I know what you are thinking. This article must have been written by some rabid Tennessee fan, sitting in an orange and white painted room with a picture of him and Phillip Fulmer and a letter sent from the former Tennessee head coach to the writer, framed on the wall just above his desk.
Well, you’d be right.
However, don’t click the back button just yet. There is a legitimate argument or two to be made about why Notre Dame would hire the former National Championship coach, and why the man known by southern football fans as “The Great Pumpkin”, would head north to take the reins of the Fighting Irish, a program that is destined to compete for championships on a national level.
The first thing that has to happen for this scenario to take place is for Notre Dame to part ways with Charlie Weis. As most college football fans know, this part of the equation is closer to happening than Charlie would like to admit.
Weis has taken over play-calling duties, made several coaching changes, and is weathering constant rumors about his successor (this article among them), in an offseason that is crucial to Notre Dame’s history and Charlie Weis’s future as a part of that history.
Prognosticators are mixed on the success that Notre Dame could have this season. Most believe that this could and should be Charlie Weis’s most successful season in South Bend. A 10-win season, a BCS bowl, and return to national prominence are on most fans’ minds and experts aren’t arguing.
Third-year QB Jimmy Clausen returns to lead the Irish through a schedule that “on paper” looks to be easier than most seasons. Defensive guru Jon Tenuta steps into the role as defensive play caller and Weis’s strong recruiting classes are starting to provide both depth and playmakers.
The Blazer Chronicles, however, doesn’t see things so positive for the Irish. Wins should come against Nevada, Purdue, Washington, Washington St, Navy, Connecticut, and Stanford. Losses could come against Michigan St, USC, Boston College, Pittsburgh, and a Michigan team that will be much improved.
If Weis survives the entire season, it will give him a 7-5 record. That record won’t be enough to keep the sweatpants in the press box, and Notre Dame will fire Charlie Weis. (After Notre Dame loses its third game of the season, Weis, who has said he will coach from the sideline, will return to the press box where he coached the Hawaii game last season, but it won’t make a difference.)
Now that Weis is out of the way, we need to break down why Fulmer is a good fit for Notre Dame, and vice versa.
The first thing you should understand is that as Notre Dame undertakes their fifth coaching search since Lou Holtz left in 1996, their administration has to look at the mistakes of the past and avoid making them again.
Notre Dame can’t afford to hire another coach that can’t win more than 59 percent of their games. (Weis’s 7-5 record would give him a .581 winning percentage. Both Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham held winning percentages of .583.)
Phillip Fulmer holds a career winning percentage of .745 while coaching in one of the toughest conferences in college football his entire career. While his success declined over the last five years, this is also the time that the SEC East became the toughest division in college football. This is reason number one that Notre Dame needs Phillip Fulmer. Fulmer gives Notre Dame the quickest and best chance to win of any coach they could hire.
Expanding a bit on Notre Dame’s failures in hiring coaches, look at the directions they have taken since Holtz.
1) Bob Davie—He was on staff at the time of his hiring. This was a promotion from within the current program that failed.
2) Tyrone Willingham—Having failed by staying “in house,” Notre Dame now went out and got the “hot commodity.” Willingham had been having success at perennial doormat Stanford and was the “big splash” of his time when Notre Dame hired him.
3) Charlie Weis—After those failures, the administration looked to the NFL to bring in a proven professional. This mistake was twofold. Not only was Weis a failure coming from the pro game, but he was thought to be a successful alumnus, returning home, having graduated from Notre Dame in 1978.
Note Dame’s administration failed when they promoted from within, they failed when they hired the next “up and comer,” and they failed when they brought the pro guy in that was also an alumnus. (This doesn’t even mention the George O’Leary debacle.)
Where does that leave Notre Dame’s Administration now?
It leaves Notre Dame looking for a PROVEN coach who has won on a national stage. It leaves Notre Dame looking for someone who has played well against tough competition, learned from a lifetime of occasional mistakes, can recruit with any other coach in the country, has the name recognition and contacts to assemble a top notch staff (see Rodney Garner as OC and Recruiting Coordinator perhaps), and someone that knows how to coach, and what to expect at a tradition-rich university. Notre Dame’s decline has even been tied to awful offensive line play. Guess which position is Fulmer’s specialty.
Phillip Fulmer turns just 59-years-old on Sept. 1. Fulmer has as much as 10 years left in him at a school that is dedicated to winning and willing to work toward championships. He told the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Tony Barnhart as much this past week.
“I absolutely want to coach again. I’m young, and I feel young,” Fulmer said. “Given what we accomplished at Tennessee, I still think we have something to contribute. I think the commitment comes from the administration in terms of facilities, hiring the best possible staff and giving them the tools to succeed,” Fulmer said.
Did you say tools? Notre Dame has a new athletics complex affectionately named “The Gug” by students and athletes. The Guglielmino Athletics Complex is a 96,000-square foot complex that houses the 25,000-square foot Haggar Fitness Center, the 8,300-square foot Loftus Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center, and the Allen Equipment Room, which houses the football equipment staff and storage facility used for both practices and competition. All of that is just on the first floor!
Notre Dame doesn’t have yearly conference opponents, but they do have opponents they play every season. Most of those are opponents that an established coaching staff with highly recruited athletes should be able to defeat year in and year out.
Those teams on Notre Dame’s schedule every season can be compared to SEC schools that Fulmer played every season while at Tennessee.
1) USC is equal to Florida
2) Michigan is equal to Alabama
3) Michigan St. is equal to Georgia
4) Purdue is equal to South Carolina
5) Navy is equal to Kentucky
Currently, the Fighting Irish are playing three other teams yearly. Here they are, with the SEC program they are closely related to.
1) Boston College is equal to Arkansas
2) Pittsburgh is equal to Auburn
3) Stanford is equal to Mississippi
Fulmer’s combined record against those SEC teams listed above is an impressive 74-31, .705.
Notre Dame also schedules opponents they don’t usually play. Those could be compared to “non-conference” opponents for a coach from a BCS conference. Fulmer’s numbers do not fail to impress in that category either. (54-15, .783)
Keep in mind that Tennessee is the last of the SEC teams to not schedule former Div 1-AA opponents, and while at Tennessee Fulmer faced non-conference opponents such as California, Miami, Nebraska, UCLA, and Notre Dame.
Fulmer obviously wants to compete for and win championships. Doing that at Notre Dame should be easier than any other place in the country. Not only does a coach in South Bend not need to win a conference championship game, but they don’t even have to coach in a conference.
Notre Dame has its own set of BCS rules. It is easier for the Fighting Irish to play in one of the BCS bowls than any team in the country. (They receive an automatic bid if they are in the top eight of the BCS at the time of the bowl selections.)
Some detractors will point to Fulmer not being a Catholic as a reason that his employment at Notre Dame would not be possible. Those detractors would be wrong. One of the most successful coaches in Notre Dame’s history, Ara Parseghian, who amassed a 95-17-4 record, three major bowl wins, and two National Championships, was not Catholic.
On the field, Fulmer has run a clean program. Over the last 10 seasons, arrests and suspensions of players have happened in Knoxville, just like they have happened in Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, Columbus, Ann Arbor, and even South Bend. Fulmer has never had a team on NCAA probation.
Off the field, Fulmer epitomizes the core values and Christian principles that administrators at Notre Dame should be looking for. He has dedicated his private life to the Boys and Girls Club and is the National spokesperson for the Jason Foundation that prevents teen suicide.
While some reporters and fans believe that Fulmer won’t ever coach again, others think that a place like Clemson, Boston College, or Louisville would be a good fit for him. Programs such as those just don’t offer the “wow” factor that is usually associated with a National Championship coach returning to the coaching ranks.
Phillip Fulmer has watched good friend Steve Spurrier return to college coaching at a program that sits on that middle tier, and Fulmer doesn’t want to suffer the same fate (Spurrier is 28-22 at South Carolina since returning to the college game).
“People who know me, know that I’m not afraid of change and to learn new things,” said Fulmer. “I’m not afraid to take a chance.”
Moving from the banks of the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Tennessee to the banks of the St. Joseph River in South Bend, Indiana at his age is certainly a change, but it may be one that Phillip Fulmer will make, and it may be a chance worth taking, for both himself and for Notre Dame University.