By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 2, 2017
When the sun rose Friday, it found Ole Miss facing the NCAA Committee on Infractions, and Phil Fulmer was headed back to Tennessee to run the football program.
Tonight, we’re gonna party like it’s 1994.
There’s something odd and somewhat unbelievable about the possibility that you were present at the very moment a titan fell. That’s the feeling coming out of Knoxville today, because the Tennessee football program may very well be lurching into the throes of death. Or, at least, the throes of mediocrity.
It’s almost always premature to proclaim a program “dead,” because those proclamations tend to come served on a bed of crow. Many a journalist wound up with egg on their faces through the DuBose-Franchione-Price-Shula debacle of 2000-2003, claiming the Crimson Tide program had slipped a rung or two and would be forever looking up at LSU, Florida … or Tennessee.
For that matter, even Fulmer made that mistake himself. Fulmer allegedly told then-recruit Santonio Beard in 2000 that Alabama “would be out of business in two years.” As Fulmer exited the Bryant-Denny Stadium turf after losing to the Crimson Tide in 2005, he did so under a banner that read, “HEY PHIL … WE’RE STILL IN BUSINESS.”
So let us be careful before we pronounce Tennessee dead, dying or even anything other than just under the weather. Let’s practice caution while we try to determine whether this program, a stalwart of Southern football for at least the last 70 years, is in danger of permanently slipping into the SEC’s middle tier.
On the other hand, let’s try to figure out how it won’t, because the evidence is certainly pointing in the direction of it happening, and fast.
For starters, Fulmer is back in power in Knoxville a second time because he did the same thing he did to get in power the first time: He essentially rallied support for his candidacy while another person still had the job but was going through turmoil. In 1992, Fulmer staged a coup to grab the head coaching job from Johnny Majors, who had been weakened by the aftereffects of heart surgery. In 2017, he appears to have done an end run around athletic director John Currie while Currie was charged with trying to find a head coach to replace Butch Jones, and the resulting maelstrom has washed Currie past the Vol Navy and out to sea.
Still, had Currie managed to get his man – or any man, for that matter – Fulmer would likely have been vexed in his quest to once again call the shots in Knoxville. But Currie’s initial pick for the job, Greg Schiano, fell victim to a coordinated (and sickening) smear campaign that left Tennessee without a coach and Schiano with a worthless resume going forward. A succession of rejections from other established coaches have left Tennessee still without a coach, but now, Fulmer is steering the ship.
Putting Fulmer aside for a moment, the question of why Tennessee is getting turned down left and right has to be answered. Some have accused Fulmer of tampering in Currie’s search process in order to wrest the athletic director’s job from him. Others have said it’s simply a case of the Vol program not being as attractive as it was in the past.
The Tennessee job brings certain challenges and a couple of requirements that are decidedly not optional. Chief among those is the ability to recruit nationally. The state of Tennessee, despite its overall population, doesn’t produce all that many top-tier Division-I athletes, and many of those, if not most, hail from Memphis, which feels very little connection to Knoxville.
The last time Fulmer was running things, he did so with the benefit of Alabama and Ole Miss on probation, Georgia a rudderless ship, Clemson not yet a power, and none of the other Carolina schools a legitimate competitor for talent. The Vols’ main competition outside the SEC was probably Virginia Tech, and then only tangentially so.
More importantly, Fulmer had Doug Dickey for an athletic director, and most importantly, Roy Kramer as commissioner of the SEC. Kramer’s relationship with Dickey was too close for the comfort of most other schools in the conference, and Kramer was accused of either not going to bat for SEC schools not named Tennessee (as Mike Slive and Greg Sankey have since done), or for outright playing favorites. At one time or another during Fulmer’s tenure in Knoxville, Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Mississippi State all went on NCAA probation. Contrast that to the Slive and Sankey tenures and at best, Kramer comes off looking like an ineffective advocate for his conference.
Fulmer also had the benefit of David Cutcliffe as his offensive coordinator for many of those years, as well as the good fortune to sign Peyton Manning. It would be unfair to the other Tennessee players of the time to say Manning singlehandedly transformed the program, but it’s not unfair to say Manning raised the profile of the program substantially. The groundwork laid during those times eventually paid off in a national championship won immediately after Manning’s departure.
In the here and now, though, Fulmer has none of those advantages, nor will the football coach he eventually hires. Neyland Stadium is big, yes, but is far behind other venues in the conference. The school’s athletic department has had to manage challenging financial conditions in recent years, and now is faced with the possibility of having to pay Greg Schiano without ever having the benefit of his actual coaching talents.
Moreover, this isn’t Roy Kramer’s SEC anymore. Nick Saban is at Alabama. Auburn is recruiting better than ever before. Kirby Smart’s Georgia staff has already proven itself capable on the recruiting trail. Dabo Swinney has Clemson rolling, and Will Muschamp will be a formidable foe at South Carolina. Fulmer’s teams regularly raided the Carolinas for talent, but that isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Ole Miss … well, Ole Miss is on probation again. Good to see some things haven’t changed.
If the Fulmer hire comes across as a panic hire to you, that’s how it was perceived across the conference. This feels like a desperate program reaching back into its glory days because it feels the sands shifting beneath its feet. And they’re probably right.
But reaching back to rehire one of the most divisive individuals ever to patrol an SEC sideline? It’s a move that doesn’t lack for boldness, but might be supremely lacking in vision. Rarely does a team build on the past by trying to recreate it. Alabama spend decades learning that lesson; Tennessee may have to learn it not while trying to add to its legacy, but instead while trying to simply stabilize it.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN