EXCLUSIVE: Tennessee leaders outline requirements for next football coach, AD: 'Proven winners' only

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee won't serve as a training ground for its next athletics director or football coach.

University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman and System President Randy Boyd made that clear Tuesday during an exclusive interview with Knox News.

Plowman said athletics director experience is a requirement for the next Vols AD, and Boyd said the same is true for Tennessee’s football opening.

“This isn’t the place to try somebody out,” Boyd said. “This time, we’re going to find proven winners.”

The requirement marks a pivot from Tennessee’s last athletic department leadership shakeup.

Beverly Davenport, Plowman’s predecessor who was fired in 2018, anointed Phillip Fulmer as athletics director on Dec. 1, 2017, hours after ousting John Currie. Like Plowman, Boyd also was not on the job in 2017.

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Fulmer, the former Vols football coach, had no experience as an athletic department administrator. Days later, Fulmer hired Jeremy Pruitt as Tennessee’s football coach, ending a chaotic, weeks-long coaching search that had jumped the rails under Currie.

Pruitt had been a successful defensive coordinator at three Power 5 schools but had no head coaching experience at any level.

The Pruitt-Fulmer combination failed.

Tennessee fired Pruitt for cause Monday amid an ongoing investigation into recruiting violations within the program.

UT also is searching for a new athletics director. Fulmer will step down after his successor is hired. Plowman said Fulmer’s departure is his decision and that he is not tied to the findings of the football investigation.

Tennessee will hire its next AD first, and that person will hire the next football coach.

What Donde Plowman wants

Plowman wants an AD with a proven track record hiring college coaches.

“I’m looking for someone who is currently an athletic director. Maybe they’ve done it twice. They’ve successfully hired coaches. They have built something," Plowman said. "They haven’t just gone into a place that was always great and kept it great, but maybe somebody that took something from good to great."

Plowman and Boyd also emphasized a desire for a forward-thinking leader who can steer the athletic department through the evolving landscape of college athletics.

Among the changes likely on the horizon in college sports is legislation that would allow college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, as well as a continued evolution of NCAA transfer rules.

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Additionally, Plowman wants a leader attuned to providing fans with a modern stadium experience.  

“We want to bring someone in here who’s going to help us think about the future,” Plowman said.

Fulmer, Tennessee’s football coach from 1992-2008, was had a foot in UT’s past. He made clear that getting the Vols’ struggling football program back on track was his top priority. He didn't achieve that. Pruitt went 16-19 in three seasons.

An athletics director for all Vols sports

Plowman met with Tennessee’s coaches and athletic department and faculty leaders Tuesday morning to gather input on what they desire from the next AD.

Their feedback told her that Tennessee needs an AD who will value each sport. She also stressed the university's focus on maintaining the athletic department’s full complement of 20 varsity sports.

Throughout the past year, many Division I athletic departments cut sports programs amid financial losses from the pandemic.

“It’s really important to get a leader who lifts up all of our sports,” Plowman said. “We don’t want to become a place that has to cut sports – I don’t.

“So, in doing that, what are your big revenue-generating sports? Football and men’s basketball and women’s basketball has been a revenue generator. We want to grow those, but at the same time, we’re a department that’s much more than football. And in all the other sports the athletes want to feel like, ‘My sport is important, too.’ And I think they do here, but we want someone who has ideas about that and how to make that a reality.”

Plowman will not restrict the candidate pool to Tennessee natives or individuals who graduated from UT. Plowman is not a Tennessee native or graduate, but she had experience working at the university before becoming chancellor.

“They have to come here and love Tennessee and help promote and build Tennessee and obviously be a fit with the culture here, but I don’t think they have to have graduated from UT (or be a native),” said Plowman, who was hired in July 2019. “The experience, the leadership, the vision – they want a relationship person, too. Those are things that I think are way more important than where they grew up."

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.