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Phillip Fulmer's Big Task As Tennessee AD Is to Follow Fans' Lead and Unify In-House Factions

Tennessee's former football coach is walking into a situation where trust and communication have been in short supply. He needs to fix that to move the Vols forward.

Tennessee chancellor Beverly Davenport sat alongside former football coach and new athletic director Phillip Fulmer and tried to explain how the Volunteers can move forward after a week that has humiliated the program, the school and the state. Earlier in the day, Davenport had jettisoned athletic director John Currie, a man she hired less than a year ago. Davenport dodged questions about exactly why she fired Currie, each time retreating to a version of the same platitude. “We are here today,” Davenport said, “to begin a new era and a new opportunity to move the University of Tennessee forward.”

That will never happen if Tennessee keeps operating the way it has throughout this decade. Its leaders haven’t sung from the same hymnal in years. But there is one group the people in charge should look to if they want to learn something about unity.

The only group that has been unified through this entire process is the rank-and-file Tennessee fan base. On Sunday, it rose up and rejected the idea of hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Despite being separated by age and distance, the fans were the only people affiliated with the school who managed to speak with one voice. All those fans want is for Tennessee to win football games. Unlike many of the people in charge, they have no ulterior motive. They have spent their money and their time because they love the Vols. Unfortunately for them, the people charged with leading the program were far more worried about protecting their various fiefdoms than creating an environment where Tennessee’s football program could flourish.

But that’s been the story of Tennessee athletics for a while now. Whether it was the women’s athletic department against the men’s athletic department or Fulmer against former AD Mike Hamilton or the Haslam family against other big-money donors, no one has seemed capable of getting on the same page. Friday, Fulmer revealed one of his favorite old sayings. “It’s amazing what can be accomplished,” he said, “when no one cares who gets the credit.” That probably isn’t the best thing to say after a palace coup, but it is indeed sage advice. If Fulmer can convince everyone in Tennessee’s administration and donor base to follow it, perhaps there is a way out of this mess.

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It’s time for the warring factions at Tennessee to set aside their differences and act in the best interest of the program. Maybe Fulmer can point everyone in the same direction. As he said, he has seen Tennessee athletics at its best. “I have seen what honest communication, trust and hard work achieve,” Fulmer said. Unfortunately for the Vols, the first two in Fulmer’s list have been in short supply.

Both factions in Friday’s drama were quick to paint the other side as the villain, but let’s consider the individuals and their motives before we hand out white hats and black hats. More likely, everyone should be wearing Smoky Gray.

We’ll start with Fulmer. Tennessee's best football coach in the modern era, he was unceremoniously dumped following a loss to South Carolina late in the 2008 season. The program had slid from its dominant peak in the ’90s, but Fulmer also was only one year removed from the SEC East title. (Tennessee’s last SEC East title.) One of the people heavily involved in Fulmer’s firing was Currie, then Hamilton’s top lieutenant. Currie’s job was to raise money, and it costs money to fire a coach and hire a new one. Meanwhile, Jim Haslam, the former Tennessee football player who founded the Pilot gas station chain and Tennessee’s most powerful booster, did not step in to save Fulmer’s job. Those wounds cut deep for a man who had spent most of his adult life working for Tennessee. 

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Flash forward to 2016. Fulmer and the Tennessee administration had not only reached a detente, but the time finally seemed right for the coach to play a bigger role there. When athletic director Dave Hart announced his resignation, Fulmer threw his hat in the ring for the job. He had the support of some influential donors as well as former football players and rank-and-file fans. For a time, he seemed like the top candidate. But suddenly the search turned to Currie, who had told people previously that he didn’t expect Tennessee would ever consider him because of the friction with Fulmer. To get okey-doked again had to be crushing for Fulmer, who never stopped believing he knew how to bring Tennessee football back to prominence.

Now let’s consider Currie’s side. He was doing his job in 2008. Hamilton decided to fire Fulmer, and Currie followed instructions. Currie then went off to be the athletic director at Kansas State, where he was a fundraising dynamo who took over following several financial scandals, righted the balance sheet and oversaw massive renovations to Bill Snyder Family Stadium and the construction of a beautiful football operations building. He also butted heads with Snyder—the legendary football coach—and let men’s basketball coach Frank Martin leave for South Carolina after several clashes. He was offered the Tennessee job last year—as the Haslam family’s preferred candidate—and he had a chance to return to a place he’d loved working at a salary he never imagined he’d make. Who wouldn’t take the job? Perhaps he should have considered that if the balance of power ever tipped that he might get squeezed, but how could he turn down the opportunity?

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He and the Haslams dramatically misread the fan base when they attempted to hire Schiano, and the choice raised questions about whether Currie and those backing him understood Tennessee’s head football coach job at all. Schiano is an excellent coach who once breathed life into a moribund Rutgers program, but he also has a history of obsessing over the tiniest details—no matter how insignificant. Someone with that personality would hate working in the fishbowl that is Knoxville. The fans understood this. Why didn’t the people in charge? But after pulling out of the Schiano deal, Currie did find a coach who has won games and a has a personality that would fit in Knoxville. He flew to California and interviewed Washington State’s Mike Leach on Thursday, and the two agreed to terms on a deal. But then Currie was summoned back to Knoxville. On Friday, he was suspended with pay.

Currie will be fired soon. Davenport said Friday that the school didn’t have “all the financial details worked out” for his exit. If he’s fired without cause, Tennessee would owe him more than $5 million. If he’s fired for cause, Tennessee would have to prove he did something other than try to hire a football coach (which was his job). “He was given full authority,” Davenport said, “to find the best coach for Tennessee.” Until he wasn’t. If Tennessee does attempt to fire Currie for cause, the school probably will wind up writing a check to him before you can say “on to Discovery.” The winners, as usual, would be billable hours.

Now Fulmer must go forward and find the best coach. Leach still would like to be considered. Would Fulmer consider his former quarterback Tee Martin, who now runs USC’s offense? We’ll see. What about Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, who is working miracles at the Power Five’s smallest school? Clawson’s name is still cursed at Tennessee because he was hired to run the offense the year Fulmer got fired. But perhaps Fulmer, who would know better than anyone what really went wrong in 2008, can smooth over the bad memories among the fans and donors. Or maybe it’s a wild card. Several accomplished coaches are waiting to see what happens to the Florida State job, which opened Friday when Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M. Only one person will get it, and the top two candidates seem to be Oregon’s Willie Taggart and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente. Once Florida State decides, Tennessee—and probably the school that loses its coach to Florida State—will have the best available job.

And Tennessee is a good job. The roster needs less work than Florida’s does. The SEC East still lags behind the West, even though Kirby Smart may be building a powerhouse at Georgia and Dan Mullen should turn things around in Gainesville. Tennessee does have to play destroyer of souls Alabama every year, but a good hire could turn a 4-8 team that went winless in conference play into a nine-win team fairly quickly. That will be Fulmer’s charge now. An athletic director’s clock begins ticking the moment he makes his first football hire, so Fulmer will get no grace period. If he hires correctly, he’ll be the grand unifying force and hailed as the man who saved Tennessee football. If he hires poorly, he’ll probably learn how Currie felt Friday.

More than anything, Fulmer needs to get everyone at Tennessee pulling in the same direction before hiring the next coach. The factions got the Vols here, and only working together will get them out. They need to take a cue from their fans, who showed more unity this week than the people running Tennessee have shown in 10 years.