Vols program is worse off than most think, and Phillip Fulmer deserves more credit for that than most give

I’ll warn you at the outset that I am a recovering Tennessee football fanatic.

I haven’t burned by Vols gear, and don’t intend to. You aren’t going to hear me saying heretic things like, “I’m rooting for Alabama.” You can still find me plugged in to ESPN on fall Saturday afternoons.

But I’m recovering in the sense that I no longer have the passion for Tennessee football that I once had. It’s a passion that began when I was a young boy, the first time I heard the golden voice of John Ward on the radio back in the 1980s. But somewhere in 2020, as coronavirus made all of us slowly lose our minds, that passion fizzled and died. The year began with me in Jacksonville, following the Vols to the Gator Bowl for their win over Indiana. It certainly didn’t end with me anywhere around Neyland Stadium, or even watching the last five games of the season on television.

It’s hard to watch a program that you’ve been passionate about your entire life slowly destroy itself. But that’s what has happened to Tennessee. This program, as a college athletics blueblood, is dead. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, dead. It has died of a hundred wounds, and all of them self-inflicted.

We could start at the beginning, but what’s the point? I’m convinced the beginning of the end was actually back in the ’80s, when the Vols’ favorite son — Johnny Majors — started hitting the bottle a little too hard and started ticking off the wrong people in positions of power, opening a window for his offensive coordinator to stage a coup of sorts while Majors was in the hospital recovering from open heart surgery. If that was indeed the beginning of the end, it’s ironic that what followed was a decade that will be remembered as the glory days of Tennessee football — at least in the modern era. For the first time since his declining health forced General Robert R. Neyland to step away from coaching, Tennessee football was returned to the Goliath status that he originally built.

By now I have ticked off half of you and left the rest of you scratching your heads. So let me clarify: I’m not suggesting that Fulmer wasn’t a good coach. He recruited at the highest levels, and his teams performed at the highest levels. He won a national championship, for pete’s sake. I’ll always have fond memories of those 1990s seasons, the ghosts of Florida and Steve Spurrier not withstanding.

But it was precisely because of the success of the ’90s that Fulmer was able to stage a second coup in 2017, when he made his triumphant return to Tennessee athletics as the boss of the entire department. And that was the next-to-final gut shot that helped bring a once-proud program to its knees.

By the time Fulmer unceremoniously left his athletics director post three years later, his hand-chosen coach had been fired and will likely never be a head coach at the college level again. NCAA investigators were dragging skeletons out of closets. And Fulmer’s successor, former Central Florida AD Danny White, was openly talking about the potential for “crippling” penalties.

I’m convinced that there is an entire book that could be written about everything that transpired between some point circa 1992 and the early days of 2021. I’m also convinced that it would be salacious reading. Trying to sum it all up in one article is sure to be an exercise in futility. So let me simply say this:

A few days after White transferred Josh Heupel from Central Florida to Tennessee as head football coach, someone posted on my Facebook account to ask my opinion on the Vols’ new head coach. “You have,” they said, “been awfully quiet.”

True, I had said nothing about Heupel’s hire. And I didn’t respond to that post, either. Maybe apathy had reached such a point that I no longer had it in me to string a few words together. More likely, I was finally taking my mother’s age-old advice: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Let’s be clear: Josh Huepel isn’t to blame for any of this. Heupel had an opportunity to advance his career and he leapt at it. He has built a reputation as one of the game’s brightest offensive minds, and his comeback story is one that anyone can feel good about. You see, Heupel was a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback for Oklahoma 20 years ago. He led the Sooners to a national championship. Then he returned to his alma mater as co-offensive coordinator and spent several seasons there before being canned by his boss and former coach, Bob Stoops. Instead of sulking, Heupel turned his misfortune into a lesson, bettered himself, and less than 10 years later is head coach of one of the most storied programs in college football history.

That’s a true all-American story, and I wish Heupel all the success as he attempts to fix things in Knoxville. I would love nothing more than for this piece to age more crappily than anything I’ve ever written, for anyone who pulls it up in five years to be able to laugh at it — and me — for being so spectacularly wrong.

Sadly, I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. If you’re asking me, in early February 2021, if Josh Heupel is the guy who is going to resurrect this program and lead Tennessee back to contention in the Southeastern Conference, my answer isn’t a hesitant “I don’t think so.” My answer is a firm, unequivocal “NO!”

Here lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Minnesota. There was a time when Minnesota was a college football powerhouse. The Golden Gophers, by any definition of the word, would’ve been considered a “blueblood.” A member of the Big Ten since its inception, Minnesota won 18 conference championships between 1892 and 1967, nine national championships during that same span, and was the consensus national champion in 1960.

But it’s been nearly 55 years since Minnesota won a Big Ten championship. Not only are the Golden Gophers no longer a blue blood program, but they haven’t even been considered contenders for most of the past half-century. They’ve been closer to the bottom of the Big Ten than the top of it.

How did Minnesota fall from grace in college football? Who knows. The Gophers can write their own book. But they are proof that it can happen — and does.

My point is this: There was a time, back when Fulmer was still coaching the Vols, that Tennessee would’ve been one of the 10 best coaching jobs in America. It would’ve been considered a destination for many coaches; a dream job. Today, a mere decade later, I’m not sure it’s even a Top 25 coaching job. And its stock continues to fall…rapidly. Tennessee is no longer a college football blueblood. Tennessee is no longer a contender. Tennessee is now closer to the bottom of the SEC than to the top.

Tennessee is the new Minnesota.

Is it too late for the Vols to find their way back? We’ll see. But with every step that this program takes, I become more and more convinced that the answer is “no.”

So how did we get here? There’s room for debate. To be sure, some would argue that my assessment of Fulmer is too harsh. They would suggest that it’s because of Fulmer that Tennessee was a Top 10 job.

I disagree completely. Fulmer certainly didn’t diminish Tennessee’s stock; if anything, he elevated it. But this program was a highly-respected college football program long before Fulmer arrived — even as a player. This program’s status was curated by Neyland, during a tenure that earns him recognition as one of the five greatest coaches in the history of the college game (and you could make a strong argument that he was the best ever, but that’s a subject for another day). Then Tennessee spent more than a decade trying to figure itself out post-Neyland before Doug Dickey arrived on the scene. Dickey could’ve been the second-greatest coach in this program’s history if he hadn’t left for Florida, where he lived out his coaching days before returning to Knoxville as the program’s best-ever athletics director.

Tennessee floundered a little more post-Dickey before John Majors won a national championship at Pittsburgh and gave the Vols a much-needed excuse to can Bill Battle and bring Majors home.

It took Majors a while to resurrect the program. Let’s make no bones about this: In today’s college football climate, Majors might not have survived as long as he did. Progress was painfully slow. Perhaps beating Alabama and ending Bear Bryant’s run of dominance would’ve bought Majors enough time to win the SEC and the Sugar Bowl in 1985. But, more likely, he would’ve been fired before he ever got to that point.

But fans and administrators alike had more patience in 1981 than they do in 2021, and Majors did survive. And, once he got the program turned in the right direction, he left the cupboard fully stocked.

Tennessee’s 0-6 start in 1988 was one of the lowest points in the program’s history. But the five-game winning streak to end the season was the foretelling of the program’s brightest days in half a century. Majors’ 1989, 1990 and 1991 teams were some of the best that Tennessee ever fielded. The 1990 team — which tied eventual national champion Colorado in the season-opener and was an interception in the end zone away from beating top-ranked Notre Dame — may have been the best Tennessee team ever … even better than the ’98 team.

Majors’ biggest failure on the field was an inability to beat Alabama. For as good as that 1990 team was, its biggest disappointment was losing to Alabama on the Third Saturday of October in 1990. The Vols were No. 3 in the country entering that game, and were coming off a 45-3 shellacking of Steve Spurrier’s highly-ranked Florida Gators. Alabama was unranked, but blocked a Tennessee field goal late, turning that into a field goal of its own for a highly improbable, 9-6 win.

Two years later, Majors was fired. It was more than just what happened on the field against Alabama, of course. He wasn’t very good at playing politics or kissing rings. And in 1992, when Tennessee got off to a brilliant start while Fulmer was on the sidelines and Majors was in the hospital, a three-game losing streak after Majors returned was more than enough to convince the powers in Knoxville to replace its once-favorite son with his own offensive coordinator.

Majors would spend the rest of his life contending that Fulmer did him dirty; that Fulmer stabbed him in the back while he was laid up by heart surgery.

We could spend an eternity debating whether Fulmer was a better coach than Majors. Fulmer had a monkey on his back just like Majors did. Majors couldn’t beat Alabama; Fulmer couldn’t beat Florida. But, ultimately, the stars aligned and Fulmer did beat Florida, and as a result he won a national championship — something Majors couldn’t do because he couldn’t get past Alabama when it mattered most.

So Fulmer gets the nod as the better coach in the eyes of most, and that’s justifiable. By the mid ’90s, when Majors was failing to complete a comeback at Pittsburgh and Fulmer had the Vols rolling, no one was talking about Fulmer’s supposed dirty deeds against a defenseless Majors. Success quiets doubters, and Tennessee was having plenty of success. Even before the 1998 national championship season, Tennessee didn’t lose to anyone not named Florida (with the exception of a fluke against Memphis in ’96) from 1995 through 1997. It was one of the best three-year runs in program history.

But if we’re going to acknowledge that Fulmer brought Tennessee its greatest successes since General Neyland, we also have to acknowledge that much of that was because Johnny Majors set the stage for Fulmer. Fulmer couldn’t have sustained his success without being a great recruiter, but the program was light-years ahead of where Majors had inherited it from Battle by the time Fulmer took over in ’92.

A decade later, in December 2007, Tennessee was playing in the SEC championship game against eventual national champion LSU. The Vols weren’t a great team in ’07; they had been embarrassed by both Urban Meyer and Florida and by Nick Saban and Alabama. But they had managed to back into a divisional title, and on that day in Atlanta they stood toe-to-toe with the nation’s best team. If not for a pair of late pick-sixes, Tennessee would’ve sprung an upset.

That game against Les Miles and the Tigers was the last time Tennessee played in the SEC championship game. It was a successful season for a program that was two years removed from its first losing season in almost two full decades. Yet, even in 2007, it was evident that Tennessee’s biggest rivals were leaving the Vols in the dust. Florida and Alabama had out-scored UT by a combined 100-37 that season. The writing was on the wall: Fulmer’s days were numbered.

In a perfect world, Fulmer would’ve won that SEC championship game, and ridden off into the sunset with a New Year’s Six bowl win. Instead, his wife — Vickie Fulmer — made a now-infamous statement about Fulmer coaching for another decade before retiring to Montana. What followed was a fairly turbulent off-season, another losing record, and Fulmer was fired less than a year later.

Fulmer’s allies in the sports media were outraged. How do you fire a guy who won a national championship? Who has a street outside the stadium named after him? Who is one of the winningest coaches in your program’s history?

Fulmer, too, was miffed. He never got over being fired, and he spent a decade plotting his return.

And that’s where things really started to go sour for Tennessee. Years later, the Vols might not have had much choice when they hired Derek Dooley. And they may not have had much choice when they hired Butch Jones. By that point, the stock of the UT program had fallen.

But in December 2008, when then-Athletics Director Mike Hamilton was interviewing potential replacements for Fulmer, Tennessee was still considered one of the top jobs in all of college football … a destination; a dream job.

And, somehow, Tennessee wound up with Lane Kiffin.

Kiffin had no experience as a college head coach. He had been the head coach of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders before being fired. Yet he was on his way to Knoxville to coach the Vols.

Meanwhile in Fort Worth, Tex., Gary Patterson must’ve been feeling snubbed.

Patterson had made it clear that he was interested in the Tennessee job. His resume was solid. In eight years with the Horned Frogs, he had amassed a record of 73-26. TCU was coming off an 11-2 season, and Patterson had won at least 10 games five times in eight seasons.

Twelve months later, Patterson was coming off a 12-0 regular season, and was on the brink of a 13-0 season in 2010. And when Hamilton approached him about the Tennessee job, he understandably laughed.

Kiffin had bolted for Southern Cal in the midst of an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations in Knoxville. He left in the cloak of darkness just two weeks before National Signing Day, with his assistant — Ed Orgeron — calling UT recruits to urge them not to enroll in classes the following day, which would lock them in to a quasi contract with Tennessee.

A few weeks after that, Tennessee had hired Derek Dooley. Dooley came from college football royalty; his father was the legendary Vince Dooley. But he had a losing record at Louisiana Tech, of all places. How could he ever succeed at Tennessee?

In short: he couldn’t. He lasted just three seasons — three seasons marked by weird press conferences where Dooley imitated a Nazi propaganda boss and talked about teaching his team to bathe. Most agreed that, at the time of his departure, Tennessee football was at its lowest point of the modern era.

A few weeks after that, Tennessee had hired Butch Jones. Jones had modest success at Cincinnati, but he wasn’t the Vols’ top choice. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy turned down the Vols. So did Louisville’s Charlie Strong. And others.

Jones had ridden the coattails of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly at two stops, but there were warnings from Cincinnati that Jones was all fluff and little substance. Beware the cliches, they said.

Brick-by-brick. Champions of life. Five-star heart. Those cliches. Jones recruited well, and appeared to have Tennessee back to national prominence by his third season, when the Vols were ranked in the Top 10. But the season started with an ominous sign, as Tennessee needed overtime and a stroke of luck to hold off Appalachian State. A thrilling comeback against Florida and a famous Josh Dobbs hail mary at Georgia caused most to forget the season opener, but then came an epic collapse. The Vols lost three straight games and never recovered. They were embarrassed by Vanderbilt, which scored 45 points to beat the Vols in the regular season finale.

Less than a year later, Jones was fired. In his final season, Tennessee won just four games. Most agreed that, at the time, Tennessee football was at its lowest point in the modern era. Who would’ve thought it after the way the Dooley era ended?

Then came one of the most laughable college football coaching searches in history. Athletics Director John Currie bungled in every way imaginable. Schiano Sunday was a day that will live in infamy at Tennessee, the day word leaked that Tennessee was set to hire former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano and UT fans revolted, forcing Currie to withdraw the offer. It was later revealed that Currie had enlisted the help of national sportswriters, urging them to carry water for him and sell the hire to Tennessee fans because he knew it would not go over well.

A few days later, Currie took a rogue flight to the West Coach in an effort to bring Mike Leach to Knoxville. But his bosses ordered him home. He was canned. Fulmer was instated to replace him.

Fulmer’s triumphant return was complete. Some called it a coup.

How those events of late 2017 unfolded are a story unto their own. When Currie was hired as Tennessee’s athletics director, many fans and boosters wanted UT-Chattanooga’s David Blackburn. He had a solid resume. He had ties to UT-Knoxville. He wanted the job.

Inexplicably, the job went to Currie, instead. He had a history with Tennessee, but he also had a checkered past at Kansas State. Most notably, he was credited with running off Frank Martin, the basketball coach who had never failed to win at least 20 games in a season with the Wildcats and who would go on to make South Carolina a Final Four team.

Currie lasted one year before his tenure in Knoxville ended in disgrace.

In retrospect, not hiring Blackburn may have been the biggest athletics blunder that Tennessee’s administration made in the past 13 years. But one can’t help wondering whether any of the events that came to pass would’ve actually happened if Patterson had been awarded the coaching job back in 2008.

All of that was water under the bridge, though. And, in late 2017, Phillip Fulmer was named Tennessee’s new athletics director. He had lobbied for the job a year earlier, when fans were clamoring for Blackburn, but had been passed over. Now he had it back. And if not hiring Blackburn was Tennessee’s biggest mistake, hiring Fulmer was probably a close second.

Fulmer was a legendary head coach for obvious reason. But he had no experience as an administrator. A national sportswriter recently said that he was “laughably inexperienced.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Fulmer’s first move was to bring in Jeremy Pruitt as head coach. Pruitt was highly regarded as a defensive coordinator, but he wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a head coaching candidate in 2017. If you had named 50 candidates for the UT job, Pruitt would’ve probably failed to make the list.

Some speculated that Fulmer was going after a coach with old-school philosophies that mirrored his own.

Others speculated that Fulmer was looking for someone he could control.

The latter, at least, turned out to be an unfounded accusation. Fulmer had no control over Pruitt. That much became obvious in late 2020, when it was revealed that Pruitt had overseen what might prove to be the biggest recruiting scandal in the history of UT athletics.

In the house-cleaning that followed, Pruitt, several of his assistants — including his ace recruiter who had become a fan favorite — and the entire compliance department were sent packing. Fulmer, too, was axed. The first time he was forced out at Tennessee, he got millions of dollars as a departure gift. This time, he’ll get more than a million — half of his salary for the three years remaining on his contract.

Despite apparently cheating to land highly-sought-after players, Tennessee had won just three games in 2020. With the NCAA sanctions looming — the Vols’ incoming athletics director said the penalties might be “crippling” — it was unclear who, if anyone, would want the Tennessee job. Most agreed that the program was at its lowest point of the modern era … lower than where Dooley left it; lower than where Jones left it.

Spirits were brightened temporarily when Tennessee announced the hire of White as athletics director. With a salary of nearly $2 million, plus the money it took to buy out his Central Florida contract, it was clear that the Vols had thrown serious money to land their chosen candidate. It appeared to be a rare moment of clarity within the Tennessee athletics program. White is highly regarded as one of the best athletics directors in America, and most fans realized that their worst fear — that newly-hired defensive guru Kevin Steele would be promoted to head coach — wouldn’t be realized.

But a major red flag was raised at White’s introductory press conference. A journalist asked him if Heupel — his coach at Central Florida — was a candidate to follow him to Tennessee. White side-stepped the question.

To be fair, we don’t know how White’s coaching search went down. There were rumors that he threw big money towards at least one proven candidate, only to be rebuffed. There are also rumors that he wanted Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliot but Elliot wasn’t interested.

More than a few Tennessee fans, though, are convinced that White and Heupel were a package deal from the start; that White never seriously considered another coach.

It’s too soon to judge White’s hire of Heupel. There are no indications that anyone else would’ve taken the job. After 13 years of administrative blunders, this program isn’t in a very good position to court head coaches. It has to be rebuilt from the ground up.

But to that end, there’s no indication that Heupel is up to the task. In some regards, he feels like a less-polished version of Jones. Remember, Jones was fairly well-regarded as an offensive coach in his own right. But his offense was an unmitigated disaster against SEC defenses — even though Josh Dobbs covered a lot of its flaws for a while. Many Tennessee fans felt that one of Jones’ biggest mistakes was bringing his coaching buddies with him from Cincinnati to Tennessee, and it appears that Heupel is on the verge of bringing several of his Central Florida coaches to Knoxville. Heupel’s apparent inability to land a defensive coordinator is just another red flag.

From where we stand in February 2021, it seems inevitable that Tennessee will be playing this game again in three seasons.

In the meantime, there’s only one clear winner in all of this: Fulmer. He’s headed to the bank to cash his latest check from Tennessee, and he’s a wealthier man because of his three-year stint as Vols athletics director.

But Fulmer has destroyed his legacy. It seems certain that history will prove that to us. He isn’t responsible for the violations that Pruitt and his staff committed; the UT brass made that clear. But blame always goes to the top. Fulmer brought in Pruitt as a woefully inadequate candidate for head coach, a coach who was stubborn enough to believe he could cheat and get by with it, and who apparently didn’t care if he got caught. He gave him an outrageous contract, an unnecessary raise, and lobbied for a contract extension and raise of his own. And, as a parting gift, he brought in Steele and signed him to a needless contract that will likely cost Tennessee close to another million dollars to buy out.

All the while, Fulmer’s actions helped sink Tennessee football even lower, and the UT brand would have undoubtedly have been much better off if the past three years hadn’t happened, and if Fulmer had never been named athletics director.

Tennessee isn’t the first college football blueblood to fall by the wayside. Minnesota is proof enough of that. But history has never recorded an instance of a powerhouse that has systematically destroyed itself the way this one has. There are plenty of administrators who are complicit — including Hamilton, Currie and Dave Hart. But let’s not exclude Fulmer from the list. He wasn’t alone, but he may have sounded the death knell.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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