sports (2008-04)

Happy Days


David Cutcliffe delivers an early Christmas present

by Tony Basilio

Christmas came early for Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee football, and its fans when David Cutcliffe departed for Duke. Now itâ’s time for a fresh start. With three new offensive coaches and perhaps a couple of changes on the defensive side, Tennessee football will have its freshest look since â’92. Short of changing head coaches, this is about as radical as it gets in Rocky Top! Merry Christmas, Coaches Fulmer and Cutcliffe and Vol fans. Everybody wins.

Credit David Cutcliffe for the 24-month reclamation job he did with Erik Ainge and Tennesseeâ’s offense. When he took over for Randy Sanders after the â’05 debacle, Tennessee was a broken offensive (in every sense of the word) mess. Cutcliffe restored order, sanity, and purpose to this unit. Still, he couldnâ’t bring them an identity.

Now itâ’s time for Fulmer to make a hire at offensive coordinator to take Tennessee into this century offensively. Teams are identified these days by the type of offense they employ. You have spread teams like Florida, West Virginia, and now Auburn and Michigan. You have pro-style offenses like Alabama and LSU and then you have what Tennessee has done the past couple of years, which is the alchemy of confusion. What do you call Tennesseeâ’s offense of the past couple of years? I call it productive yet unwatchable, confounding and mostly flat-out boring.

Cutcliffe was a fine addition in his second go-round on Tennesseeâ’s staff, but not even he knew what or who the Vols were on offense. Ask yourself this: What do power teams do on third or fourth and short? Run, right? So obviously the Vols arenâ’t a power team. What do Colts-style no-huddle offenses do to the middle of the field? Attack it, right? So I guess that rules this out. Point is, you canâ’t tell me what Tennessee was offensively under Cutcliffe because they donâ’t even know.

Itâ’s time to answer that question. The next hire needs to be someone committed to core principles and adept enough to carry them out. This is an age where offensive philosophies are winning football games. People laughed when Florida hired Urban Meyer and his spread offense. The experts said it would never work in the SEC. Aforementioned Auburn is so committed to the spread that they fired Al Borges and replaced him with former UK assistant Tony Franklin, who runs a fast-break spread. Itâ’s time for Tennessee to get current. Whatever that means.

Fulmer is a comfort-zone guy when it comes to his staff. I believe Randy Sanders would still be involved if David Cutcliffe werenâ’t on the sidelines and in Knoxville when the â“perfect stormâ” hit in â’05. Fulmer was pushed to do something by Tennesseeâ’s ineptitude. This time around itâ’s Cutcliffeâ’s payday at Duke (between $1.3-1.8 million per year) thatâ’s forcing Fulmer to shake it up.

Cutcliffe is taking UT assistants Matt Luke and Kurt Roper with him to Duke and perhaps another member of UTâ’s defensive staff. Fulmer already figured to make a change with defensive backs coach Larry Slade at seasonâ’s end and possibly with another defensive position which could set the possibility of perhaps six new hires.

Some will argue for Trooper Taylor, whoâ’s considering an offer for the offensive coordinator job at Baylor, or Greg Adkins as new coordinators. It wonâ’t bother me if Tennessee goes in this direction as long as Fulmer lets whoever has the job really have the job. He needs to let it go like he did with Cutcliffe and allow the new coach to redevelop Tennesseeâ’s identity. Some say that Randy Sandersâ’ offense was truly a Sanders-Fulmer hybrid. Whatever. It wonâ’t matter who Tennessee hires if they donâ’t commit to becoming something other than willy-nilly milk toast.

Sure, it will be a holiday of unrest for Coach Fulmer, but getting outside the comfort zone will be the best thing in the long run for a program that has been stuck in a rut. This presents a legitimate opportunity for a fresh start. Hopefully, Fulmer will seize the moment and realize he has a chance rewrite his legacy in Knoxville toward the autumn of his story. He didnâ’t choose this moment of decision. It chose him. And for that, he and Rocky Top should all be glad.


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