By Steve Williams
It’s 48 days until Tennessee’s 2014 season football opener. That’s the good news.
The sad news is it’s been 2,417 days since Tennessee football was relevant.
The last time the Vols lined up to play a game that really mattered on the national scene was Dec. 1, 2007. Tennessee vs. LSU in the SEC championship game. Vols lost 21-14. Tigers went on to win a national championship.
Pulling the plug on Phillip Fulmer during the 2008 season was a terrible move, and that’s not hindsight. I felt that way then.
Five long seasons later, I hate to see how Tennessee football standards have been lowered by some.
The thought of eight wins was ridiculed in the “Coacho Ocho” Fulmer era. But if Butch Jones were to win eight games this season, many of those same fans will be wanting to give him a raise, a contract extension and a parade.
Just last week, a caller to a local sports talk show said he would be “happy” if Tennessee football could consistently win nine games a season. I wondered if the caller knew Fulmer had averaged 9.3 wins per season in his 16-plus years as UT’s head coach. And that was playing 11 regular season games instead of 12 most of those seasons.
UT’s second winningest coach of all time, Fulmer had a 152-52 record and a 45-5 run in a four-year stretch capped by a 13-0 national championship season in 1998, Five times he guided the Vols to the SEC title game.
Who is to blame for the downfall of Tennessee football?
My answer: Mike Hamilton and those who persuaded the former athletic director to call for Fulmer’s resignation two days following a 27-6 loss at South Carolina on Nov. 1, 2008. That loss dropped the Vols to 3-6, with games remaining against Wyoming, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Hamilton explained he didn’t wait until the end of the season to announce the decision because he wanted Tennessee fans to have an opportunity to pay tribute to Fulmer for his long and successful career at UT during the last three games.
But rather than a tribute, Fulmer just wanted a chance to fix the Tennessee football program.
The eventual College Football Hall of Fame coach should have been afforded that opportunity. A man who had been in the program as a player, assistant coach, offensive coordinator and head coach for 38 years had earned that much.
“This team and this staff could have turned this trend around and gone forward,” Fulmer told reporters at the Monday, Nov. 3, press conference. “But that wasn’t the case, so we are where we are.”
Some believe the call for Fulmer’s ouster was made early, because there was a good chance his team could win out and finish 7-6 with a bowl win, making it more difficult to unseat the coach.
That potential scenario didn’t materialize, however, as a shakened Tennessee team fell to Wyoming 13-7 the next Saturday and ended up with a 5-7 record.
Looking back on his comments after the Wyoming game, Fulmer, to his credit, didn’t use his loss of job as an excuse, but instead hammered home the fact his team did have problems.
“The players don’t owe me any kind of an apology,” Fulmer said. “I should be apologizing to the fans and everybody for this whole week coming about. You get beat if you turn the ball over.”
Running off Fulmer meant more than losing a head coach. It also meant losing one of the game’s top national recruiters, an offensive line expert on its staff and a highly-respected defensive coordinator in John Chavis, who was hired by LSU.
Fulmer, no doubt, would have brought in a new offensive coordinator to replace Dave Clawson, whose complex system never got going in 2008. But he didn’t get the chance to do that, either.
Lane Kiffin left after a year. Derek Dooley was shown the door after three seasons. Jones is now heading into his second campaign trying to rebuild the program. Brick by brick, as he likes to say.
Butch quickly made needed changes in relations with former Tennessee players and high school coaches across the state.
His first two recruiting classes have been highly ranked. He has taken advantage of landing many UT legacy players to boost the squad’s talent level.
His Vols should have beaten Georgia last season and did topple Steve Spurrier and South Carolina for a signature win. But Vanderbilt got away with a victory and Tennessee missed earning a bowl game for the third straight season.
In 48 days, the Vols will get another chance to begin turning sad times into good times. And like Fulmer used to say, get back in the mix and the hunt.