Last Word Book Review: Decade Of Dysfunction — The Story Behind The Wild Tennessee Coaching Search

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Decade of Dysfunction
Author Mark Nagi details the 2017 Tennessee coaching search fiasco and the decade of dysfunction and frustration that led to a culminating moment.

Last Word on College Football Book Review

Decade Of Dysfunction: The Road To Tennessee’s Crazy Coaching Search

Title: Decade Of Dysfunction, The Road To Tennessee’s Crazy Coaching Search
Authors: Mark Nagi
Publishers: Mean Streets Press
325 pages, $19.98 (Amazon.com)

Under Pressure

The Greg Schiano/2017 Tennessee coaching search fiasco is still a fresh memory to many college football fans. With the 24-hour news cycle and the meme-fueled social media world of Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, it’s hard for Vols fans to escape to cruel judgment of rival fan bases.

But while many college football fans know what happened, author Mark Nagi details how a once-proud Tennessee program found themselves in such a precarious situation and why a decade of incompetence and ineptitude across an entire University administration brought a fan base together heretofore unseen in college football.

“i always felt the power of that ‘t’ and the standard with that ‘t’. it was different…it’s not for everyone”

While Decade of Dysfunction is clearly geared toward the Tennessee audience, it’s true value is really for those outside of the Tennessee fan base. It’s an honest, raw, and genuine look into one of the most passionate, largest, and certainly unique fan bases in the country.

But more important than that, the story that Nagi lays out echoes the collapse of virtue within the game of college football. In the end, what brought Tennessee into the darkness was the move away from family and towards the glitz, glamour and money of modern big-time college football.

A Fresh Approach

The first thing that strikes the reader about Nagi’s work is his unabashed inclusion of the fan perspective. This book was fan-sourced much more than any other contemporary work of note. And that goes to one of the central themes of the book: that one of the biggest reasons why Tennessee went dark for a decade was because it went away from being a family.

A Balancing Act

Nagi, an accomplished media professional (almost 30 years of sports media work in both television and print), even confesses to be a fan himself. Normally having an author who is also a fan discredits, or at the least dilutes, that authority of the work. Not here. Like Scott Simon in Home and Away, Nagi deftly balances the investment of his rooting interest with journalistic integrity. That’s no small feat.

Again, college football fans around the nation will benefit the most from this fresh approach. Nagi’s casual linkage to the many media members who also have some sort of investment in the Tennessee program is another unique aspect of this story. From a journalistic perspective, it can be uncomfortable to have such a large percentage of the beat reporters and senior media members either be graduates, childhood fans, or local products. But, as with Nagi’s professional balance, it somehow works.

One of the reasons it works is because the local media are brutally honest about the program. As much as Nagi incorporates the local media and fans, the trite and popular method of name dropping or citing other, prominent journalist is kept to a minimum in Decade Of Dysfunction. Of course, that could be due to the bizarre and highly questionable role that many national media members — some of who have the same agent as Greg Schiano — played in the in Schiano fiasco.

“i think a lot of these a.d.s now are more interested in hiring guys who’re going to win the podium than they are in hiring football coaches.”

Family Tradition

Nagi effectively argues that one of the biggest reasons why Tennessee went dark for a decade was because it went away from being a family. The biggest culprit in this book is Mike Hamilton, the former Tennessee athletic director that botched the dismissal of Phillip Fulmer and seemingly set Tennessee on the path to mediocrity. Tennessee’s history of bringing in people familiar with the program was more than institutional nepotism, it was an acknowledgement that this program was so deep-seeded in its state, so beloved by its fans, and so important to the school and the fans that it required someone who understood that. Someone who understood that a few more dollars today weren’t worth leveraging the reputation of an untarnished brand. It required someone who was as emotionally invested to the family as they were to the results or the profits.

With the successive hires of Mike Hamilton and Dave Hart as athletic directors and Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, and Butch Jones, the Tennessee leadership strayed from that understanding.

Taking The Program Back

And as Nagi points out, that’s really how the Schiano fiasco came about — the powers that be thought that they ran the Tennessee program. In fact, the Volunteer family, the lettermen, the fans, and those invested in the program finally stood up and took back their program.

The reader should take note of this especially. Tennessee’s fan base took their program back. Not only was it a historic event in college football — unprecedented by any measure — but it was healthy. It restored a semblance of what the Tennessee program is supposed to be. Tennessee fans sent a message to big time boosters, administrators and national media that was clear and unambiguous. That message certainly wasn’t well received by any of those groups

It might not make things perfect, but it’ll make things more Tennessee again.

Three and Out

While Nagi’s fresh approach and detailed description of the Tennessee family is invaluable to the non-Tennessee fan reader, sometimes he delves too deep into game recaps. Specifically, the six pages dedicated to the 2015 South Carolina game and the extended recap of the 2016 Texas A&M game get away from the purpose of the book. Readers are here for a behind-the-scenes look into the program and the unique perspective of the program in chaos. Occasionally Nagi strays too far from that core effort.

And while Nagi balances his journalistic and fan side perfectly, he doesn’t navigate styles as well. The book bounces from program-wide analysis to critiques from in-game decisions. Half investigative journalist, half beat reporter, Nagi’s narrative, while interesting and insightful, has difficulty maintaining a steady rhythm.

A Required Read

Decade of Dysfunction is a must read for Tennessee fans, simply because who have to take your medicine. More importantly, it emerges as a must read for all college football fans. It’s a fresh, honest look at one of the must underappreciated college football occurrences of our time.

In the end, Nagi excels at taking a decade-long look at an almost unbelievable downfall of a true college football blue-bood program and clearly shows how it all came to a head with the attempted hiring of Greg Schiano. The impact of this is woefully underappreciated across the college landscape. There are many reasons for that, most notably that those that would report on it were on the wrong side of this history.

But Nagi has done college football fans, both in Tennessee and across the country, a favor with the first definitive full-length history of this modern Shakespearean drama.

And while it might be hard for Tennessee fans to escape the vitriol and judgment of rival fan bases, those same rival fans should take note of Decade Of Dysfunction. Through the whole ordeal, the uniqueness and power of the Tennessee fan base is on full display.

And that’s something that other fans should envy, rather than ridicule.

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