Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mandel on Fulmer: He's Great! He's in Trouble! I don't Know! What do you Want from Me!?!

It's been a while since we covered a Mandelian gander at the college football world. His gander at the situation on Rocky Top is an exercise in not answering a good question:

In your opinion, what is the main reason why Tennessee is barely mentioned anymore nationally? They are not considered as a favorite to even win their division. And you did not include the UF-Tennessee matchup as one of your 10 most important games as it has been in the past, even though they have played some good ones lately. Is it that you believe the present coaching staff simply cannot get it done?
-- Gerald Woods, Tampa

Do you think if Phillip Fulmer does not get the Vols to a BCS bowl this year Tennessee would look bad for giving him the boot? Here's a guy who year in and year out has some of the best recruits in the country come in only to churn out mediocre seasons (with the exception of 1998). Some people tend to think that his one and only national championship has given him a free ride for the rest of his life. The guy had a freaking losing season two years ago with a preseason No. 3 squad!!!! What gives?
--Josh Johnston, Virginia Beach, Va.

So you want to give Big Phil the boot, do you? I guess that means they'll have to take down that street they named after him (Phillip Fulmer Way). And explain why they're firing one of the five winningest active coaches in the country (only Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops and Mark Richt have a higher percentage among guys with at least five years experience).

But both Gerald and Josh have valid points. While the Vols remain a regular top-20 program, the fact is they're not as nationally relevant as they were a decade ago. They haven't won an SEC championship since 1998, haven't played in a BCS bowl since '99 and haven't seriously contended for the national title since 2001. In the five seasons since, they've posted a combined record of 42-21 -- not too shabby by any means but certainly a step down from their 54-8 run from 1995 to '99.

Without question, the trademark of Fulmer's 15-year tenure in Knoxville has been recruiting. The Vols do it as well as anyone, not only dominating their own state but luring big-time talent from as far away as California. Many of their biggest stars over the years -- from Peyton Manning (Louisiana) to Jamal Lewis (Georgia) to Peerless Price (Ohio) to Donte Stallworth (California) -- have come from outside of Tennessee. Based on the recruiting rankings, that juggernaut seems to be continuing today. According to Rivals.com, two of the Vols' past three classes have ranked in the top five nationally.

But even the best recruiters occasionally make mistakes, and Fulmer would be the first to tell you the program got sloppy a few years ago, recruiting some questionable characters who not only flamed out on the field but also created off-field distractions and poisoned the locker room. They contributed heavily to the 5-6 disaster in 2005. But I also think Fulmer and his staff have been exposed a bit as coaches ever since the SEC playing field got leveled a bit. The Vols may still be recruiting blue-chippers, but so too are Florida, LSU, Georgia and Auburn. I don't think any football observer would ever single out Fulmer as a world-class game coach. It's not like you watch a Vols game and go, "Oh, yeah, that was a signature Fulmer move." So is it any wonder that when the talent is mostly even, Fulmer has struggled against more renowned tacticians like Steve Spurrier (4-8), Richt (2-4), Tommy Tuberville (1-3 since Tuberville got to Auburn) and Meyer (0-2)?

This year's Vols certainly look promising on paper, but Tennessee is one of those teams that always looks good on paper because it's never hurting for talent. Is it fair for Tennessee fans to expect a return to the BCS sooner than later? Absolutely. But I'll tell you this much -- with Meyer, Richt and Spurrier in his own division and Nick Saban now on the Vols' schedule every year at Alabama, it's not going to get any easier for Fulmer.

This drives me crazy. Mandel gets a pair of good questions from Tennessee fans about Philip Fulmer's future, a fascinating topic since Fulmer has a good aggregate record, but has clearly fallen several notches this decade, leaving Tennessee behind a number of other programs in the rapidly-fortifying SEC. So what are his answers:

Fulmer has a good record and a street named after him. (Johnny Majors was possibly the most famous Vol of all-time and that didn't stop him from getting the boot after the '92 season.)

Fulmer has been mediocre since 2001. (And Mandel might want to add in that Tennessee lost a shot at the national title in 2001 against a clearly inferior LSU team missing its starting quarterback. That LSU team was coached by Nick Saban, who is now the head coach at Tennessee's arch-rival. Hmmm...)

Fulmer recruits well.

Fulmer brought in some bad apples and struggles against the best coaches in the SEC.

Tennessee should be good this year, but things are getting harder because of the level of coaching in the conference (and still no mention of the fact that Saban was hired by the one program that Tennessee fans want to beat the most. The program that caused Fulmer to turn state's evidence.)

Notice what's missing in that "answer"? There is no actual stand on whether Fulmer ought to be fired if Tennessee doesn't reach a certain level of success. Mandel instead relies on a series of obvious statements that are, in his defense, backed up with actual facts, and there is no attempt to interpret the facts. Seeing as how I've never met Fulmer and don't have any plans to do so, I don't have to worry about Phil giving me nasty looks the next time I see him and thus, I can offer an actual opinion, which is this: Fulmer can and should be gone if he doesn't get Tennessee into the top 15 this year and show that he can hold his own against Richt, Meyer, and Saban. Fulmer is in the same boat that John Cooper was in in 2000: a good coach who had led his program to some excellent seasons, but who was also presiding over a bit of a downfall. At the time Cooper was fired, there was plenty of "how do you fire a guy who went 11-1 and finished #2 two years ago?", just as there will be plenty of "how can you fire a coach who won a national title?" if Fulmer is offed. (Ask Larry Coker.)

In evaluating Fulmer, I see two competing possibilities:

1. The decline of Tennessee tracks David Cutcliffe's departure after the 1998 regular season. Now that Cutcliffe is back, Tennessee is on better footing and as long as Fulmer can run the recruiting/CEO functions of being a head coach, the Vols should be fine.

2. Fulmer doesn't bring much to the table. He could succeed when he was competing against Jim Donnan, Mike Dubose, Ron Zook, Brad Scott, and Terry Bowden, but he's out of his depth against Spurrier, Richt, Meyer, Saban, and Tuberville. Mandel hints towards this conclusion in his answer, but he doesn't conjure up the stones to actually say it.

There's an interesting corollary to #2: let's say that Tennessee loses to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama this year, looks at the coaching arms race in the SEC, and decides that their rivals are all deploying jets while they're defending their factories with props. They fire Fulmer after an 8-4 regular season and throw a boatload of money at Rich Rodriguez, who decides that life after Steve Slaton doesn't seem that great and he can make twice the money in Knoxville, all while staying in Appalachia. All of a sudden, Tennessee has a fancy jet and there are other powers in the conference that are suddenly wondering whether their planes are a little out-dated. LSU is the obvious place for discontent, which will be tricky, especially if Les Miles produces another 11-2 season. The other place is Georgia. I'm certainly not going to claim that Georgia fans will be annoyed with Richt in the short-term, but it's conceivable to see a situation five years from now where Richt doesn't look as great when he's competing against Spurrier, Meyer, and Rodriguez in the East as opposed to Zook, Fulmer, and Granny Clampett. On the other hand, it's just as likely that Richt would make one or two staff improvements and would hold his own against those rivals. Oh no, I've gone cross-eyed.

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