Tennessee fans got what they wanted, and now the school is the laughingstock of college football

Pat Forde

Sunday afternoon, Tennessee had a football coach locked up and an athletic director in place. Wildly unpopular or not, a course was set for where the Volunteers hoped to go.

Friday morning, Tennessee got rid of one AD and hired another in former coach Phil Fulmer. It doesn’t seem to have any clue what to do next, but it did lock down status as the laughingstock of college football.

Good job, good effort by the Big Orange rabble. The mob’s self-congratulatory populist revolt has left the UT athletic program with less leadership, fewer coaching options and drastically reduced national and regional respect compared to five days ago. Amateur Hour turned into Amateur Week turned into a rudderless ghost ship drifting down the Tennessee River toward an uncertain future.

The situation is so bad in Knoxville, Auburn looks stable.

After lurching from Greg Schiano to David Cutcliffe to Mike Gundy to Jeff Brohm to Dave Doeren to Mike Leach — a different day, a different top coaching candidate — the school finally fired the guy ostensibly leading the search, AD John Currie. His base of support had eroded drastically as the week went along, with “Fire Currie” chants at the Tennessee basketball game Wednesday, and constant broadsides aimed his way via social media. In the end, when he seemed close to locking up Leach after a meeting Thursday in Los Angeles, the UT administration called him home and ran him off before he could finish this tortured search.

All of which leaves you wondering: If meddling hadn’t happened and Currie had been allowed to hire Schiano on Sunday, how much better off would Tennessee be today?

It would have a coach. It would have most of a staff. It would have spent the last five days making recruiting calls and trying to firm up a December 20 signing class. It would have a vision. It would have leadership.

John Currie is out as the Tennessee athletic director after a disastrous coaching search and just eight months on the job. (AP)
John Currie is out as the Tennessee athletic director after a disastrous coaching search and just eight months on the job. (AP)

Instead, the deluded cabal that believes 1998 was last week and that Tennessee is still a Cadillac program got its way, publicly poisoning the well for Schiano and Doeren (and maybe others). Thus the seventh-best job in the SEC remains unfilled. (At least it was seventh-best before this fiasco; probably lower now.)

Often times, program tradition is a great thing. But sometimes it’s a toxic thing, and Tennessee appears to be finding that out now.

Because of past success, the Volunteer Nation has an unrealistic view of its present condition. And the one man in town who personifies much of that success, Fulmer, has not been a productive part of the situation. But he insinuated himself into the coaching search and apparently wound up getting Currie’s job.

Fulmer was fired (probably unwisely) in 2008, and he’s never really moved on. He’s still in Knoxville and still wants to throw his weight around, to the point that many people believe he actively undercut Currie during this search.

Sources familiar with aspects of the Tennessee search say Fulmer was communicating with prospective coaching candidates, and probably not in conjunction with Currie. Fulmer might have had his own coaching wish list and proceeded accordingly, with or without authorization. At least one coaching candidate contacted by Tennessee received very mixed signals about the school’s interest, in part because of Fulmer’s involvement.

If Currie believes he was undercut by Fulmer, he has company.

Johnny Majors was the head coach at Tennessee from 1977-92 and Fulmer was his top assistant at the end of that run; when Majors had heart surgery during the ’92 season, Fulmer stepped in as interim head coach. Fulmer went 3-0 during that time, and Majors was convinced Fulmer politicked Tennessee officials to make him the full-time head coach and force Majors out. That’s exactly what happened after the season, and Majors remained bitter for many years.

Then there is David Blackburn, who was widely considered the leading candidate to become Tennessee AD when the job went to Currie earlier this year. Blackburn was a longtime UT administrator before becoming the athletic director at Chattanooga, which positioned him to return to Knoxville with the requisite experience when that job came open.

But Fulmer threw his hat in the AD ring as well, competing against a guy he used to work with for many years. According to a source familiar with the situation, Fulmer’s suggestion was that Blackburn serve as deputy AD and manage the day-to-day operation while Fulmer took the big title and big desk and was the face of the program. Blackburn understandably wanted no part of that arrangement.

Former Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer (L) talks to former NFL great Eddie George in 2014. (AP file photo)
Former Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer (L) talks to former NFL great Eddie George in 2014. (AP file photo)

Fulmer’s belief in his own importance hasn’t perceptibly faded in the 19 years since he won a national championship. He has still inquired about various coaching jobs over the years, and one athletic director who had a phone conversation about a job came away singularly unimpressed. “He didn’t know anything about our program,” the AD said. “All he did was talk about himself and what he could do for us.”

If Tennessee gives control of this debacle of a coaching search to Fulmer, he will at last have back some of the power and influence he’s craved since 2008. What he will do with that power is unknown — but if he wants to perpetuate his own mythology, then hiring Tee Martin would do the trick. The USC offensive coordinator was the starting quarterback on Tennessee’s ’98 title team.

The only thing certain is this: Tennessee fans wanted a revolution last Sunday and got it. Be careful what you wish for.

This entire episode is like the closing scene of the classic 1960s movie, “The Graduate,” where Dustin Hoffman busts up a marriage and escapes with the would-be bride on a bus. They’re laughing at first, flush with the thrill of dramatic action. Then the realization sets in: Where are we going, and what do we do now?

Does anyone in Knoxville know where the football program is going, or what it should do now?