I did not attend the University of Tennessee football game this week. That probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to “normal” people, but in my world it is huge. My dad started taking me to games when I was six. In the years since I have been to hundreds of games in thirteen different states. There have been heart-breaking losses and heart-pounding wins; disappointing seasons and surprisingly successful ones. Many games have been forgotten and a lot became lasting memories. Through it all, I was there. In short, I have been a die-hard fan. But, this weekend I didn’t go. After watching this squad disintegrate into the worst Tennessee team in my memory, I couldn’t sit through it anymore. When that happens to fans like me, my dad and my friends, then the University of Tennessee has a problem. Apathy, a killer for a football program, has set in.
All fans have an opinion as to how we got to this point. You can read them on message boards and hear them on radio call-in shows. This is my opinion.
On January 4, 1999, the Volunteers won the national championship in a tough victory over Florida State. A successful coach, Phillip Fulmer, reached the pinnacle of his profession and brought glory to his alma mater. At that point his record was 66 wins and 11 losses. We all thought that a dynasty was in the making a more championships would come. We were wrong. The signs of problems were there, but everyone was too jubilant to see them.
1. Fulmer was 53-11 with Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning, both of which finished second in the Heisman race, as his quarterbacks. Those types of players make coaches look good and do not come around very often.
2. Coaching in the Southeastern Conference was at a low. Steve Spurrier of Florida was the only other coach of any prestige. Fulmer was 2-5 against Florida during this time.
In summary, Fulmer had superior talent against inferior coaching. When he was evenly matched the record dropped.
Still, the first year after Manning Fulmer led the Vols to a victory over Florida and a national championship. That can’t be taken away from him. It was an amazing achievement that brought joy and pride to Volunteer fans everywhere. However, the dynasty never came. In fact, the next year Fulmer took the same players and lost 3 games.
In 1999 and 2000, the years immediately following the national championship, Tennessee went 17-7 with blowout losses in two bowl games.
In 2001, the team rebounded with a record of 11-2, a great season that also brought great disappointment. Tennessee went into the SEC Championship game with an opportunity to return to the national championship game. A victory would bring more glory. Then, they lost to LSU, an underdog playing a backup quarterback. Many see this as the beginning of the slide, but I think it started sooner. The LSU game was simply a missed opportunity along the way. However, the 2001 season also marked the end to an invisible era. Peyton Manning’s UT career ended in 2007, but his impact ended in 2001. These were the last players recruited while Manning was on campus, and talent would slowly weaken as the era passed.
From 2002 to 2008 Fulmer won 57 and lost 32. His supporters will say that he went to two conference championship games and had three 10 win seasons. I say he backed into the championship games as a decided underdog and lost to Vanderbilt. Also, the years he won 10 games, Fulmer lost 3, 3, and 4. Then, there were the two losing seasons.
Many say that the second losing season should be blamed on Mike Hamilton, the Athletic Director, for firing Fulmer in mid-season. I agree that it was Hamilton’s fault but for a different reason. He should have fired Fulmer after he lost to Vandy in 2005. Then, we probably would not have had a losing season in 2008. Anyone who watched the games could tell that the program was in a slow decline. Fulmer had gained success and wealth and was caving in to human nature. Success brought laziness, and his record proves it. Great players made him a great coach. As the talent declined, Fulmer’s coaching ability was exposed.
Firing Phillip Fulmer was the right decision. Hiring Lane Kiffin was the right decision as well. He was a great recruiter and could coach. He took an Alabama team to the wire when his team had no business being that close. Most people disagree because he left after a year. But, I bought in to Kiffin and believe that he will be a success. Unfortunately, here is where the bad decisions began to manifest.
1. When Kiffin said he was leaving for USC, Hamilton did not make a counter offer. It may not have worked, but the attempt should have been made.
2. Hamilton panicked and followed a terrible plan. He should have named an interim coach and searched the nation with an attractive financial offer. Instead, he tried to attract candidates with a weak package and settled for Derek Dooley, head coach at Louisiana Tech.
Dooley found a program in turmoil. One coach had been fired and another left. On top of that, talent was down from years of poor assessment by Fulmer. As a result, Dooley’s record is 10-12 at this point. This includes blowout losses and no victories over rivals. The program has hit bottom under his regime.
So, what does all that mean? It means Fulmer was never a great coach but a benefactor of great recruiting. He topped out and figured his job was done. Fulmer cashed a check for a decade while living off a national championship season. As his supporters crowed about his success, that very success was slowly slipping away. When the athletic director finally got the guts to fire him the fan base was split. He made a good hire but did not try to stop it from backfiring. Then, the AD panicked and hired a coach without the ability to pull the program back.
What’s the solution? Dave Hart, the new AD, should cut his losses. Fire Dooley and put together a financial package that will attract a winning coach. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and an apathetic fan base demands it.