Phil Fulmer, Tennessee finally part ways -- three years too late
"That's not funny," Fulmer said. "Think about all those families. It's never good when a staff gets fired."
Every time I have to write or read about another coach getting fired, I remember Fulmer's words. On Monday, as Fulmer fell on his sword to save the program he loves, they echoed at full volume. All those husbands will have to find new jobs. All those families will have to pull up roots and go elsewhere.
The shame of it is that it had to be done, and it probably would have been better for everyone concerned had it been done sooner. All the success Fulmer brought to the Tennessee program in his first 10 years allowed him to bank a fortune in career capital, but he'd made too many withdrawals the past six years to go out on his own terms. After Saturday's 27-6 loss at South Carolina, Fulmer's final check bounced.
Tennessee athletic director
This once-proud program reached this state, in part, because people were loyal to a fault. The big-money folks stuck with Fulmer long after the rank-and-file fan base had given up on him. Fulmer kept certain assistants on staff despite an obvious need to upgrade. Unfortunately for everyone in orange, elite-level college football is one of the few worlds in which loyalty can be a character flaw.
Had everyone been a little more heartless, they would have forgotten Fulmer took Tennessee from a regional power to a national one in only a few years after the 1992 coup that left
In fact, Fulmer's last great win came Dec. 1, 2001, when he took his team to Gainesville to play a game postponed by the Sept. 11 attacks. In the locker room before kickoff,
Tennessee went on to beat the Gators, 34-32. That set up an SEC title game matchup against LSU, a team the Vols had thrashed in Knoxville earlier that season. But LSU had a second-year coach named
The Vols haven't sniffed a championship since.
By the time Tennessee limped to the finish in 2005, the Vols had been out of the national spotlight for four years. Hamilton could have tried to convince Fulmer to retire with most of his legacy intact. By that point, Florida had hired
Making matters worse, the days of recruiting nationally were coming to an end. The best programs stocked their teams with the best players the region had to offer. Unfortunately for Fulmer, Tennessee never has produced a wealth of prospects. Its most talent-rich city, Memphis, is closer to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Alabama than it is to Knoxville. So Fulmer had to go elsewhere to find players, and those players didn't grow up dreaming of running through the shapes formed by the Pride of the Southland band.
This season, as the Vols slid further into the abyss, coaches from other schools pounced on Tennessee's recruiting class members. Tampa (Fla.) Gaither High running back
"Pretty much, [Drayton] told me to look at Option B," said Giles, who plans to enroll at his chosen school in January. "He didn't want me to get caught up in this mess." For Giles, Option B is either South Carolina, Clemson or Boston College, with the Gamecocks holding the edge.
Giles said he would stay in Tennessee's class if Drayton keeps his job, but that's a big if. The easy choice would be to hire Cutcliffe, who, after leaving his second term as the Vols' offensive coordinator to take over at Duke this season, has done a fabulous job. That might allow defensive coordinator
The reboot may be the best option now, because links to the past may engender expectations of a rapid rise back to national prominence. With an SEC east schedule and an annual date with Saban's Alabama team, that isn't going to happen. Tennessee's next coach will need time to rebuild.
Meanwhile, Fulmer will step down with his legacy severely tarnished. The former Vols offensive lineman brought his program to the pinnacle of college football, and for that he deserves every honor the school can bestow upon him. But Hamilton and Tennessee's decision-makers let Fulmer down when they continued to reward his past and failed to consider that he might not have been the best choice for the program's future.
Fulmer was correct. It's never good when a staff gets fired. He deserved a better sendoff than this, but his own stubbornness and his bosses' refusal to act earlier made Monday's sad scene the only logical conclusion.