Fulmer, Mallett And The Decision That Doomed Tennessee Vols Football
If we all had the ability to look into the future to see the consequences of our actions, or non-actions, the world would lose all sense of surprise and life would be a boring sequence of mundane moments and mindless forethought.
I have a feeling that, if given the chance to possess such power for just one day, (and obviously, the ability to back in time) Phillip Fulmer would call for a do-over on perhaps the most important decisions of his football lifetime.
After offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe left Knoxville, again, at the end of the '07 season to coach at Duke, then Tennessee head coach, Phillip Fulmer, faced a very important decision.
For years, many of the Vols-faithful thought of Cutcliffe as the "man behind the curtain" of Fulmer's enormous success as Tennessee head coach.
After all, when Fulmer experienced his worst season in Knoxville, 5-6 in '05, he called his old buddy to replace the fired Randy Sanders who took over for Cutcliffe just six year prior.
When Cutcliffe came back, the Vols promptly played much better, winning nine games in '06 and winning the SEC East in '07.
However, it was time for Cutcliffe to leave yet again.
The first time the crafty offensive genius left was immediately before the Vols were to face Florida State in the inaugural BCS Championship Game in 1998.
This time was different, though.
Cutcliffe was not leaving a team getting ready to play for a national title. He wasn't leaving a Tennessee program that was stacked three-deep with talent from all over the United States. He wasn't saying goodbye to a program in the prime of its dynastic decade of the 90's.
Cutcliffe was leaving a program that he saved from the brink of irrelevancy.
In the six seasons since his first departure, Fulmer's teams had grown mediocre for the most part. There was the SEC East title run in '01, when the Vols should have defeated LSU for the SEC title and went on to play Miami for the National Title, but that was as close as the Vols had come to anything resembling the glory years of the 90's.
The '04 team was pretty special as well, but it was immediately followed by the disaster of '05 when the team was a preseason No. 2 and finished below .500 for the first time in 17 years.
Now, Phillip Fulmer was about to make the most important decision of his career. Who would the dean of SEC coaches choose to replace his most successful right hand man?
He had plenty of choices.
In a bit of foreshadowing, longtime Michigan head coach, Lloyd Carr, had just been relieved of his duties in Ann Arbor. As a result, some of Carr's assistants were available for the taking.
Most notably, former Michigan offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and QB coach Scott Loeffler were available. Some reports suggest that Fulmer interviewed them both.
As a sweetener to the pot, departed Michigan quarterback, Ryan Mallett, was apparently linked to the destination of either of those coaches. Of course, no one can be certain that Mallett would have followed them, but there's certainly reason to believe that would have probably been the case.
Instead, Fulmer hired Dave Clawson, head coach of the Richmond Spiders from the FCS.
DeBord went to the NFL to coach with the Seahawks and Loeffler would spend a season in the NFL with the Lions before becoming Tim Tebow's quarterbacks coach at Florida in '09.
Under the confusing Clawfense, Tennessee struggled mightily in '08, and well, you know the rest.
Mallett went on to Arkansas, where he sat out one season before becoming one of the most prolific passers in the SEC in '09.
What happens to that '08 team with DeBord and Loeffler instead of Clawson? Does DeBord, who was offensive coordinator for Brian Griese and Tom Brady from '97-'99 and Chad Henne from '04-'07, develop Jonathan Crompton into something resembling a quarterback for the '08 season?
Most importantly does it keep the Vols from going 5-7 and firing the only coach that many young Vols fans ever knew?
Does the Michigan coaching duo give the Vols ready-made QB depth for an '09 season that could have featured Ryan Mallett under center?
Did that singular decision of a relatively unknown FCS coach, Clawson, with nowhere near the credentials of DeBord, cause this roller coaster to take unsuspecting Tennessee fans for the worst ride of their life?
I can't help but think that it did.
With DeBord, Loeffler, and Mallett we would have never known about Lane Kiffin. The disgraced, fired Raiders coach would have most likely caught on at WAC or MWC school instead of tarnishing Tennessee's once proud tradition.
The Vols would be heading into the 2010 season looking to extend their once-every-three-year-SEC-East-Title run that began in 1998 (The Vols have been to the SEC Championship once every three seasons since going back to back in '97-'98, '01, '04, '07).
Not only that, but the Vols would likely have the SEC's top quarterback, Ryan Mallett, on this team. Since Mallett's only a junior in 2010, Tennessee would have had the SEC's top quarterback for at least two seasons, and three providing he would have beaten Jonathan Crompton for the starting nod in '09.
Phillip Fulmer would be experiencing his much-needed second wind as Tennessee head coach, and would quite possibly be getting ready to embark upon another stretch of dominant UT football.
Maybe you think this is a stretch. Maybe it is.
Fulmer had grown complacent. The program was stagnant. It needed new blood.
Who's to say that a former Brian Griese/Tom Brady/Chad Henne tutor wouldn't have been that shot in the arm? Prior to that '08 season, the Vols were coming off a SEC title game appearance. How can you say with certainty that DeBord/Loeffler/Mallett wouldn't have been exactly what the doctor ordered?
I know hindsight is 20/20, but if I had my druthers, Dave Clawson would have never been hired, and Phillip Fulmer would have never been fired.
I was a harsh proponent of his firing back then. I railed against the man for the entire '08 season, and for parts of the '07 SEC East championship season.
As I watched that final press conference with the Vols most successful coach since General Neyland, holding back tears and masking his anger, I literally said out loud, "What have they just done to Tennessee Football?"
Two coaches later, the picture is clearer and more painful than Tennessee fans could have imagined.
Vols fans will press on with Derek Dooley. Eventually the ship will straighten and Tennessee will be Tennessee again.
Tennessee could have been Tennessee again a lot sooner, if not for that one decision.
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