The Policy Wonk
If there is one thing we have learned about Bubba Cunningham in his first year as UNC’s athletic director, it’s that he is a policy wonk.
He studies and evaluates situations, comes up with a plan (like his yet-to-be-released strategic plan for the athletic department) and then sticks to it like a man who knows exactly what he is doing.
Of course, all plans can go awry, but the policies hatching them are based on long-term principles that are consistent when something pops up unexpectedly. Like Larry Fedora’s supposed dalliance with the Tennessee coaching job.
While Cunningham’s statement Wednesday worries many Carolina fans that the rumors about Fedora going to Tennessee may be true, it kind of comforts me. Based on the same principle that allowed Fedora to take the Carolina job with eyes wide open, it will eventually lead the head coach to a clear decision (if there is one to be made).
If you recall, Cunningham almost TRIED to talk Fedora out of coming to UNC by telling him the worst of what could happen with the NCAA’s ongoing probe. Bubba is all about not only creating better opportunities for his coaches and staff but also not wanting someone to stay who feels like he isn’t free to make his own decision about going somewhere else.
So my guess is that he lets the process happen, allowing Fedora to field a phone call from Tennessee while staying close enough to the situation to reinforce all The Hat has going for him here. Cunningham’s predecessor Dick Baddour was caught several times with a “done deal” that went sideways. And there was no Plan B because Baddour never thought he needed one.
With Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Louisville’s Charlie Strong saying no to Tennessee, Fedora or Bubba (for permission) may get a call from UT Athletic Director Dave Hart. At least Fedora will feel like he was free to go through the process (however short), which would make him feel good about reaffirming his commitment to UNC.
The shock jocks on radio and the SEC bloggers have created a greater concern than is necessary by validating rumors that Fedora will wind up at Tennessee. Sure, the Vols may have Fedora on their wish list (who wouldn’t after his spectacular start at Carolina under adverse circumstances?), but that means nothing until a coach has been contacted and shows tangible interest in a job.
Tennessee is one of those arrogant SEC schools that believes anyone who turns down an opportunity to coach the Vols is foolish. But since Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal after one season, Tennessee settled for its fourth or fifth choice when it hired Derek Dooley from Louisiana Tech. Dooley went 1-15 in the SEC over the last two seasons.
The same thing is happening to Tennessee, which began its search with big names like Super Bowl Champion John Gruden, now an ESPN broadcaster. With Gruden showing no interest and the wish list growing shorter, UT should finally realize that Knoxville is no longer a dream destination, despite unlimited resources and a stadium that seats more than 100,000.
Since firing Phil Fulmer, who led the Vols to a national championship in 1998, Tennessee has gradually become irrelevant in college football. The Vols’ new coach faces a rebuilding job that, if and when completed, still has to leapfrog Florida, Georgia, South Carolina (and maybe even Vanderbilt) to win the East Division before playing Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU or Texas A&M for a shot at the BCS (or whatever it will be called) championship.
Sounds like a job more likely to get a coach fired before he’s done rebuilding, based on how impatient SEC football fans have become over the years. Even though Tennessee and Vandy are the only major college (BCS) programs in the state, the Vols are no longer are in their heyday when they could recruit from anywhere in the southeast.
Remember wide receiver and Olympic sprinter Richmond Flowers, son of the Alabama Attorney General, who went to Tennessee and beat his home state Crimson Tide three straight times from 1967-69 in the famous “Third Saturday in October” rivalry? Tennessee now has trouble signing all the blue-chippers within its borders.
My guess (and it’s only a guess) is Fedora realizes he’s on the other side of the NCAA and academic mess and believes he has a better chance of winning conference and national championships at UNC than at UT. His sizable buy-out won’t matter because to schools like Tennessee that is chump change to cover.
More money won’t matter to Fedora, whose $2 million income at UNC is three times what he made at Southern Miss. And, supposedly, he told his wife Christie (who travels between Chapel Hill and Hattiesburg, where their daughter is completing her senior year of high school) that the family budget will remain the same, with the extras going toward college and retirement funds.
In the end, my next guess is the Tennessee job will go to the fifth or sixth name on its wish list and the only big-name coach actively looking – Paul “Butch” Davis. At 61 and fired from his last two coaching jobs, Davis should be so lucky to take a crack at making both him and the Vols relevant again.