Phillip Fulmer wore Tennessee orange for more than 30 years of his life as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Monday night he officially shelves his wardrobe as news arrived from Knoxville that Fulmer will step down at season’s end as head coach of the Tennessee Vols.
As head coach of the Vols, Fulmer notched an impressive 150-51 record, the third best among active coaches. However, it was not enough to hold onto the position he started 16 years ago, the longest tenure in the SEC.
Effective at the end of this season, Fulmer, who began his career as a player in 1969, will resign as head coach of the team which is currently in the midst of having their worst season in school history.
The Vols (3-6, 1-5 SEC) have sunk so far that their offense is ranked 114 our of 119 teams.
In a reported meeting with Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, Fulmer agreed to step aside at the end of the year and go home with a buyout of his contract estimated at around $6 million.
Fulmer was well liked by his players and staff, but a serious decline over the last 7 years helped end his stay. Two SEC Championships and a National Championship mixed with a 45-5 record from 1995 to ‘98 brought Tennessee to a new level of prominence in the NCAA.
Fulmer then saw his pristine program drop to mortal levels after establishing themselves as the team to beat in the '90s.
The Vols never won the SEC after that ‘98 Championship year and began an inconsistent run that mixed 10-3 seasons with 5-6 clunkers. After coordinator David Cutcliffe left the team in ‘98, the team never seemed to have that punch on offense.
Outsiders look at Fulmer’s overall record of 150-51 and wonder why this current losing season has fans in such a frenzy. Simply that Tennessee cannot beat quality teams anymore.
The big rivals, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, are at the peak of their programs while the Vols have gradually worsened. From 2000 to ‘08, Fulmer has a combined 11-16 record against those rival teams and an embarrassing 17-26 record against all nationally ranked teams.
Football in the SEC is getting bigger as the conference gains acceptance as one of the best in the NCAA. Four teams in the SEC are ranked in the Top 15 and only Tennessee has an overall losing record in the SEC East.
The game which Fulmer used to dominate in the '90s with fast defenses and a pounding run game complimented with speedy receivers has finally caught up with him.
The offense is so poor that Georgia players, after their 26-14 win over the Vols, were rumored to have said they could predict where the running backs would go 80% of the time.
The Glory of Rocky Top is not what is used to be.
With the retirement of Phillip Fulmer the most popular question in Knoxville is who will replace him. Fulmer kept a clean program that gained him tremendous respect from players and coaches (outside of Alabama) which will be hard to match.
UT’s last coaching change was when Fulmer stepped into the role after a controversial decision to part ways with Johnny Majors. That season for Majors ended, like Fulmer’s, with a loss at rival South Carolina.
Since opening the season with a 27-24 overtime loss to UCLA on national television, criticism and pressure continued to mount on UT’s coaching staff. Losses to SEC rivals Florida, Georgia and Alabama by a combined margin of 85-29 only caused it to grow.
And as happened to his predecessor, Johnny Majors, a 27-6 loss to South Carolina on the road perhaps proved the final straw.
The Vols vacancy is a crown jewel in today’s market. The SEC just signed a lucrative deal with CBS for broadcasting rights and teams such as Florida, Alabma, LSU, and Georgia all are in contention for BCS bowl bids.
There is the huge recruiting power of the Vols and a deeply fanatical fan base of Volunteers which propel the coaching position higher than any available at the moment. And of course, every Vols fan has their opinion on who it should be.
The best guess for Tennessee is to look outside of the Volunteer family and bring in a younger coach and staff with a highly stylize play. The Vols have a lot of catch-up to do to get back in the chase with Florida and Georgia and will need an offensive mind to help them.
Coaches with past Tennessee ties like Trooper Taylor and Jon Gruden have been mentioned as possible replacements. The Vols will need to start recruiting right away and with a tremendous lack in talent at QB and WR. The coach that gets the job might just win it if he can out recruit Nick Saban or Urban Meyer.
Athletic Director Mike Hamilton took a chance on hiring in this manner with basketball coach Bruce Pearl and it worked wonders for the program and school. Tennessee’s basketball program has turned into a Top-20 team in just 3 years.
With a lot of coaches looking for new homes like University of Washington’s Tyrone Willingham, I bet that Hamilton looks to some younger hot shots.
Texas defensive coordinator Will Mushcamp, Boise State head coach Chris Peterson, or Kyle Whittingham from Utah are good people to bring to an SEC program. Minnesota’s Tim Brewster is a potential candidate, as well, but it will be extremely hard to get him out of the Gophers program.
Two names that will be worth keeping in mind are East Carolina’s Skip Holtz, and ex-NFL Raiders coach Lane Kiffin. Both are ripe to move up and prove themselves among their peers. Holtz has the skills to help take over the Vols program and Kiffin was a power at USC taking over for Norm Chow.
It’s been a wild day in Knoxville as opinions and emotions run free. Phillip Fulmer was a great coach for UT. He brought about a sense of respectability and was a class act. We know Fulmer is proud of his tenure as well he should be.
Sadly, there comes a time to bow out and hand over the reigns to someone else. Fulmer proudly represented Big Orange and we wish him the best in his future ventures. The game has caught up to Fulmer but we will always remember that he brought a new level of respect to our school.