone. Davenport was fired in 2018. System President Joe DiPietro subsequently retired, and Randy Boyd replaced him. Plowman took the reins as chancellor in July 2019.

Plowman’s presence helped Tennessee reestablish some footing.

Maggard said he understands Plowman to be “a very strong leader, a very supportive leader.”

Alden put it succinctly: “She’s awesome,” he said.

Plowman’s hiring of White should help shore up Tennessee’s footing.

“Danny is smart and has a lot of traits that a lot of successful athletic directors have,” Stricklin said. “He brings a lot to the table and brings a lot of experience.”

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.