We miss you Tennessee!
As the saying goes: sometimes you don't realize what you have, until it's gone.
Philip Fulmer was the only head coach to bring the University of Tennessee a National Championship win in almost a half century, and one of the best recruiters in the business. Sure, he was starting to slip a little in the 2000's, including that one season in 2005 when the Volunteers when 5-6 (one of only two seasons in which Fulmer didn't lead the team to a bowl game). But there's a reason why the man was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012 (and deservedly so).
And yet, just one year after leading the team to a 10-win season, and finishing as the runner up in the Southeastern Conference, many Volunteer fans were happy to hear that former athletic director Mike Hamilton was pushing Fullmer out the door, and that the 2008 season would be his last in Knoxville.
Now fast forward a decade. The Volunteers haven't had a 10-win season since Fullmer. After failing to qualify for a bowl game only twice in the 15-and-a-half years that Fullmer was the head coach, Tennessee is in danger of finishing with less than six wins for the fourth time in the last decade.
Tennessee's first coach in the post-Fullmer era -- Lane Kiffin -- essentially took Volunteer fans out on one good date, then dumped them to go out with a "prettier" program (USC). Then, Tennessee tried for the up-and-coming coach who led a perennial loser (Louisiana Tech) to a winning season, and also happened to be a Nick Saban acolyte, in Derek Dooley; he didn't even make it through his third season, and couldn't lead the team to six wins in any of them.
After that came Butch Jones, who served under Rich Rodriguez and Brian Kelly, and was supposed to bring the modern spread offense to Knoxville. Currently sporting an 0-5 record in the SEC this season, there will be a party the likes of which eastern Tennessee has never seen when the program finally gets rid of him, too.
As much as Volunteer fans are looking forward to Jones' firing, if the Tennessee athletic program can't get its act together from the top downwards, then firing and hiring another coaching staff won't be much more than re-arranging the furniture on the Titanic.
Hamilton helped push Fullmer off the throne in Knoxville because he got tired of the whispers about how long could or would remain head coach, but also because, like any man in charge, he wanted to leave his own imprints on the program.
Clearly, he succeeded, although not in any way that Tennessee would be proud of. His legacy was so much more than Kiffin's fling and Dooley's failure. He basically hit the trifecta of things you don't want in an athletic director: poor leadership, financial mismanagement, and general obliviousness to how he was wrecking a school with a proud athletic tradition. And, of course, the sanctions levied against the Tennessee basketball program didn't help either.
Dave Hart, Hamilton's predecessor, didn't exactly fare much better. He's the guy who replaced Dooley with Jones. He's the guy who replaced Bruce Pearl with Cuonzo Martin and then Donnie Tyndall -- the former being another coach who quit on Tennessee, and the latter being another coach who only lasted one season, after an NCAA investigation into violations that occurred while he was the head coach at Southern Mississippi. He's also the guy who thought it'd be a good idea to re-brand the Tennessee women's basketball program -- one of the two premier programs in the sport -- shortly after the legendary Pat Summit stepped down as head coach.
That’s why all eyes are on John Currie, who was hired in 2016 as the school’s athletic director (and Hart’s replacement).
Currie has to come in right the Tennessee athletics ship that's been led astray by Hamilton's incompetence and Hart's negligence.
The school has already suffered from having too many politicians leading the program, they need someone who's going to approach this position like a CEO, and establish an organizational culture that rivals all the other powerful athletic programs Tennessee has to compete with in the SEC.
That starts with pulling the plug on Jones. There’s no bigger lame duck head coach in the nation right now, and the fact that Jones is still the coach might be putting Tennessee at a disadvantage in the recruiting race; many people are already blaming Currie for five-star recruit Cade Mays' decision to decommit from Tennessee, because of the uncertain future of the football team. All Currie needs to do is look south to Gainesville, and see what his rivals – i.e. Florida – are doing, when they know their time with the current head coach is up.
And the price they’ll have to pay to get rid of Jones simply can’t be an excuse. UT’s football program was responsible for $107.1 million in revenue for the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Education Equity in Athletics database. Neyland Stadium seats 102,455, and there are plans to expand said capacity. That’s a lot of money coming from butts in seats – with the vast majority of those butts belonging to fans who want to see this program resume its place among the nationally prominent college football teams.
So as great of a move as Jon Gruden, Chip Kelly, Dan Mullen, or some other up-and-coming assistant coach might sound, it won’t mean anything if it’s not part of a greater shift in the culture of Tennessee athletics. Look what Saban did at Alabama, Kirby Smart (another Saban protege) at Georgia, or even Mullen Mississippi State. They’re not just great coaches; they’re leaders who have set an agenda for their program, without dealing with interference and incompetence above their heads.
Top recruits like Mays and Trey Smith want to play for Tennessee, so talent will never be an issue either. Tennessee’s recruiting classes from 2000-17 were ranked among the top 12 schools in the nation. With the right coach – and the right infrastructure in place – this school should be back where it wants to be in the next two or three years.
But no matter which sport we’re talking about for the Volunteers, the ball is in Currie’s hands. He might enjoy watching his student athletes compete, but it’s his next move that’s going to have enormous importance in the success of those teams.