The University of Tennessee’s next PR blunder is scheduled for Wednesday, May 4, in Orlando, Fla.
How do I know this? I just read the itinerary for UT’s Big Orange Caravan.
May 4: Dinner — Central Florida (Orlando).
Why would UT launch its annual spring tour in the home state of the archrival Gators?
Answer from the Florida conspiracy theorists in UT’s fan base: Because that’s the way UT chancellor, a.k.a Attack Gator, Jimmy Cheek wants it.
Non-conspiracy theorists will find this laughable, of course. The goodwill caravan is designed to connect UT coaches and athletic department officials with fans, and there’s nothing unusual about it venturing out of state. For example, other get-togethers on the 10-stop tour are planned for Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta.
So I’m not suggesting UT should have avoided a Florida stopover. But it shouldn’t have ignored history, either.
Many Vols fans never forgave former UT football coach Doug Dickey for being a Florida native. Their worst he’s-a-Gator-at-heart fears were confirmed when he forsook the Vols for the head-coaching job at Florida.
Never mind that football flourished when Dickey returned to UT as athletic director. Conspiracy theorists will forget that he kept UT in the good graces of the NCAA and insist that he tried to put Vols basketball out of business. They also will point out that he retired to Florida, not Tellico Village.
Fans didn’t seem to care too much about Cheek’s Florida background when he was hired as UT’s chancellor. After all, it’s not as though he conspired with Urban Meyer to hang 59 points on the Vols in 2007. He was the senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida. That hardly qualifies him as a chomp accomplice.
But Cheek’s Florida background got more attention when he was involved in the March firing of popular UT basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who won eight of 13 games against the Gators.
A donor’s email (published in Monday’s News Sentinel) to UT president Dr. Joe DiPietro read: “Call off your little attack Gator, Cheek.”
DiPietro also has a University of Florida background. He was the dean of the college of veterinary medicine before he became the chancellor of UT’s Institute of Agriculture in 2006.
I’m sure both ex-Gators have UT’s best academic interests at heart and are all for the Vols settling their differences with the NCAA in the best possible light, continuing to make the NCAA tournament in men’s basketball, snapping out of their football doldrums and eventually even making the SEC tournament in baseball. But some UT fans won’t get past Cheek’s and DiPietro’s Florida background, particularly after all that has gone wrong in UT sports this school year.
The most extreme conspiracy theorists among them will conjure up sleeper-cell fantasies in which they envision Florida strategically plotting to place their agents in positions of power with their rival. Non-extremists will merely shake their heads and wonder why UT couldn’t have selected its leaders from a non-rival’s pool.
Be careful what you wish for. Former UT president John Shumaker was from Ohio State. Anybody want him back?
My guess is that if coach Derek Dooley continues to improve UT football and new basketball coach Cuonzo Martin is successful, Tennessee fans will put the chancellor’s past behind them and regard him as a born-again Vol. Until then, I would recommend he not suggest that a dash of royal blue would touch up UT’s orange.
And next time, start the Big Orange Caravan in Crossville.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284.