Thu. Sep 20th, 2018

What Media Execs Can Learn From Tennessee’s Coaching Search

By the time you read this, the University of Tennessee may have a new football coach. Given all that has transpired between November 26th and December 2nd (when I am typing this) though, it’s pretty safe to assume that either no, it hasn’t or Tennessee has hired a cardboard cutout of Nick Saban advertising Coke to fill the role left vacant after Butch Jones was fired mid-season. Seriously, what about this coaching search makes you think anyone in Knoxville had even a rough idea of a plan before this process started?

Sports fans have taken notice. Hosts and producers have definitely taken notice. Have program directors and general managers taken notice? It seems like anyone in the hiring business should be paying real attention to the missteps Tennessee has made. There are four of them that apply directly to sports radio.


It wasn’t that long ago that the entire athletic department at the University of Tennessee was facing some tough questions about sexual assault on its campus. The football team was under an even brighter spotlight when it was alleged that the school’s athletic department had allowed that team and its players to operate above the law for decades.

I mean this was national news. The firings and reorganization from that scandal is what resulted in John Currie becoming the school’s athletic director. So why on Earth would he think hiring someone that has been accused of helping cover up Jerry Sandusky’s years of sexual abuse at Penn State is a good idea?

Here’s what Currie learned as fans, students, and politicians from across the state spoke out against the hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator and former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano as the Volunteers’ new head coach: wins matter, but the program matters more. So, if you are going to hire someone that has been accused of having the same kind of skeletons in his closet that your program has been dealing with for years, he better be DAMN good. And Schiano is just slightly above okay.

What can you learn from that? Well, it’s important to hire people the listeners can get behind. That doesn’t mean you have to stick to recycling local names listeners already know. I’m advocating for quite the opposite actually. Don’t force feed your audience more of the same. Any host that is willing to embrace the community and bring an interesting new voice to a station will always be a bigger hit with listeners than a guy that just got fired by the competition and is planning to do the exact same show on your airwaves.


The University of Tennessee is a second-tier program in the SEC. This seems to be the one thing that John Currie was aware of when he began his search. As a result, he was willing to settle for a name like Greg Schiano, a name that even without the Penn State baggage, would excite absolutely nobody. It doesn’t take an SEC lifer to realize that Greg Schiano is the Cool Ranch answer to Butch Jones’ Nacho Cheese. At the end of the day, they’re both Doritos.

You can be aware that there are limitations in your market or at your company and still make an effort to land A+ talent. If you think you’ve identified the right candidate, it’s time for the two of you to switch roles.

When someone sends you their demo and resumé they aren’t necessarily saying they want to work for you. They’re saying your company or city is somewhere they’d consider calling home. As soon as you identify your target your job is to convert interest into desire. Part of that is putting together the right compensation package, but the other part of that is selling the strongest part of your offer.

Is your company notoriously cheap? Sell the market. Does the market have a less than desirable reputation? Sell the position’s and company’s growth potential. Do what you have to do to make the candidate as excited about you as you are about them.


If there is anything the University of Tennessee is bad at (aside from football, of course) it’s reading the room. How many coaches turned interviews with Tennessee into a raise from their current employer? I can think of three and I’m not really racking my brain.

Oklahoma State is Mike Gundy’s alma mater. He was never going anywhere. Jeff Brohm just got to Purdue. Dave Doeren isn’t going to leave NC State for a school with the same disadvantages but a lot more pressure.

On top of that was the pining for Jon Gruden. Now granted, most Tennessee fans I know don’t think Jon Gruden is ever coming to Knoxville to be the savior of that program, but the fact that Currie made time to try and interview Gruden and the fact that he never stepped up and said “This idea is silly. We want an experienced college coach” paints a picture of desperation.

These two lessons are interconnected. Yes, you do have to sell a candidate on all you have to offer, but be perceptive. Recognize that maybe all you’re doing is building this guy strength to go to his current employer. That is a waste of your time.


What are candidates seeing when they look at your station? What do they think when you lay out your vision?

One thing that I have been told turned off at least one candidate for the Tennessee job was the outsized expectations. Most fans and boosters in Knoxville believe what the team accomplished in the late 90’s should be the norm. The problem with that kind of thinking is that consistently recruiting to that level takes time. And if you can’t tell, trigger fingers get itchy quick in the SEC.

Do you give hosts the time they need to establish an identity and grow an audience? Is there an active and engaged sales staff at your station? Are they all working towards a common goal? It’s hard to sell any candidate on your vision if what they see when they walk in the door runs counter to everything you say.

It’s too late for John Currie. Who knows, maybe new athletic director Phil Fulmer will turn this whole thing around and make an excellent hire, but it seems like 2018 is already a lost cause for Tennessee.

Know what you want. Companies that take stock of their shortcomings regularly are the ones that can consistently improve. Know what your target wants and show him/her that addressing it is a priority for you. If anything good comes of all of the Vols’ mistakes, let it be the lessons you learn about talent acquisition.

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