Skip to main content
Publish date:

On Rocky Top: Potential candidates to be Tennessee athletics director

Author:

In an internal memo Phillip Fulmer sent to University of Tennessee athletics employees Monday afternoon obtained by FootballScoop, on the heels of Fulmer's joint press conference alongside chancellor Donde Plowman, and school president Randy Body to discuss the fired Jeremy Pruitt, Fulmer said “when that time comes, I will step aside from athletics.”

The time in which Fulmer's memo makes reference is when Tennessee is able to introduce a new leader of its athletics department. UT's using Parker Executive Search to assist in a dual-front search: for Fulmer's replacement as well as that of Pruitt.

“The University of Tennessee's standard of integrity must not be compromised,” Fulmer says in the opening paragraph of his letter. “I am saddened that we were unable to accomplish all that we had hoped for from a football standpoint, but I am very proud of the work that all of us accomplished together on so many other fronts.”

Accomplishments during Fulmer's failing tenure atop the program certainly are up for debate. Football is not fixed, which Fulmer himself is on record as saying as his primary charge.

Fulmer's successor faces considerable unrest, near-certain NCAA sanctions and what campus sources decry as a lack of unity among coaches in sports other than football who feel an outgoing athletics director prone to watching film alongside Pruitt and coaches isn't attuned to their individual program needs and struggles.

Who are top candidates to replace Fulmer and become the University of Tennessee's fifth director of athletics since summer 2011?

FootballScoop dives into potential candidates after speaking with multiple people around the UT campus, people inside and close to the athletics program, and other industry sources with insight into these types of searches and specifically this matter on Rocky Top.

Jon Gilbert, East Carolina A.D.: It just so happens that Gilbert is a graduate of the same school as Tennessee's unquestioned best thing going right now: basketball coach Rick Barnes. The duo both graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C. It's impossible to overstate the admiration and respect that Barnes carries for Gilbert, who worked alongside Barnes at Tennessee a few years ago before Gilbert first took over at Southern Mississippi and then East Carolina, where he's led the Pirates' program for the past two-plus years.

Gilbert also has administrative experience at Alabama and always was Dave Hart's chief lieutenant at Tennessee. Gilbert's only knock might be it was his heading of the search for Cuonzo Martin's replacement that resulted in the hiring of Donnie Tyndall.

Brad Lampley, Partner in Charge, Adams & Reese: It's arguable Lampley already should have been Tennessee's athletics director, despite no specific experience in athletics administration.

A former Tennessee Vols offensive lineman who was roommates with Peyton Manning and remains close friends with Manning, Lampley does have keen experience in his work helping run the highly successful Music City Bowl. He's also got experience from working with the Nashville Sports Council.

Lampley's also been a member of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees and contains the necessary savvy and political wiles to navigate any collegiate athletics program, but especially the one at his alma mater. Lampley's son, Jackson, also is a member of the Vols' football team.

Charles Davis, Fox: Davis also is another potential unifying figure, as a former standout player on the Vols' 1985 Sugar Bowl team and a person whose affinity for UT is something Davis readily proclaims.

Davis has done videos, on-campus productions and more to assist Tennessee athletics in recent years. He's a brilliant TV personality with a remarkable track record of success in every endeavor. Davis also has worked in athletics administration, most notably at Stanford.

Mark Ingram, UAB A.D.: A former deep snapper for the Vols during the program's 1990s glory days, Ingram likely is the UT alum with the most impressive resume in collegiate athletics.

Ingram has major-college administrative experience from stints at Georgia, Missouri, Temple, Tennessee and now running the show at UAB.

It's his work at UAB that is, frankly, remarkable. Ingram is driving engine in that program's football resurgence, helping fundraise for a new football building on campus as well as leading the charge for a new downtown stadium, which is scheduled to open for the 2021 campaign.

Ingram's helped UAB raise more than $100 million and also steered the athletics department's improved numbers in academic progress rates. Too, Ingram is helping UAB succeed in other programs with men's golf rolling and men's basketball off to an impressive start under first-year coach Andy Kennedy, a UAB alum and former head coach at Ole Miss.

At Temple, Ingram also was intricately involved in helping the Owls hire a guy named Matt Rhule as their football coach. Yes, the current head coach of the Carolina Panthers.

Reggie McKenzie, Miami Dolphins executive: A Knoxville native who played for the Vols alongside his brother, Raleigh, McKenzie's career is a decorated one in National Football League front offices.

McKenzie has a long record as the general manager of the Oakland Raiders, and he's presently serving in an executive role for the Miami Dolphins. Prior to his run with the Raiders' front office, McKenzie honed his skills in the Green Bay Packers' organization.

Tara Brooks, UT Assistant Athletics Director for Administration: Brooks is a fearless leader and, per campus sources, rivals Reid Sigmon among UT athletics' most fearless leaders.

She's the school's Deputy Title IX Coordinator for athletics and also a member in the Women's Leaders in College Sports. Brooks is a native of nearby Maryville, Tennessee, and her father, Dan, was a longtime assistant coach at both UT and Clemson. Brooks' brother, Rhett, is considered an incredibly sharp and dedicated strength and conditioning coach. Rhett was hired at UT within the past two weeks after previously working at SMU, Arkansas and, most recently, Central Florida.

Todd Stewart, Western Kentucky A.D.: Stewart's done an impressive job keeping the Hilltoppers competitive in a variety of sports amidst a changing landscape and also with budgetary challenges.

Stewart has history at UT as well, working in the school's sports information department alongside legends Bud Ford and the late Haywood Harris. Stewart's been in the SEC at Ole Miss as well as NFL experience with the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns.

Reid Sigmon, UT: Sigmon is the Vols' ever-valuable No. 2 in athletics right now, and he's been arguably the single-most steadying force in UT's athletics hierarchy in Fulmer's three years. In fact, Sigmon, who has diverse collegiate experience, was hired by Fulmer's former enemy, John Currie, when Currie was UT's A.D. and yet Fulmer retained Sigmon.

Gerald Harrison, Austin Peay: Harrison's Tennessee ties run deep to the Vols' football success in the 1990s, but more importantly, Harrison's been hailed by David Cutcliffe – Duke's head football coach and one of the sport's most respected voices – and navigated an impressive two-and-a-half-year run atop the Governors' athletics program. Harrison has helped elevate Austin Peay's profile, and he has also aided in tremendous fundraising efforts.

Jeff Purinton, Alabama Deputy Director of Athletics: Purinton's a staple in Alabama's football success under Nick Saban, and Purinton was a part of national success at his alma mater, Florida State, under Bobby Bowden.

As one industry source told FootballScoop on Monday, “I'm not sure who takes that job right now with everyone going on, but Purinton is next man up” for one of the “big jobs” aka Power-5.

Scott Carter, ETSU: Carter has done an impressive job at East Tennessee State University, with that school reviving football, surging on the basketball hardwood and competitive in a number of sports.

Carter also owns deep experience at UT, with a decade of service in the school's department of development in the athletics wing. Carter was part of some of UT's most significant fundraising endeavors in the early-2000s.

David Blackburn, MTSU Senior Associate A.D.: Blackburn has sat in the lead chair at UT-Chattanooga and helped that program find unprecedented football success as well as hire hall of famer Jim Foster to run the women's basketball program.

Blackburn was a finalist the last time UT conducted an athletics director's search, and had some strong support but perhaps not enough. Nonetheless, Blackburn had worked under both Doug Dickey, arguably Tennessee's top athletics director in program history, as well as former A.D. Mike Hamilton.

Blackburn possesses some of Dickey's key traits, most notably a willingness to show his strongest leadership in the toughest times. Blackburn helped Tennessee navigate through potential NCAA issues a decade ago, when the school then also retained noted attorney Mike Glazier, also now on retainer for UT, and fairly cleanly navigated through some recruiting rules issues.

Mitch Barnhart, University of Kentucky A.D.: Barnhart spent almost 15 years in the administration at Tennessee, the Vols have made runs at him before when the top athletics chair has been open and what Barnhart has done in a variety of programs at Kentucky, as well as from a fundraising standpoint and in running an overall very clean athletics program, has Barnhart among the nation's most respected athletics directors. Hard to say if Barnhart would take the job, because being in the SEC, he understands well just how turmoil-laden Rocky Top is right now. But Barnhart would be a brilliant move IF Tennessee could somehow pull off the move.