John Currie was eating breakfast in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, in June, talking about how to mend some fences. He'd been athletic director at Tennessee for just two months, but he had previously worked in administration there for 10 years.
Currie's primary focus, of course, was football, as it is for most ADs. But when we met in Knoxville during the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame induction this past summer, we talked about other things. Particularly the fracture that had developed between women's sports fans and Tennessee's athletic administration under Currie's predecessor, Dave Hart.
Currie wanted to fix that rift, and he seemed sincere. Every aspect of the athletic department was on his radar then, and he said he wanted to listen and learn as much as possible. To talk with him that day was to see someone completely immersed in the place he expected to spend the rest of his career.
But his tenure didn't even last the rest of 2017. This past week turned disastrous for Currie, whose attempt to hire Greg Schiano as Tennessee's football coach prompted a fan revolt. Now, Currie is out as AD, replaced by former Vols football coach Phillip Fulmer.
All eyes will be on whom Fulmer hires to take over the football program. But for those who follow women's sports, and in particular the flagship program of women's basketball, there are other questions.
How will Fulmer's tenure impact the Lady Vols across the board? How much time and attention will he give to women's sports? Many, including Currie, thought this could be a pivotal season for women's hoops coach Holly Warlick. But will Fulmer, who has never managed an athletic department before, feel the same way?
Currie, in his abbreviated time as Tennessee's AD, successfully addressed some of the damage that occurred under Hart, who came to Knoxville in 2011. The school was then in the process of merging its men's and women's athletics departments, and tragically also dealing with the announcement that coach Pat Summitt had early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
Many Lady Vols fans came to believe that Hart had little concern for the legacy of Tennessee women's athletics. Hart phased out the "Lady Vol" nickname and logo for all women's sports teams except basketball, replacing it with the "Power T" associated with men's teams. He and former chancellor Jimmy Cheek said it was a "brand consistency" decision tied to Tennessee changing its apparel provider in 2015. Others considered it an outright dismissal of Summitt's wide-ranging impact on all female student-athletes at Tennessee.
By the time Hart left earlier this year, Tennessee had settled three lawsuits -- totaling nearly $4 million -- related to alleged gender discrimination and Title IX issues, including "a culture within the athletic department" that had led to sexual assaults.
Currie, who was the AD at Kansas State from 2009 to 2017, returned to Knoxville wanting to change the perception that Tennessee, once a beacon of Title IX leadership, had regressed.
I had been critical of Currie's handling of Letitia Romero's transfer from Kansas State in 2014. When we spoke this summer, Currie acknowledged ways that situation could have been managed better. Mostly, though, we spoke about how negative feelings that had developed between Lady Vol fans and the athletic department could be alleviated.
Currie wanted all the school's female athletes to be able to use "Lady Vols" if they chose, and promised there would be merchandise with that logo available. Currie and new chancellor Beverly Davenport formerly announced this on Sept. 14. I was covering a Los Angeles Sparks playoff game that night; former Tennessee star Candace Parker beamed and expressed gratitude for the reversal when I asked her about it.
Fulmer was friends with Summitt during the more than three decades both worked at Tennessee, and he knows Warlick well. Will Fulmer be a strong advocate -- or even pay a lot of attention -- to women's sports at Tennessee now that he's AD? Especially with the football program being in such disarray?
— Chamique Holdsclaw (@Chold1) December 1, 2017
Warlick is in her sixth season as head coach. She's 135-46 -- including 7-0 this year -- with three Elite Eight appearances.
The last two seasons, though, the Lady Vols have had double-digit losses; they had lost 10 or more games just twice in the previous 29 seasons. Tennessee's record in SEC play the last two years is 18-14; last season the Lady Vols lost their first game of the SEC tournament and were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
With a highly rated recruiting class, Tennessee had big expectations for this year. So far, the undefeated Lady Vols have lived up to them. But what if the season veers off track? How will Fulmer respond?
Currie's firing potentially adds to what has been an extremely expensive implosion of the football program. Tennessee owes about $8.3 million to former coach Butch Jones. Currie is reportedly due $5.5 million unless it's proven he was fired with cause. And Tennessee might end up having to pay Schiano, too.
Many Tennessee fans seem to be happy that Currie is gone and Fulmer has taken over. Maybe they haven't entirely recognized just how costly this week might add up to be -- or the many ripple effects suddenly firing an AD can have on the department and the school itself. But perhaps their optimism in Fulmer really is well-placed.
Ultimately, this will impact the Lady Vols. We just don't know how yet.