After weeks of speculation and an overall poor performance against a mediocre South Carolina team, Phillip Fulmer is out as head football coach at the University of Tennessee. Fulmer, whose record at Tennessee was 150-51 at the time of this decision, is most notably remembered for leading the Vols to a National Title in 1998.
His job security had become a source of scrutiny after a 1-3 start and the lackluster effort against the archrival Florida Gators. The longest-tenured coach in the SEC could not save his job, and eventually poor play led to his demise.
If poor showings against Georgia and Alabama didn’t seal his fate, the crushing defeat last Saturday night against the Gamecocks of South Carolina most certainly did. Losing to the Gamecocks dropped the Vols to 3-6 (1-5 SEC, last place) and almost certainly secured, with only three games to play, no postseason play for the second time in four seasons.
In 2005, after a 5-6 season, Fulmer found himself on the hot seat as well. Boosters, alumni, and fans were tired of finishing behind other SEC powerhouses, let alone not making a bowl appearance. It seemed the Vols were content to settle for competing for a chance at the Outback Bowl instead of a National Championship.
Well, Fulmer hushed his critics by leading the Vols over the next two seasons to a combined record of 19-8 and an SEC championship appearance (a loss to the eventual national champion LSU Tigers). But this year he could not escape his impending fate.
Before the season had begun in Knoxville, Tennessee faced several pertinent questions. With offensive guru David Cutcliffe leaving the Vols to accept the head coaching job at Duke University (4-3), Fulmer went outside the Tennessee family and hired former University of Richmond head coach Dave Clawson.
Clawson's offensive scheme, which didn’t seem to have a true identity, never seemed to mesh with the Tennessee players like it did with those he had previously coached at Richmond. The offense was plagued with penalties, sacks, and poor passing and rushing yards.
This lack of offensive output was a stark contrast from last year’s team that led the NCAA in sacks allowed with four all season. They were also at the top of the country in most major offensive statistical categories.
Fulmer had been praised by some and scrutinized by others at the same time for hiring a coordinator with no connection or affiliation to the school or conference. Fulmer believed the fresh concept would transition well with the young players, and the team saw a National Championship in their sights. Questionable play calling and poor offensive output all but ended those aspirations.
Tennessee was also transitioning quarterbacks this season. Jonathan Crompton was supposed to take over for four-year starter Erik Ainge (NY Jets). What was supposed to be a smooth transition, as Crompton had sat and learned under the guidance of Ainge, never panned out the way most envisioned.
Crompton never seemed to get comfortable within the new offensive system. He constantly misread defenses, made poor decisions with the football, and couldn’t seem to sustain drives.
Enter sophomore Nick Stephens, and a similar trend ensued. While Nick has done a better job protecting the football, the offense consistently finds themselves sputtering, unlike last season.
Most disappointing this season has been the run game. The Vols, who in the past prided themselves on running the football, marketed a three-headed monster this season with Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty, and Lennon Creer. The Vols also returned the entire offensive line from last year’s team that rushed for a combined 1,946 yards.
Thus far, this season has been a complete contrast from last year. Foster this season finds himself 735 yards behind his rushing total from a year ago. He has carried the ball 99 times for 458 yards.
With few bright spots to grasp on to (mostly on defense, i.e. Eric Berry), Tennessee has sought change. After ranking in the top 20 in recruiting the past couple seasons, and with this class on pace to be in the top 10, Vols athletic director Mike Hamilton realized the losing wasn’t due to a lack of talent, but that the coach wasn’t getting through to his players.
Now the coaching search begins. Will the Vols go after highly regarded Boise State head coach Chris Petersen, or will they try to make a big splash and get a big name coach to fill the job?
Jon Gruden’s name has been thrown around, due to his fiery nature and his ties to the university. Steve Spurrier has already come out and say he is not interested in the job opening and has no plans to leave South Carolina.
Only time will tell what fate has in store for the Volunteers. There is only one thing we know for sure. Tennessee finds their impending offseason like their concluding one: The Vols have more questions than answers.