Tennessee athletics director search: Eight names to know on hot board 2.0

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee athletics is looking for a new athletics director after Monday's announcement that Phillip Fulmer will be retire after a successor is named.

Don't be surprised if Tennessee tries to make a splash hire by prying loose a Power Five AD and then pivoting to other candidates if necessary.

The successor will take charge of hiring Tennessee's next football coach after Jeremy Pruitt was fired.

Here are names to know:

Kirby Hocutt

Current job: Texas Tech athletics director

The skinny: File Hocutt under the big-time hire category, if Tennessee lands him. 

Hocutt, a 2018 Under Armour Athletics Director of the Year, has headed the Texas Tech athletic department since March 2011. He was the AD at Miami for three years prior and got his start as the AD at Ohio in 2005 at 33. He also has worked at Kansas State and Oklahoma and has a background in marketing and promotions.

Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt said he met with the Lady Raiders basketball players Wednesday afternoon for more than an hour following a USA TODAY Sports investigation into the school's women's basketball program.

The Red Raiders have elevated their athletic scene under Hocutt in the past decade from facilities to championships to fundraising. Most notably, Hocutt hired Chris Beard as basketball coach and baseball coach Tim Tadlock. The Red Raiders reached their first Final Four in 2019 and reached the College World Series four times since 2014.

A Sherman, Texas native, Hocutt also served stints in the athletics departments at Kansas State (1996-97) and the University of Oklahoma (1998-2005). 

Hocutt also has served on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, including as the committee chairman in 2017.

Whit Babcock

Current job: Virginia Tech athletics director

The skinny: Chancellor Donde Plowman said she wants to hire someone who has been an AD for at least one school, if not two, and who has experience hiring coaches.

Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock made fan engagement his priority upon being hired by the school in January, a good indication that attendance was an issue with the Hokies’ home football games.

Babcock, 50, fits that profile and would be a prize if Tennessee could land him. The Harrisonburg, Virginia, native has served as Virginia Tech's AD since 2014 after being Cincinnati's AD from 2011-14.

Babcock planned a major renovation of Nippert Stadium at Cincinnati, and his coaching hires are highlighted by nabbing Buzz Williams to steer Hokies basketball. Williams led Virginia Tech to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances at the end of his five-year stint before leaving for Texas A&M. He promoted Tony Robie to Virginia Tech's wrestling coach, and Robie has maintained the Hokies' status as a top-10 program.

Babcock's football hires produced more modest returns. Tommy Tuberville resigned after four seasons at Cincinnati, and Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente has produced middling results throughout five seasons, including a 5-6 record in 2020.

Babcock would come at a stiff price. He reportedly earns more than $1 million annually.

Jon Gilbert

Current job: East Carolina athletics director 

The skinny: Gilbert has been an athletics director for the past four years — two at Southern Miss and two at ECU — after a lengthy stint in the Tennessee athletic department. 

Gilbert worked at Tennessee for six years as executive senior associate athletics director under former Vols athletics director Dave Hart. He departed for the athletics director position at Southern Miss in January 2017. Gilbert, a Lenoir-Rhyne and Eastern Kentucky graduate, was viewed by some as a candidate to take over for Hart, who retired from UT in June 2017. 

He also worked at Alabama for nearly 17 years, including an associate athletics director role from 2009-11 before he followed Hart from Alabama to UT.

He did have some recent issues at ECU after cutting women's swimming and diving and women's tennis in May amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The programs were reinstated Jan. 7. ESPN reported members of both teams had threatened a lawsuit in November, as they believed the decision violated Title IX.

Mark Ingram

Current job: UAB athletics director

The skinny: Ingram has been the UAB athletics director since May 2015. He oversaw the reinstatement of UAB football, a major undertaking.

Ingram played football for Fulmer at Tennessee, where he received his bachelor's degree in sport management and his master's degree in sport administration. He worked at Tennessee for five years, including a role in fundraising and planning.

He worked at Temple for three years, including two as associate vice president and executive senior associate athletics director. He worked at Georgia and Missouri prior to his tenure at Tennessee.

Wren Baker

Current job: North Texas athletics director

The skinny: Baker has been an athletics director three times. He was the first athletics director at Rogers State, where he also was the men's basketball coach. He was the AD at Northwest Missouri State, a Division II football power, from 2011-13 and has been the AD at North Texas since July 2016.

North Texas quarterback Mason Fine (6) stands next to the school's athletic director, Wren Baker, after Fine received a game ball at the team's NCAA college football game against Florida Atlantic on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Denton, Texas. (Jake King/The Denton Record-Chronicle via AP)

Baker has led 16 coaching searches in his career. At Northwest Missouri, he hired coach Adam Dorrel, who won three straight national titles.

He currently leads a thriving North Texas athletic department that has seen major boosts in fundraising and facilities investments. 

Baker served as the deputy AD at Missouri in 2015, and held a similar role at Memphis for two years prior.

Desiree Reed-Francois

Current job: UNLV athletics director

This skinny: If Tennessee can't get Babcock, perhaps it turns to one of his former deputy ADs. 

Reed-Francois, the first Hispanic female and woman of color athletics director at the FBS level, has made six hires since she was hired at UNLV in 2017. She has hired softball, volleyball, football, women’s soccer, men’s basketball and women’s basketball coaches.

At UNLV, she also introduced a new apparel deal with Nike and a 10-year multimedia rights deal with Learfield IMG College.

Desiree Reed-Francois was hired as athletics director for UNLV.

Reed-Francois helped hired Fuente at Virginia Tech, as well as coaches for women’s basketball, lacrosse, volleyball, and wrestling. She also worked at Cincinnati.

She has taught law classes at Tennessee.

Mike Hill

Current job: Charlotte athletics director

The skinny: If Tennessee wants an AD who has an impressive background in hiring coaches, Hill is a strong candidate — although he was in a complementary role for many hires.

Mike Hill, athletic director at the University of North Carolina

Hill held myriad of roles in athletics prior to reaching AD status. He worked at Florida for nearly 25 years in roles ranging from director of marketing and promotions to senior associate athletics director for external affairs to executive associate athletics director. Hill has a heavy background in marketing and branding.

Hill, who has been at Charlotte as AD since 2018, played a role in coaching searches or helped manage head coaches including football coaches Urban Mayer and Dan Mullen, basketball coaches Billy Donovan and Mike White, and women's basketball coach Amanda Butler.

Bryan Maggard

Current job: Louisiana athletics director

The skinny: Maggard has been the Louisiana athletics director since February 2017. 

Maggard hired Billy Napier, which is one of the most impressive hires at the Group of 5 level in recent years. Napier could be a candidate for the UT football coaching job.

He also hired a coaches in softball, women's soccer and baseball. He navigated a difficult stretch in the Louisiana athletic department when longtime baseball coach Tony Robichaux passed away in July 2019.

Prior to being hired at Louisiana, Maggard spent 21 years at Missouri. His final role at Missouri was as the Tigers’ executive associate athletics director.

News Sentinel reporter Blake Toppmeyer contributed to this report.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.