Of all the posts I have ever written as a blogger, all the comments I have ever posted on message boards and other blogs, all the public professions I have ever made regarding the Tennessee Volunteers, this one is by far the most difficult one for me. I’d really rather not be in the position of feeling it necessary to write this. To fail to address the issue, however, would be to ignore the giant looming cloud over the heads of all of the Vol-faithful, regardless of their thoughts or position.
For the record, I am a Phillip Fulmer fan. I believe that he has done more for the Tennessee program than anyone else over the last fifteen years. I credit him with taking Tennessee from the mish-mash of the middle tier of college football and propelling the Vols to the very pinnacle of success. I credit him with bringing the program into the modern era. I credit him with making many of the things to which we as Tennessee fans have become accustomed possible. I like Coach Fulmer, or the “Great Punkin” as I routinely refer to him (with no slight or insult intended).
I guess that makes me a homer…
To the best of my recollection, the only time I have ever openly criticized the Tennessee coaching staff was during the past off-season when off-field incidents involving Vol footballers were escalating alarmingly, by my mind calling into question the integrity of the program and the University of Tennessee itself. Aside from that, I have always refrained from going after the coaches like so many seem to want to do. I wrote a little about this after the UCLA game, stating:
… I would say that I am more appropriately a Homer for all coaches across the landscape of college football who are constantly questioned, rebuked, and derided by tens of thousands of come-lately armchair geniuses.
It is a peculiar characteristic of so many fans that they believe that simply being a follower of a team for a given length of time makes them an expert on how things should be done. Make no mistake, as a sports blogger, I am as guilty of this offense as anyone—at least to some extent. There are things that anyone with a brain can assess and analyze based purely upon common sense, life experience, and the fluff that resides between our ears.
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These sorts of basic truths are fairly and frankly within the grasp of us all, and thus the rightful ability to comment on such profundities resides with each and every person who follows college football. In much the same vein, I think it is reasonable for many (note, I did not say “all”) long-term fans of the sport to comment on what a given team does, or in most cases, did.
Beyond that, however, it seems to me that trying to profess what the best way to coach a football team—a team to which most have no access except through their televisions—is an endeavor which necessarily makes the speaker feel smart and important, while simultaneously making them look foolish and arrogant.
I have absolutely no idea about what it takes to coach a major college football team. I’m completely clueless. Furthermore, I have no idea what it is like to play on such a team. Again, clueless. I am also willing to bet that most who are attacking Phil Fulmer and the Tennessee coaching staff at present share my level of experience and insight. So, at a minimum, I guess I am among equally-ignorant equals when it comes to assessing the coaches.
Unlike many others, however, I am not going to attack the Great Punkin, Dave Clawson, John Chavis, or any of the other coaches. I am simply going to speak about what I do know and speak from the heart:
Though I first watched Tennessee under Coach Majors, most of my life as a Tennessee fan, student, and alum has been during the tenure of Coach Fulmer. I think he is a man of integrity, a man of honor, a skilled and adept football coach, and a great leader and teacher for the young men he coaches. I have such deep respect for what he has done. In his 17-year career as Tennessee’s head coach, Fulmer is 148-47-1 (.759), he has won 10 or more games in a season nine times, he has won or tied for the SEC East title seven times, he has won 2 SEC Championships, and the 1998 National Championship. I remember all of these “good old days” like they were yesterday.
Coach Fulmer has done a lot, a whole lot…
By the same token, things simply have not been good for the Vols for some time now. Here are a few statistics:
Over the last decade (since 1998) the Tennessee Volunteers under Fulmer are:
These numbers speak volumes…
Of course, I am enough of a realist to understand that no team—whether Tennessee, Southern Cal, or the Green Bay Packers—can have a championship year every year. Every great team has bad years. It just seems that it has been a long time since Tennessee has had a truly good year. I freely acknowledge that in 2007 Tennessee had what, on paper, looks like a good year. In 2007, the Vols went 10-4 and won the SEC East. That said, even the most stalwart Vol fan would have to admit that Tennessee won the SEC East in a highly unorthodox manner. Tennessee was beaten in the 2007 season opener versus California 45-31. Two weeks later the Vols were annihilated by the Florida Gators 59-20 and were subsequently thumped by the Alabama Crimson Tide 41-17. The only reason that the Vols made the trip to the SEC Championship Game was that—under league rules—the tie went to Tennessee since the Vols defeated the Georgia Bulldogs in head-to-head competition. In other words, the Orange and White backed into the Eastern Division title.
Prior to that, really since the 2001 season, the Vols have underperformed versus SEC and national rivals, and have—at best—been a mediocre team from a statistical perspective. During that time, I cannot recount the number of times that the Vols have barely beaten teams that were wholly inferior in terms of talent. What’s more, the Volunteers have regularly failed to meet the expectations of fans and analysts when considered against teams with similar recruiting classes and resources. Then of course there was the 2005 season, or—as Joel at RTT describes it—“The Season of Which We do not Speak” in which Tennessee recorded a 5-6 record.
It seems that Tennessee has struggled at every turn since winning the 1998 Championship…
Jump forward to this year and the UCLA game, in which Tennessee loses to a UCLA team which the Vols were projected to beat handily. As I and others have said, there is absolutely no reason that the Vols should have lost that game. To make bad matters worse, since defeating the Vols, the Bruins have gone on to lose two more games in which they failed to score a single touchdown for the first time in 44 years. (HT Get the Picture) Tennessee then managed a lackluster win over a clearly out-matched UAB team before playing the Florida Gators. As I said in my “Marching Orders” piece earlier this week, that game was one of the poorest displays I’ve ever seen from a Vols squad.
Although I cannot really recall when it all started, the Tennessee fanbase began growing restless as early as 2002. Even then, there was a small but vocal minority of fans that felt it was time for Fulmer to go. Those voices of criticism were largely ignored by the masses until now. After the Florida defeat, those voices have swelled to the point that they can no longer be ignored. Just looking at the Vol-blogosphere, there are fewer and fewer that support Fulmer and even more voices criticizing than ever before—including 3SIB’s Ghost of Neyland, SouthEastern Sports Blog, YMSWWC, Curveballs for Jesus, Basilio, MoonDog, the absurd Coacho Ocho, and Gate 21’s own HSH.
So here I am…
I have thought long and hard about this, and as HSH here at the Gate and Joel at Rocky Top Talk would attest, I’ve struggled with this. In the end, I have reached a conclusion that is sad, but unavoidable:
Those were the words that longtime “Voice of the Vols” John Ward used to announce his retirement. Ward said that he’d rather leave years too early than stay one minute too late, thus he retired while still at the top of his game in 1998. Coach Fulmer is hardly at the top of his game lately, but he is also not out of the game. The reality is that the furor among the fans is tearing the Orange Nation apart as fans attack the coaches, the team, and anything else they can think of (including the concession vendors at Neyland Stadium). All of Big Orange Country is in an uproar. As a result, the only thing anyone seems to want to talk about is whether Phil Fulmer should be fired. It’s not about the game, whether the Vols can win this weekend, or the beautiful agony that is college football season. For this and a bevy of other reasons, I am increasingly beginning to believe that it is time for Coach Fulmer to seriously consider whether it is time to step aside. I hate the thought that someone who has done so much for Tennessee would be forced out, but until some sort of resolution comes, I wonder if the program can possibly move forward.
I have reached this conclusion not necessarily based upon my personal belief that Coach Fulmer cannot and would not turn this season and future seasons around. The sad conclusion I have reached is that—in the minds of many—it does not matter what he does going forward, their minds are made up and they want something new. I for one have not yet decided whether I think Coach Fulmer can turn things around, but that is really irrelevant. This is not about my complaints on his performance. It is about the constant turmoil that has subtly, and now openly, surrounded the program for some time now.
It’s just not fun anymore…
Until the current whirlwind settles, it’s not going to be fun any time soon. Rightly or wrongly, the fan base has lost faith and along with it hope that the Vols can get back on the right track both this year and for the future. Of course, don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that a man’s career should be decided by whether or not it’s “fun” for me to go to football games. The larger issue I am pointing to is the lack of direction and the complete feeding frenzy that is currently surrounding the Tennessee program. I’m not going to pass judgment on whether the fans should be blaming Coach Fulmer because I don’t have the experience or knowledge to decide whether he or others are to blame. All I know is that something must change.
I have followed Tennessee football since I was a kid. I have closely followed the Vols since the mid-1980s. I grew up watching Coach Majors lead the Vols. I still remember wanting his autograph back then. When he was ousted as head coach in 1992, all hell broke loose and a war of words began which—to some extent—still goes on today. There was such controversy over Coach Majors being fired and Coach Fulmer being tapped as the Vols new head coach, that both sides of the issue started digging-in and flinging allegations at one another.
For the record, I believe that at that the time naming Coach Fulmer as the new coach was the right thing to do (it was, and is, rare for me to agree with the Big Dickey, but he got that one right). While I do not want to re-open the arguments surrounding Coach Majors’ dismissal, I believed then and continue to believe now that it was time for Coach Majors to step aside, not because he had not been a great coach and representative for the university, but because it was simply time for a change. Majors, however, wanted to stay. Thus, when Coach Majors did finally leave, it was as a result of his being fired as opposed to him stepping down—and his departure occurred under a cloud of innuendo and harsh words. I still remember watching him loudly complain of having been “shanghaied” as he described his firing in an interview televised during the halftime of the 1993 Hall of Fame Bowl, which Phillip Fulmer was in the process of coaching.
As a result of this debacle, to this day, little has been done to honor Coach Majors’ legacy and his contributions to the University of Tennessee, its athletic programs, its alumni, and beyond. This is a man who compiled a record of 116-62-8 (.645) as head football coach, and to this day he is spoken of very … carefully … by the athletic department, alumni, and boosters. That is just plain wrong. You know what, I still want Johnny Majors’ autograph.
I do not want all of that to happen again, this time to Coach Fulmer and his legacy…
I personally believe that Coach Fulmer rightly deserves to be counted among the greats at Tennessee—along with General Neyland and Johnny Majors—and I hope that he always will be. What I fear more than anything is that the protracted dispute over Coach Fulmer remaining as head coach will lead to another round of what played out after Coach Majors left—especially if Fulmer is ultimately fired as opposed to simply resigning. Both of these men—who have given so much to the university—deserve more than that.
We as fans deserve more than that…
Do I hate the thought of Coach Fulmer being forced—either directly or indirectly—from the head coaching position? You’re damn right I do. I am a huge Fulmer fan, but I simply do not think that the program, the fan base, the University of Tennessee, and Coach Fulmer’s legacy can survive this continued civil war. Now some would say that I am essentially talking out of both sides of my face—engaging in an attack and hero-worship. This is not a wholly unfair criticism. Still, it is what I believe.
There are other things I believe as well…
What I am not going to do is become the attacker, and I am more than willing to assertively address the actions of many of the malcontents and ne’er-do-wells in the Vol Nation. If you believe that Coach Fulmer needs to move on, that’s fine. State your case, make your argument, express your opinion, and go from there. If you have a meaningful point to add to the conversation, please feel free to do so. If, however, all you are going to do is engage in unprovoked ad hominem attacks against Coach Fulmer, then just keep quiet. Have some class. This is especially true for the “faceless” names on message boards, blog comments, and call-in shows. who are quick to pile on harsh criticism behind the shield of “user name” anonymity. It is for that very reason that, for this post, I am lifting the veil surrounding my online persona as “lawvol,” and signing this post as a “real” person—with my real name.
Regardless of what those of you so loudly attacking Coach Fulmer may think of his abilities, he is a person—not simply an item that UT has bought and paid for—and a man who has tirelessly represented the University of Tennessee for most of his adult life. He has earned the right to be treated with some semblance of respect and decency. If a Florida fan were saying some of the things that Vol boosters are currently saying, people would be clamoring for vengeance. Some apparently feel that now—with blood in the water—they can say whatever they please as they personally attack Fulmer, his staff, and the current Vol players. That is juvenile and classless.
Don’t get me wrong, I am more than willing to poke fun at sports figures here at the Gate—the Tennessee Home for the Visually Offensive is a temple to that sort of behavior. What I do not do—at least never intentionally—is vindictively attack another person simply because I can. The coaches and players are human beings—who work very hard at what they do—and though I realize having thick skin comes with the territory, putting up with asinine attacks should not have to be part of the deal. That sort of behavior by fans does nothing to help mend or meaningfully address the situation at hand.
Furthermore, there are those that are openly jubilant that the Vols have found the going so rough this year—those who have been dying to let loose on the coaches for years. To those of you who fall into that category, I simply say this: you are no true fan of anything but your own ego. No one who is truly a fan and supporter of the University of Tennessee athletics program should wish for this. No one should ever wish misfortune on an institution they profess to support regardless of the reason. Wanting change is one thing—wanting conflict, an entirely different one.
I just feel sorry for the coaches having to try to coach a team—working to find a way to get things going in the right direction—while everyone on the outside is screaming for blood. This is especially true for some of the assistant coaches who have now gotten caught up in this battle through no real fault of their own. I feel terribly sorry for them since they have gotten caught up in this by simply being here at Tennessee. In particular, I feel dreadful for Dave Clawson, Stan Drayton, and Latrell Scott—they came here this season with high hopes, wanting to help build a new future. They uprooted their families and their lives to make a commitment to Tennessee, and now they are in a firestorm. That is really unfortunate.
The same is true for the players, who give their all to make Tennessee shine. They try their hardest. Even when that is not enough, they still try. Seeing Vol fans attack them and boo them is something I never thought I would see.
To all Vol fans, speak your mind, speak your heart, speak loudly, but think before you speak…
I may end up regretting this post for many years to come. To those on the coaching staff—especially Coach Fulmer—please do not take this to be yet another fair-weather fan turning on the program when the going gets tough. I am not saying this because I hope that the current coaching staff is either fired or resigns. I am simply saying this because I care enough about the Tennessee Volunteers to speak out.
In all honesty, I hope that I am dead wrong. I hope with all that I am that the Great Punkin can work his magic, turn the season around, and go on to win a championship next year. I would never be happier to admit I am wrong—trust me, I want to be wrong. The fact of the matter is, however, based upon the experience of the last decade, I no longer think that I am wrong. I still remain hopeful that I am.
Either way, I will support Coach Fulmer and the rest of the coaching staff from here into the future. I will support this team, and all of its players regardless of what happens this season, or next, or the season after that. As far as I am concerned, it’s not a question of whether Phillip Fulmer is my coach, whether Jonathan Crompton is my quarterback, or Dave Clawson is my offensive coordinator—though the answer to each of those questions is “yes.” The only question that really matters to me is “What are your colors?”
Orange and White!
I am going to support this team and this staff no matter what. I am hopeful—as I always am. Who knows what the future holds?
In the meantime, I’ll keep pulling for the Big Orange and looking forward to the day when Tennessee is once again at the top of the heap.
For when that day comes—and it will—I can say that I was there all along…
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