Phil Fulmer's new contract with the University of Tennessee is a lot of things, and most of them are bad.
Some of the most vocal criticisms have come from the class-envy and Utopian crowds that are screaming that he's getting a raise while academic programs are being cut. This is typical of these groups, just as it is typical that they usually don't know what they're talking about. Athletics is a separate budget paid by completely unrelated financial entities.
But what is just now starting to come out is just how bad this contract really is for Tennessee football. I'm specifically speaking about the "coach for life" clause that has Fulmer getting an extra year every time Tennessee wins eight games per season.
The rationale behind this number was obtained by looking at Tennessee's overall winning record (around 66 percent) and applying it to a 12-game schedule. However, as a fan of another SEC school, most of the other SEC schools fan bases hope Fulmer stays around forever. It's not so much about what the other schools have been able to do against Tennessee so far as much as it is what will become if the slide is allowed to continue (which it seems like it is).
Florida and Georgia sure hope he stays. Steve Spurrier is 1-2 versus Fulmer since joining the South Carolina program, but it may not be long before he's winning regularly too.
So what's the problem with this contract, and why is it so bad for Tennessee fans? Well, for starters it screams mediocrity.
I know some will define mediocrity as going 6-6. However, there is a pecking order in the SEC, and although Tennessee is not in the top, they are in the upper end of the middle. As such, they should be able to go 4-4 in conference most years without much sweat.
Given that scheduling Cal and UCLA has been a more recent thing, and that the previous toughest non-conference opponents were teams like Wyoming, it's fairly believable that Tennessee can go 4-0 in non-conference play.
So, with this contract, Tennessee is basically telling Phil Fulmer that he never needs to worry about his job so long as he goes undefeated against non-conference cupcakes and splits in conference.
In other words, don't worry about the fact that Florida owns Tennessee and the trend that Georgia is headed that way too. Don't worry about the fact that Nick Saban will soon have Alabama producing annual results against UT that look like last year.
In fact, even if Spurrier catches fire at South Carolina and goes on a hot streak against UT, we won't worry about that either. This is because Fulmer gets four guaranteed mulligans. As long as he beats the Vandys, Kentuckys, Miss. States, etc., he's safe.
Another sticky situation in this scenario is that, unlike in seasons past (when there were only 11 regular season games), Tennessee now has up to 14 games in which to make this happen. While the SEC championship game is unlikely most years (UT has been to five of the 16), there is usually going to be a bowl game, and that just makes matters easier for Fulmer.
If Tennessee goes to a good bowl where they play a strong opponent, then it won't matter if they lose, because if they get to a good bowl, chances are good that Fulmer's already got eight wins for the year.
If Tennessee goes to a lower bowl game after having a mediocre to average year, then they get a bowl patsy, because half of all college football teams go to bowls since there are so many nowadays. This gives Phil one more easy chance to get that eighth win.
And if Fulmer doesn't win eight games one year, then UT can always use some sort of "average" again where even though he only won seven one year, he won nine another year, so he's averaging eight.
The bottom line should be obvious for all to see. The AD does not want Phil to go—and instead of searching for excellence in his coaching candidate, he is instead searching for ways to excuse more and more.
They must be fishing, poker, or drinking buddies, because there are all kinds of protections built into this for Fulmer. The AD is also still protected by being able to say that Phil is living up to the winning percentages put forth by Phil's predecessors (which includes General Robert Neyland). How convenient for Phil and the AD—how terrible for the Tennessee fan.
Why is it terrible for the Tennessee fan? Well, for starters, Fulmer has had very few excellent seasons when David Cutcliffe wasn't involved. Now "Cut" is gone again.
Recruiting is also on the downhill slide. Recruiting has significantly dried up in border states where Alabama (and Auburn), Georgia, South Carolina, and even Kentucky are managing to keep more of their good in-state talent at home. Furthermore, these schools, especially Alabama and Georgia, have started pulling more out of Tennessee than they used to, which furthers the problem.
Tennessee has no "buzz," and it's hard for Fulmer to compare to Urban Meyer or Mark Richt or Nick Saban on the "cool" or "it" scale when out recruiting these kids, who see old, overweight guys who've been around a long time (guys like Phil)l as yesterday's news and completely out of touch with their generation.
No coach should ever feel safe. I think Paterno and Bowden have been "babied" by Penn State and Florida State respectively, and that they should be held to the same standard to which those schools would hold other coaches with different names.
When teams weren't paying this kind of insane money, coaches were rightfully allowed more slack. However, when you, as a coach, have your agents negotiate contracts in multiple millions of dollars, you have given up any right, in my opinion, to live on yesterday's results or mediocre "just beat the teams with losing records" results.
Somehow, I believe that the good people of Tennessee would like to see their team expected to occasionally beat the teams on their schedule that have a winning record.
Tennessee is going to slip right along with their administration's standards and expectations—and the rest of the SEC is going to be loving it.
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