The enemy of any football season is apathy, and the danger with the Tennessee program is that one season's misfortune (or several seasons', to hear some of the Fulmer haters tell it) could bleed into the entire program.
If some Vol fans have already given up on this season and this coach, what guarantees their same passionate return (and their same passionate dollars) for the next season, no matter who the coach is?
This thought process reveals itself in a common thread that's emerged in the words of AD Mike Hamilton between Fulmer's current situation and the downfall of Buzz Peterson as men's basketball coach in 2004: concession sales.
Though Roy Williams joked that Peterson was fired because we weren't selling enough popcorn, apparently it's a real enough concern in the minds of those who matter, because it's popped up in the last two articles I've read in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that have contained quotes from Hamilton.
But beyond bottled water, stadium dogs, and dwindling attendance...the overall outlook on Fulmer and the Vols right now is ugly no matter how you slice it.
Fulmer probably saved his job last year in dramatic fashion a number of times, as the only thing that made up for losing at Cal and losing to your two biggest rivals 59-20 and 41-17 was winning the SEC East.
It would've been a lot more interesting had Arian Foster's final drive fumble against South Carolina not been recovered by the Vols, or if Vanderbilt's final field goal hadn't bounced off the upright, or if Kentucky had found a way in any of those four overtimes to put the Vols away.
But Tennessee won each of those games, won the division, and Fulmer was rewarded with a contract extension and a fancy new guarantee that we all took passing note of over the summer, but that now has become incredibly relevant:
Eight wins in the regular season guarantees a new extension.
For this reason, first and foremost, perhaps we should pump the brakes on the fan-driven search for a new head coach.
Not because the voices of the masses that scream for a new leader are necessarily all wrong—but because that's what the contract says.
Eight wins = another year.
The Vols are currently 2-3. The remaining schedule includes Saturday's test at No. 10 Georgia, followed by home dates with Mississippi State and No. 2 Alabama, a trip to South Carolina, a homecoming affair with Wyoming, a suddenly interesting trip to Nashville to play Vanderbilt, and the season finale in Knoxville against Kentucky.
If Tennessee navigates those seven games with only one loss, the Vols will be 8-4. And Fulmer's contract will call for an extension. Those are the facts.
When Mike Hamilton and Phil Fulmer sat down to work on that contract, I think the assumption we all shared was that Hamilton wanted to send the message that Fulmer would be the man until he retired, and Fulmer in turn gave Hamilton some sort of timetable on how long that would be.
They cited recruiting as a key incentive so kids would know that Fulmer would be the man in Knoxville and could quiet the voices of other coaching staffs in the SEC that were telling the same kids otherwise.
Today, those voices have never been louder, and they're coming from almost every corner.
But the language of the contract remains: Eight wins in the regular season guarantees an extension.
Let's say Tennessee does finish 8-4, losing either this Saturday at Georgia or later this month against Alabama, the two most likely culprits. Fulmer's contract would call for an extension.
Then let's say Tennessee plays in the Music City Bowl and loses to a mid-level ACC opponent to finish 8-5. Fulmer's contract would still call for an extension...but with that outcome, fan frustration would have spilled over for many into fan apathy.
You simply cannot stay this frustrated for that long. People will just give up on the team instead.
And when they do, they'll stop buying popcorn.
Under that scenario, the worst possible for Fulmer to still earn his extension...could Mike Hamilton go back on his word and the terms of the contract?
The buyout information we know: six million dollars. But beyond that, would Hamilton pull a 180 less than a year after laying out that contract and go back on the terms he agreed to?
If that scenario plays out and the Vols finish 8-4 with a loss in the bowl game, it's going to be an even uglier scene in Knoxville than what it is now. Because for so many fans (and probably some of the high dollar donors who keep the wheels turning) Fulmer is beyond saving.
8-4 shouldn't save him, and neither should 9-3 in their minds. They've crossed the line.
It was easy to put a positive spin on last season's 10-4 finish because the Vols won the SEC East and won their bowl game. If those unlikely circumstances don't break the Vols' way again this season, there won't be anything left to spin.
The naysayers will continue to cry out with plenty of evidence, and even those who want to support Fulmer wouldn't have much to stand on with an 8-5 finish...except that eight wins is good enough for a contract extension.
That scenario would create even more division with less positive in the conversation than ever before. Mike Hamilton would be put in an awkward and difficult place—and Phillip Fulmer would be caught in the crossfire, much like his predecessor Johnny Majors.
Both men did tremendous things for the University of Tennessee, but both men may end up going out the hard way under the manipulation of the athletic director (and say what you want, but if Fulmer wins eight games and Hamilton decides to go in another direction, contract manipulation is exactly what it will be).
The projected outcomes don't look good—and we're already plenty frustrated.
Of course, Fulmer could put an end to all this.
I retain the position that the best possible scenario for all involved would be for Fulmer to announce that 2009 will be his final season as head coach, which would put something definitive on the table and usher in a new head coach while still allowing the current one to go out on the terms and in the way he deserves.
But since I don't see that happening, it brings us back to the present moment of frustration with a potentially darker future ahead.
It brings us this week to Athens, which might be the final game of significance for the Vols this season.
Consider this: Knowing the language of the contract, if the Vols lose at Georgia, where they're 13-point underdogs, Tennessee will be 2-4.
That means one more loss would free Hamilton from the language of the contract.
It wouldn't free him from the six million dollar buyout. But it also wouldn't put him in a potentially unethical situation—it would free him with a clear mind and conscience to pull the trigger on a move if that's what he deemed best for the program.
What it would also do is create a perverse second half of the season.
Ever seen those movies where the troubled head coach is told he has to win every game or he'll be fired?
Truth can be stranger than fiction.
The least of us who are already cheering for Tennessee to lose so we can get a new head coach might have a more tangible reason to do so after Saturday. If the Vols lose to Georgia, Fulmer would have to finish 6-0 to get that guaranteed extension.
Look, we don't know if Tennessee is good enough to score enough points to beat Georgia. Or Alabama. Or Vanderbilt. Or anyone else on the schedule that's left. And we won't until we see it play out.
Tennessee will be the underdog at least twice more, and probably rightfully so, but you just don't know until you see it. It's pointless to discuss Tennessee's odds of beating Alabama right now. All they can do is play Georgia.
So finally...having said all the negative...it remains true that if the Vols somehow find a way to beat Georgia, they remain relevant for another week.
Not waiting for next year or the next head coach, but still relevant in 2008—and relevance is the best cure for apathy.
If the SEC football gods are even kinder and LSU beats Florida on Saturday night, the Vols will be just one more Florida slip-up (and an assumed Vanderbilt collapse) from being back in the driver's seat in the SEC East. Stranger than fiction indeed.
Beating Georgia won't save Fulmer's job. But it can keep it alive for another week.
Whether it builds towards eight wins and a contract extension, or the potential to be a player in the SEC East race...all that will have to work itself out each and every week. But Fulmer, and the Vols, would still be alive in the present moment for 2008.
A schedule that should bring an Alabama team ranked no lower than No. 2 to Knoxville on Oct. 25 will offer an additional opportunity to make some noise in 2008.
Every season tells a story, and while this one has been a nightmare for the Vols thus far, it's going to be interesting to the finish either way.
Will Fulmer get to eight wins, and if he does, what will Hamilton do with the state of the program as it currently is?
If he doesn't, then is that it? And if so, who's next in Knoxville?
Or can Tennessee pick up an upset in there somewhere to stay relevant in the SEC East race?
Can we still somehow play for a championship this season while we're playing for Fulmer's future?
All the tension, emotion, and both the present and future direction of the Tennessee program come together in Athens on Saturday.
Lose, and the apathy grows and you're one more loss away from your guaranteed extension.
Lose, and more fans cross the point of no return, which sooner or later Hamilton is going to cross if the losses keep piling up.
Lose, and the opportunity to leave the university you've done so much for on your own terms slips further and further out of your own hands.
Win, and we live to play this game all over again next week.
But at least we'll have something to play for.
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