A Joint Project by
Derek Lusk, Founder
and Eric L. Taylor, Contributor
You've had this debate a million times. You've fought with your friends, with co-workers, with brothers and fathers and sisters and cousins. You've debated it with your preacher and your dentist and your boss. You've written multi-paragraph dissertations on message boards arguing your case. You've won some debates and lost some debates, but it's unlikely you have waivered much off of your original stance on the matter.
What are we talking about? Phil Fulmer, of course.
In the state of Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer's firing has been debated more than foreign policy, family planning, and economic stimulation combined. It is one of those topics that everyone has an opinion on. There are very few people in the middle on this one. Either you think Mike Hamilton made a mistake in firing a legend or you think the firing was overdue and Fulmer had let the program slip into mediocrity. As with most debates, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Checkerboard Chatter is going to engage in one such debate right here, right now. Checkerboard Chatter Founder, Derek Lusk was a staunch Fulmer supporter. Contributor, Eric L. Taylor was in the fire Fulmer crowd. These two are going to try and settle this thing once and for all with all the readers watching.
You may be asking, "Why do this now?" Or, "Isn't it time to move on?" The answer, of course, is because it's May and we have very little to blog about. Enjoy our debate. Get in on the debate yourself in the comments section below.
DL: I'll get this thing started. Fulmer is a legend. His 152-52 record won't be matched anytime soon by anyone else that coaches the Vols. He earned the right to leave on his terms, and his terms would have certainly been more successful than the Lane Kiffin debacle.
ELT: Serving as a Head Coach in the SEC is one of the most coveted jobs in the coaching profession. The stakes have been raised at an amazing rate since the days that Coach Fulmer was owning Hal Mumme year-in-and-year-out. You say above "He earned the right to leave on his terms". We now have a fundamental disagreement. One of the most coveted jobs in the coaching profession is not a lifetime achievement award. You can't say, "We need to keep Coach Fulmer on board in 2008 because of what he did in 1998." Companies in the business world that take the approach of keeping guys on board because of past successes aren't performing at 100% capacity, I guarantee you. I know I'm getting off on a tangent, but how many teachers get tenure and then mail it in? It happens. (There are many great teachers across the state who continue to perform well after tenure.) I am certainly not saying that Coach Fulmer "mailed it in" but. . . Coach Fulmer was a top tier coach for many years, and he was paid handsomely during those years. The performance was rewarded monetarily, and nothing more is owed moving forward. The "Kiffin debacle" was exactly that. Hamilton took a cut and missed. The faction of Volunteer fans who fully supported Lane came away with egg on their faces. However, the two issues are separate in my opinion; the Kiffin debate could be a an entirely different post.
DL: No doubt the Kiffin debate is a separate topic all together. With that being said, Hamilton made two huge, but very different, mistakes here. One was firing Fulmer and the other was hiring Kiffin. Of the two mistakes, I believe that firing Fulmer was the larger one. There was no one that Hamilton was going to legitimately hire that had a greater chance of improving things anymore than Phil Fulmer. Now, I am going to break one of the fundamental rules of any debate. I am going to give ground early. I recognize that by saying Fulmer was more likely to improve things than anyone else I am admitting that things, in fact, needed improving. I will admit that the 2000's were not as good as the 1990's. But what decade was? Ever? I'll answer it for you, no decade since World War II. Fulmer created the monster. He built the fastest car in the race, and as soon other cars improved many Vol fans were ready to trade-in the car that got them in the winners circle.
ELT: Derek, excellent metaphor usage and closing statements in your previous argument. The thought of Coach Fulmer leading the Orange and White through the "T" as the most ferocious force since WW II is something that should make all Volunteer fans swell with pride. Also, I am not sure who else could so eloquently compare the bad bodied Fulmer to a sleek and contoured race car, but you pulled it off. I don't want to come across as someone who is unappreciative of the tremendous contributions that Phil Fulmer made to the University of Tennessee as a player, assistant, Head Coach and ambassador. His winning percentage as Head Coach alone is very impressive. However, with all of the above being said, I feel that Fulmer's time as an elite coach had come to an end before he was forced out the door in Knoxville.
From '00 - '08, Fulmer led the Vols to an 11 - 16 record vs. the three biggest rivalries: Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Also, during this span, the Vols were 17 - 26 vs. nationally ranked teams. This slide happened during a decade where fan patience had declined across the board. Fans have so many things pulling at their attention, and fans don't fill the stands when the product is bad. When Bama fans began to invade Neyland Stadium in droves, the writing was on the wall. Volunteer fans had become tired of the losing vs. the top teams.
Many Fulmer supporters place the blame of his firing on the shoulders of Dave Clawson. This is a very understandable argument until you flip the argument on itself. Who hired Dave Clawson as offensive coordinator before that horrible '08 season? Not only did Fulmer hire Clawson, he gave him the keys to the "fast race car" without restrictions. We all know that Clawson drove the car off the cliff (O'Doyle rules!).
Finally, it's safe to say that 17 years is a tremendous run in today's coaching landscape. Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno are the exceptions not the rule. Many who say Fulmer deserved to go out when he wanted to aren't taking into account that he had already enjoyed a much longer run than many other successful coaches get to experience.
DL: No doubt Fulmer's run was long and successful, but I don't argue that his past success is the only reason he should have been given more opportunity. I argue that he was the most uniquely qualified candidate to win championships at Tennessee. History supports that argument.
The record you reference versus the top three rivals (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) sounds bad, but when given a little perspective it falls in line with the rest of Tennessee's football history. You are correct that from 2000-2008 the Vols went 11-16 against those opponents winning 41% of the time, but did you know that Tennessee's all-time record against those three opponents is only 78-86-9 for a winning percentage of .450? Furthermore, Coach Fulmer inflated the all-time numbers by the success he enjoyed against those three rivals in the 1990's. From 1992*-1999 the Vols went 15-7-1 against those big three. If you remove those results from the all-time record, Tennessee posts a 63-79-8 mark in the rivalry games, or a 42% winning percentage. Basically, Fulmer's record against the big three during the 2000's was 1 percentage point less than Tennessee's pre-Fulmer history against those three would indicate it should have been. It could also be argued that the 2000's were among the best decades in the history of Georgia and Florida football, and the latter half of the decade was pretty good for Bama too. My point? As bad as the 2000's seemed for Vols fans, they were about what we all should have expected based on 100 plus years of history. Again, Fulmer created the monster. He is the reason we felt disappointed with 11-16 to begin with. The 1990's were the exception and the 2000's were the rule. Tennessee history is littered with coaches who would have taken 11-16 against our big rivals in a particular decade and been happy. Fulmer brought us to the top so we weren't happy. The grass isn't always greener.
To your Dave Clawson comment, I have, in the past, placed the blame on the Clawfense. I agree, however, that Fulmer should take the blame for that hire. With time, I believe we would have seen even that offense improve. Dave Clawson came in during a time when things hadn't changed at Tennessee in 16 years. Our current roster is full of players who have had to adjust to new schemes and philosophies. The 2008 roster was full of guys who knew how to do things one way. Dave Clawson has been successful everywhere he has been other than Tennessee. Another year of Clawson/Fulmer would have certainly shown improvement. Of course, we'll never know.
*Side-note: officially the Florida and Georgia games in 1992 are on Fulmer's record and the Alabama game is on Johnny Majors' record due to Fulmer's interim role that season.
ELT: Let me address the winning % numbers you touted vs. "The Big 3". The Vols' winning % with coaches other than Fulmer is 42%, and Fulmer's '00 - '08 mark was 41% or 1 % point lower than the pre-Fulmer era as you put it in your argument. I think using that line of thinking to justify a less than 50% winning % vs. your top three rivals is settling for mediocrity. The University of Tennessee football program doesn't have to take a back seat to anybody, period. UT has the facilities, tradition, NFL success rate, boosters, fanbase, etc. that is needed to compete at the very highest level of competition. While the state of Tennessee isn't the most fertile recruiting ground in the nation, you said it yourself that we produce more homegrown studs than what we're given credit for, What State Produces the Best Vols. Another reason, we should be in BCS Bowls regularly is money, plain and simple. ESPN produced data ranking the top athletic departments by revenue, and here are the findings SEC wise:
1. Alabama $123 million
2. Florida $106 million
3. Tennessee $102 million
4. Auburn $89 million
5. LSU $85 million
6. Georgia $85 million
7. Kentucky $71 million
8. South Carolina $67 million
9. Arkansas $66 million
10. Vanderbilt $45 million
11. Ole Miss $35 million
12. Mississippi State $30 million
In fact, the ESPN study shows that only 5 schools broke the $100 million revenue mark in 2009: Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Florida and Tennessee. All 5 of these schools have tremendous football tradition and lore. If you look at the past decade, the Vols are clearly lagging behind the other 4 schools in football successes during that span. The bulk of that decade falls during the Phil Fulmer era. Look at the games vs. nationally ranked opponents from '00 - '08 where the Vols went 17 - 26. Should a team with a top 5 athletic budget have that poor of a mark vs. top 25 teams? I don't think so.
The interesting thing about numbers is they can often be "cooked" to favor one side or another. While doing some research for this debate, I ran across some stats that I found to be telling.
To summarize my side of the fence on this debate, other than the great General, Coach Phillip Fulmer is the finest coach ever to grace the sidelines for the Volunteers. He was a special player, assistant and Head Coach for UT. From '95 - '98, his Vols went 45 - 5, including 2 SEC Championships and a national championship in '98. His recruiting during that timespan was unbelievable, and many coaches lost their jobs courtesy of ole' Phil. In '07, the Vols were outscored by Florida and Alabama by a combined 63 points, but they were able to somehow make the SEC Title game, only to lose a heartbreaker to LSU. It turns out that was Fulmer's last stand in a title game for the Vols. As good as '95 - '98 were, the lean years that came between '00 - '08 were enough to sink the proud coach. While Mike Hamilton went the wrong direction with Kiffin, I agree that a change was needed.
DL: Well, one thing we can agree on is that Tennessee is a great place, with great facilities, great fans, and a great opportunity to win. I believe the real crux of the Fulmer debate breaks down into whether one believes that Fulmer's success in the 90's proves that he could pull through the rough times in the 2000's. Some feel his success later doomed him. Some feel his success should have been maintained at the same level for a longer period. Regardless of which side of this debate Volunteer fans are on, the one thing that is certain is that Derek Dooley is our current coach. Focusing on the past can be entertaining but is really a futile exercise. I know this much; I hope that after 17 years of the Derek Dooley era we are debating whether a national championship and a record of 152-52 is enough to keep his job. That will certainly be a nice problem to have.
The Fulmer debate will rage for years but the fact of the matter is that both sides have truth and validity. Phil Fulmer was one of the greatest coaches in college football during his time at Tennessee. However, he also was in charge when things took a turn for the worse late in his tenure. The 90's were great; the 00's were not. Whether you believe that Tennessee was justified in firing Fulmer or was crazy to push him out the door, we can all let the the past remain in the past and root the current regime towards future success.
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