Kansas State athletic director John Currie leaves behind a fascinating legacy.
On one hand, he guided the Wildcats to a level of previously unimagined fundraising that has put K-State on par with most power-conference schools when it comes to athletic facilities. He also balanced the school’s athletic budget, oversaw seven straight bowl appearances and celebrated Big 12 championships in baseball, men’s basketball and football.
On the other hand, many blamed him when popular basketball coach Frank Martin left for South Carolina. Many still blame him for the current state of the men’s basketball program, which appears on its way to missing the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season under Bruce Weber.
That’s why his departure to Tennessee, where he will take over as the Volunteers’ athletic director and vice chancellor April 1, was met with mixed reactions Tuesday.
“Words cannot express how grateful our family is for the time and experience we have had here at K-State and in the Manhattan community,” Currie said in a statement. “Tennessee reached out to me earlier this week and encouraged me to visit with Chancellor (Beverly) Davenport about the position. It was evident early in our discussion that she has a tremendous vision for the university, and I am excited to be a part of her leadership team.”
The move left employees in both athletic departments stunned. Currie had recently been linked to athletic director openings at Arizona and Florida, but both looked elsewhere. Meanwhile, former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer had emerged as the favorite to replace Dave Hart as the athletic director with Chattanooga’s David Blackburn believed to be another option.
The Volunteers hired a search firm and appointed a six-person hiring committee, which included Peyton Manning, to help select the new AD. A source with knowledge of the search said that committee had zeroed in on Fulmer, the top choice among fans and boosters. But Davenport changed course this week, the source said, and decided to make her own selection. Her first call went to Currie. When that conversation went well, she flew to Manhattan and offered him the job Tuesday morning.
Currie quickly accepted and broke the news to K-State staffers at a crowded meeting. Those in attendance said he choked up while saying goodbye and took the time to shake hands with everyone in the room.
This will be viewed as a homecoming for Currie and his family. He attended graduate school at Tennessee and worked in the Volunteers’ athletic department before coming to K-State.
“It is a very exciting time for my family and me as we return to a place that remains very special to us,” Currie said in a statement. “We spent 10 years in Knoxville prior to taking the job at K-State, and I appreciate Chancellor Davenport and the University of Tennessee for providing us this special opportunity. As a graduate of the University of Tennessee, I know how much UT athletics means to the people in the state, and I look forward to serving all of the Big Orange Nation, its wonderful coaches, staff and student-athletes, for many years to come. We are excited to return to Rocky Top.”
Currie’s salary at K-State was $775,000. His buyout was $1.55 million, which he or Tennessee may owe K-State.
K-State deputy athletic director Laird Veatch, a former K-State football player, will take over as acting athletic director.
The Wildcats have no timetable for selecting a permanent replacement, but Veatch is expected to be strongly considered for the full-time job whenever it is filled, a K-State source said.
Veatch takes over an athletic department in better shape than what Currie inherited in 2009. Currie, hired in May 2009, took over at a shaky time for the department. Though Bill Snyder and Martin were in place as winning coaches for the school’s two biggest teams, they lacked state-of-the-art facilities and the athletic department was in debt.
During his eight years, Currie boosted fundraising to new heights and transformed the appearance of K-State’s athletic facilities. The Wildcats built $210 million worth of new facilities. Most notably, they spent more than $100 million worth of renovations into Snyder Family Stadium in the form of the West Stadium Center and the Vanier Football Complex. The additions gave K-State players a state-of-the-art facility to train and work between games, and fans a lavish place to watch games.
K-State also built a basketball training facility during Currie’s time, as well as a new rowing center and a tennis stadium.
The Wildcats had their fair share of wins under Currie, as well. No more so than in 2012-13, when the Wildcats claimed Big 12 championships in baseball, men’s basketball and football.
“From when I arrived at K-State back in 2009, I have experienced some of the most enjoyable moments in my life, filled with some of the most genuine and caring people I have ever met,” Currie said in the statement. “As I have said so many times, the collective group of head coaches we have here rival those of any in all of college athletics. Our primary goal has been to provide a world-class student-athlete experience, and I know we have made tremendous progress in this arena.”
But his time in Manhattan wasn’t all sunshine.
Some will remember Currie more for his rift with Martin, the former basketball coach, than they will for his work in other areas. Martin left K-State for South Carolina in 2012 after an impressive five-year run with the Wildcats, which included four trips to the NCAA Tournament and one run to the Elite Eight, for many reasons, the most publicized of which was his poor working relationship with Currie.
Currie replaced Martin with current coach Bruce Weber, who got off to a strong start but has faded since. It appeared Currie would soon have to make a decision on whether to bring Weber back for a sixth season, but that choice will seemingly fall on Veatch or Currie’s full-time replacement.
On Tuesday, Weber said he didn’t think a new athletic director would impact his future with the basketball team. He praised both Veatch and Currie.
“He did unbelievable things for K-State,” Weber said of Currie. “It’s amazing, just in my time here what he has built is spectacular. I don’t know if anyone else in the country has done anything like this. He will be greatly missed.”
A new athletic director will also help guide the transition to a new football coach, whenever 77-year-old Bill Snyder decides to retire. Currie said he thought about that scenario every single day. It will be up to someone else to develop a new plan.
Several people in college administration have K-State ties and would be logical candidates: Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt (a former K-State football player); Texas Tech deputy athletic director Chad Weiberg (a former K-State administrator); former high-ranking K-State athletic officials Reid Sigmon (Chief Financial Officer for the College Football Playoff) and Clint Dowdle (a member of the coaching division within Creative Artists Agency).
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett