You may have heard that Tennessee needs a new Head Football Coach. You may have heard that they are having a hard time finding one. You may have heard that the school recently underwent the equivalent of a “bloodless coup” and, borrowing a line from Mel Brooks History of the World, “It’s Good to be the King.”
The King of the Tennessee Athletic Department is Hall of Fame Football Coach Phillip Fulmer. who was installed last Friday as the school’s new Athletic Director with a two-year contract just after the former A.D., who had been on the job just eight months was abruptly suspended with pay while the suits in the Tennessee General Counsel’s Office try to find a way to not pay him the balance due under his contract. The school is looking for a way to fire John Currie “with cause” and avoid paying him the remainder of his contract which runs through June 2022. Yes, this is going to get legal and it’s going to get ugly.
I – or anyone else for that matter – can’t possibly speculate what that cause could be because the only thing it appears he did not do was hire a Football Coach, although he had a deal in place with Washington State’s Mike Leach the day he was canned. Likewise, we can’t know what the cause is because goofball University Chancellor Beverly Davenport, clearly employed beyond her own qualifications, won’t say anything. She comes across as dumb and as clueless as Dean Wormer from Animal House fame and someone needs to remind her that the University of Tennessee is a public university and the people who live here and pay taxes here to support her salary have a right to a certain level of transparency.
Nevertheless, when she was asked by Sports Columnist John Adams of the Knoxville News Sentinel why she wouldn’t at least let Currie try to complete the deal with Leach, she said she wasn’t there to talk about anything other than the change in Athletic Directors. Not having a football coach is at least one reason you made that change so you need to answer the question or go back to being the dean of some college somewhere.
To understand how Tennessee got here you have to understand the back story. In 1992, then Tennessee coach Johnny Majors had to have major heart surgery in August. Majors was hospitalized and missed the first three games of the season while recovering. During that time Fulmer – a longtime favorite of then A.D. Doug Dickey – was the Vols Offensive Coordinator. Dickey made him the acting Head Coach and Tennessee promptly won three straight games including beating Florida and Georgia (two teams Tennessee coaches must beat on a consistent basis) with him running the team as well as the offense.
Also reportedly during this time, Fulmer had his eyes on Majors’ job. Fulmer also reportedly rallied the Tennessee fan base as well as the other coaches and those inside the Athletic Department against Majors essentially stabbing his boss in the back to get what he wanted, which was Majors’ job. Dickie fearful of losing Fulmer to another program, canned Majors and elevated Fulmer. This story isn’t fiction. Johnny Majors went back to Pittsburgh in 1993 and at the Big East Media Day in 1993 told me point blank that Fulmer among others betrayed him.
Now, there’s no denying Fulmer’s accomplishments as Tennessee’s Head Coach. He went 152-52-1 in his 15 years. From 1995 to 1998, Fulmer’s Tennessee team went 45-5, won two Southeastern Conference Championships and a National Title in 1998. His teams in the late 90s were stocked with NFL type talent, but it did not stay that way.
Fulmer got fat and happy and didn’t recruit as well or coach as well either. It also didn’t help that his offensive Coordinator David Cutcliffe left to be the Head Coach at Ole Miss and for the rest of his tenure, Fulmer – supposedly an offensive guy – couldn’t figure out how to jump start on offense. He threw Offensive Coordinator Randy Sanders under the bus in 2007 and then hired Richmond Head Coach Dave Clawson to be the coordinator in 2008. Clawson – again in all fairness – has proven to be a terrific head coach but he was a disaster at Tennessee.
Tennessee’s decline as a program under Fulmer – and perhaps in general – began on a December night in Atlanta in 2001. Tennessee had beaten Florida handily for the SEC SEC Title a week earlier (a game pushed to the end of the season by the 9-11 tragedy), and needed only to beat a pretty average LSU team in the Conference Title game to go to the Rose Bowl and play Miami for another National Title. The Vols underwent a second half meltdown and LSU led by some quarterback named Matt Mauck won the SEC. Fulmer’s program never recovered and when the Volunteers lost on homecoming 2008 to a poor Wyoming team, Fulmer was pushed out by then Athletic Director Mike Hamilton.
Only it wasn’t just Mike Hamilton. At the time, John Currie was Hamilton’s right hand man and was reportedly the impetus that Hamilton needed to fire Fulmer. Fulmer never forgot, and recent events show clearly that he didn’t forgive either. When A,D. Dave Hart announced his retirement, Tennessee’s search for a new A.D. came down to Currie and Fulmer. Currie – who had significant experience as the A.D. at Kansas State raising a ton of money and improving facilities in the middle of nowhere – won out. Fulmer was made a special assistant to the President of the University of Tennessee system (which includes campuses in Chattanooga and Martin). Once back in the hen house, it’s clear the wolf shed the suit that disguised his true identity.
If the stories are true, then Fulmer sabotaged Currie’s search for a new head coach in order to get the job he’d lost out on 8 months earlier. Given what Fulmer did to Majors, these reports must have validity. They have been reported by College Football writers who have great sources and are just plain great reporters, regardless of whether they cover sports. Currie tried to lure Dan Mullen, Scott Frost, Jeff Brohm, Dave Doren, Mike Gundy and Kevin Sumlin who all said thanks but no thanks. It appeared he finally had a taker in Leach, but was fired before he could complete the deal.
Now it’s Fulmer’s job to hire the next head coach of Tennessee football, but no matter who he hires, there’s going to a be long shadow looking over his shoulder if not micro-managing the football program from another office. It’s going to take a special person to accept this job and it’s likely going to be someone with Tennessee ties and it won’t surprise me if it’s Phillip Fulmer himself. Amazingly enough the shit storm of last week when each time Currie made a move, it was reported immediately, there’s been nothing other than an unsubstantiated conversation with Les Miles by Fulmer. Kind of makes you wonder if Fulmer was the one leaking the story in order to stir the masses against anyone Currie had his eye on?
The bottom line is that Tennessee is a football program that lives too much in the past, perhaps second only to Notre Dame which doesn’t just live it, but wallows in it. I like history also, but that’s what it is…history. Head Coaches are still required to recite General Neyland’s 7 game maxims, which hang on the wall in the locker room. before each game despite the fact that those game maxims are pretty stupid. I mean it doesn’t take a great head coach to figure out that if you make the fewest mistakes you are going to win, but yet that’s one of the 7. Likewise, Tennessee fans kiss Peyton Manning’s butt each time he comes to town, have never forgiven ESPN for what they perceive as stealing the Heisman from Manning in 1997, and live constantly in 1998, the National Championship year. You see evidence of that now with people beating the bongos for the school to hire USC Offensive Coordinator Tee Martin, the quarterback of the 98 championship team.
Tennessee had a chance to move it’s program forward and I’m not by any means defending John Currie’s botched search for a head coach. But, by going back to Fulmer, Tennessee has shown once again that it’s living in the past and whoever they select will have to deal with that and best be careful what he’s volunteering for. Unless of course it’s Phillip Fulmer, who once again believes “It’s Good to be the King.”