Sitting behind a computer screen and considering, even hypothetically, whether a head coach should be fired—in any sport at any level—is a sucker’s game. Just ask News Sentinel sports editor John Adams, who wrote a column in February making a case that University of Tennessee head football coach Phil Fulmer should go. The story got more than 1,200 responses on the newspaper’s website over the next two weeks, and Adams got called “a Pig,” “jerk,” “TRAITOR,” “a baby,” and “a disgrace.”
But if there’s a sucker, it’s a Tennessee football fan. Being a UT fan means riding a constant emotional rollercoaster. It might be more accurately described as an emotional supercollider. The seasons with the highest expectations crumble into mediocrity, but even average teams, like last year’s, can do something surprising like backing into a division championship. Who really expected the 1998 team, with quarterback Tee Martin taking over from Peyton Manning, to make a serious run at the Southeastern Conference championship, much less a 13-0 record and a national title? The Vols always seem to give you just enough to keep you coming back for more and never enough to keep you satisfied.
Besides that, you have to admit, even though it would be dangerous to say it out loud, that UT’s not one of the all-time great college football programs. For all of the school’s rich and storied tradition, when two of the fabled seasons around which you build a football mythology end in bowl defeats—Gen. Robert Neyland’s 1939 and 1951 teams, the latter of which won an undisputed national championship—you’re not exactly operating in the same league as Alabama under Paul “Bear” Bryant in the 1960s and ’70s, Oklahoma in the ’50s, or even USC in the last decade.
So what are fair expectations for a coach at UT in the 21st century? Is it reasonable to expect a Top 5 ranking or an SEC championship every year? How many national titles does a guy have to win to ensure some job security around here?
On the other hand, is it too much to ask a former offensive lineman making $2.5 million a year to win a conference championship every 10 years or so? Is UT paying too much for a coach who hasn’t finished in the Top 10 since 2001? That’s certainly a growing sentiment among message board posters, talk radio listeners, and barstool analysts.
Let’s look at Fulmer’s run at UT, now in its 18th year: A 147-45 overall record; the highest winning percentage of any active coach with 10 or more years of experience, better than legends like Bobby Bowden at Florida State, Joe Paterno at Penn State, and even Fulmer’s old nemesis Steve Spurrier; the 1998 national title; two conference championships; and an 11-4 record against archrival Alabama, including a seven-game winning streak from 1995 to 2001. Considering the hyper-competitive environment of major-conference college football, what’s not to love?
Well, the Vols opened this season with an ugly 27-24 upset loss to UCLA in Los Angeles, for one thing, and the team has a schedule that could leave them 1-3 at the end of September, for another. Then there’s Fulmer’s winning percentage since the 1998 national championship, which has shrunk from a jaw-dropping .859 to a more pedestrian .696. Is that worth the seven-year, $20.95 million contract he signed in July?
You can’t forget the miserable 5-6 2005 season, either, especially since it included a loss to Vanderbilt. And some of Fulmer’s recent losses to UT’s traditional rivals, like last year’s 59-20 beatdown at Florida and a 41-17 loss to a 7-6 Alabama team, have been of a magnitude that would have barely been imaginable during the best years of the 1990s. On top of all that, UT hasn’t finished in the Top 10 since 2001, and ended the season outside the Associated Press rankings three times in the last eight years. During Fulmer’s first seven years as head coach, the team finished in the Top 10 four times. Even Fulmer’s embattled predecessor, Johnny Majors, finished in the Top 10 three times during his last eight years.
Ignore, if you can, the real-world amount of Fulmer’s contract. (Ignore, too, any questions about the state’s financial priorities, whether college football exploits student-athletes, and the string of player arrests that prompted Adams’ fire-Fulmer column in the first place.) Just think about that $2.5 million a year as an abstract figure in a math problem: Fulmer’s deal makes him the 15th-highest-paid of 119 NCAA Division I coaches. Six other SEC coaches make more, but among those are Louisiana State’s Les Miles, who won a national championship in 2007; Florida’s Urban Meyer, who won the national title in 2006; Auburn’s Tommy Tubberville, whose team was undefeated SEC champ in 2004; Alabama’s Nick Saban, who won a national championship as head coach at LSU in 2003; and Georgia’s Mark Richt, whose teams have won two SEC championships and finished in the Top 10 four times and started this season ranked number one in the country. Just among those five coaches, there are seven SEC titles and three national championships since 1999, most of them just in the last five years. Fulmer has won the East division of the conference three times in the same period.
There’s one contemporary coach whose career trajectory paralleled Fulmer’s. Like Fulmer, Lloyd Carr was a longtime assistant at Michigan before he took the head coaching job in 1995. Like Fulmer, Carr won a national championship. Unlike Fulmer, Carr never had a losing season and his team finished outside the Top 25 only once. Carr also took his team to a bowl game every year, playing in a top-tier Bowl Championship Series game, or its equivalent, five times. Fulmer did that once, in 1998.
What happened to Carr was an opening-game loss at home against Appalachian State in 2007, one of the biggest upsets in college football history. Even though Michigan finished the season 9-4 and beat Florida in a bowl game, Carr—under pressure from fans, media, and the administration all year—retired after the Florida win. It seemed like a foregone conclusion; when you let a program like Michigan lose to a team from the hills of North Carolina that doesn’t even play top-level college football, you’ve essentially forfeited your job. So why doesn’t the same apply to Fulmer, who’s lost to Vanderbilt and, in 1996, to Memphis?
It’s a good thing that’s somebody else’s call.