KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — New Tennessee athletic director John Currie marked his return to Knoxville on Thursday by saying the Southeastern Conference school "can and should be the very best athletics program in the country."
The first step toward achieving that goal may involve uniting the fan base.
After receiving an orange No. 1 football jersey from chancellor Beverly Davenport, Currie noted favorite memories from his previous stints in Tennessee's athletic department and quoted former Volunteers athletic director and football coach Doug Dickey.
New Tennessee athletic director John Currie recalls some of his favorite moments from his previous stints in Knoxville pic.twitter.com/fOI1glWXU8
— Steve Megargee (@stevemegargee) March 3, 2017
"Coach Dickey used to tell us we're either playing for the title or we're biting on the butt of the guy that is, right?" Currie said. "When we talk about those great moments athletically and academically, I get so excited knowing that the University of Tennessee can and should be the very best athletics program in the country."
Currie, who has been Kansas State's athletic director since 2009, officially begins his new job April 1 on his 46th birthday. He was hired Tuesday to replace Dave Hart, who has been athletic director at Tennessee since September 2011.
Hart announced in August he would retire effective June 30. His contract terms allow Tennessee to hire a new AD before June 30 and accelerate Hart's retirement as long as he receives 15 days written notice.
Before leaving for Kansas State in 2009, Currie spent about a decade working for the Volunteers' athletic department in a variety of positions, most recently as a chief deputy and adviser to former athletic director Mike Hamilton. He earned his master's degree from Tennessee, and all three of his children were born in Knoxville.
Davenport said she wanted to hire a sitting athletic director from a Power Five school.
"These are complex jobs," Davenport said. "Experience matters."
The public ceremony introducing Currie included such Tennessee legends as former football coach Johnny Majors and five-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning, who was part of the search committee assisting Davenport in selecting Hart's replacement.
Currie cited the maxims made famous by former Tennessee football coach Robert Neyland while discussing his decision to return to Knoxville. Davenport had visited Currie's family at their Kansas home to discuss the job.
"All I could think about was Maxim No. 2... 'Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes your way, score,' " Currie said. "So I pulled out that pen and signed that piece of paper real fast."
Davenport said the Turnkey search firm recommended candidates to the school's search committee, which also brought names to her. Davenport said the committee recommended Currie to her.
Other candidates with Tennessee ties also were connected to this opening. Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn and former Vols football coach Phillip Fulmer are Tennessee alums who expressed interest in the job.
Former NFL defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, who played for Fulmer at Tennessee, tweeted after the Currie hire that "Coach Fulmer bleeds orange but after this new AD hire it should make his blood boil RED!!! I'm sick of UT being the laughingstock of the SEC!!! COACH FULMER CAN MAKE TENNESSEE GREAT AGAIN!!!!!!"
While referring to Tennessee's history Thursday, Currie praised Fulmer for orchestrating "the greatest run in the modern era of Tennessee football." He also credited the "incredible passion" of Tennessee's fan base and emphasized the importance of recognizing the department's heritage and listening to everyone.
"All I can do is get out there and work hard every single day," Currie said.
New Tennessee athletic director John Currie on how he will go about trying to unite the Vols' fan base pic.twitter.com/GrkXEkP1vo
— Steve Megargee (@stevemegargee) March 3, 2017
Currie has been Kansas State's athletic director since 2009. He's an excellent fundraiser who dramatically improved the Wildcats' facilities.
But he also was Kansas State's athletic director when men's basketball coach Frank Martin left for South Carolina. Currie replaced him with Bruce Weber, who hasn't been as successful as Martin.
Currie inherits a Tennessee program that has dealt with a number of off-field issues over the years.
Tennessee reached a $2.48 million settlement last year in a Title IX lawsuit regarding its handling of assault and sexual assault complaints against athletes. Hart angered some fans over the decision to eliminate the Lady Vols nickname for all women's sports other than basketball.
Currie said Thursday it was too early for him to have a position on whether the Lady Vols nickname should be reinstated for all sports. Right now he's focused on hearing from all the various segments of Tennessee's athletic community as he returns to a school he already knows pretty well.
"The Lord gave me two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason," Currie said. "I've got to get around and listen and see and learn and reconnect with folks. I can't wait to start doing that."