4 Years After Firing Phil Fulmer: Is Tennessee Football Better Off?
I should start off with two caveats: I am not suggesting that the University of Tennessee rehire Phil Fulmer as their head football coach nor am I advocating that the current coach, Derek Dooley be released from his contract.
Former President Ronald Reagan famously made the comment while running for president in 1980: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" This is one of those questions that Volunteer fans need to ask themselves. Several years prior to the firing of Phil Fulmer in November of 2008, the Vol fans cry was "If we could just get rid of Fulmer." Like the old saying goes, be careful of what you wish for, because you may get it.
One of the main criticisms of Fulmer among his detractors was that he had lost 21 games in his last four years as head coach. However, consider the following:
In the last four years of Fulmer era, Tennessee defeated six ranked teams
2005- #4 LSU- 30-27
2006- #9 Georgia 51-33 and #15 California 35-18
2007- #12 Georgia 35-14, #15 South Carolina 27-24 and #18 Wisconsin 21-17
Likewise, within those last four years, Tennessee won the SEC East in 2007 and played LSU for the SEC Championship, losing 21-14 to an LSU team that would go on to win the BCS National Championship that same season.
Also, Fulmer possessed something which could not be bought: He was loyal to Tennessee, something Vol fans learned the hard way when Lane Kiffin left them high and dry after one season for USC.
In the post-Fulmer era, Tennessee has lost 21 games and counting. Neither Lane Kiffin nor Derek Dooley have yet to beat a ranked opponent (0-15) nor has Tennessee come close to winning the SEC East. Also, Phil Fulmer had never lost to rival Kentucky, something that happened to the 2011 Tennessee team, the first time the Wildcats had beaten the Vols since 1984.
The firing of Fulmer in 2008 was really a case of knee-jerk stupidity. Every time they lost to a Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer Florida team, Tennessee fans begged for Tennessee to open up the offense, get "hip" and run a Fun N Gun or get a Tim Tebow and run a spread offense. After Offensive Coordinator David Cutcliffe left to take the Duke head coaching job in 2007, Fulmer finally caved to pressure and went out and hired a spread offense coordinator, Dave Clawson from Richmond.
Of course, anybody knows that when a program radically changes an offensive scheme, it takes time to bring in the necessary finesse players to run such a scheme. Instead of giving Fulmer and Clawson two to three years to bring in the necessary personal to run such a system, former Athletic Director Mike Hamilton gave Fulmer exactly nine games to prove the Clawson spread offense experiment could work. After the loss to South Carolina on November 1, 2008, Fulmer was fired by Hamilton.
Tennessee fans should have let Fulmer be Fulmer. As an old offensive line man, Fulmer understands that games are won on the line of scrimmage, not with finesse or razzle-dazzle offense. Even Fun N Gun Steve Spurrier, now at South Carolina, depends on an old-school SEC formula for success: Run the ball to establish the pass, ball control and salty defense. Nick Saban has used this same formula to win two National Championships at Alabama.
That used to be Tennessee's identity. Tennessee football used to be about lining up and running the ball and daring the opponent's defense to stop it. Tennessee's running game in the last four years has been sub-par at best.
And when somebody looks at Fulmer's body of work, it is really quite impressive. Fulmer ended up with a 152-52 all-time record, 98-34 all-time SEC record, six SEC Division Titles, one SEC Conference title and one National Championship. And Fulmer was 11-6 against Alabama, the most important rival game of the Volunteer program.
In the last four years, Tennessee has regressed, no question about it. The last couple of years under Fulmer were certainly lackluster compared to his earlier achievements, but at least Fulmer could still beat ranked opponents and win the SEC East. Since Fulmer left, there has been turmoil in the head coaching position(Kiffin bolted after one season) and the Vols have yet to beat a ranked opponent or smelled a Divisional title in the SEC.
"Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
Not a question Volunteer Nation wants to ask itself right now. In particular, those Tennessee boosters and fans that had demanded the Administration bring them the head of Phil Fulmer on a silver platter.
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