Absent but accountable

After head coach Ray Mears was sidelined by a nervous disorder eight games into Tennessee's 1962-63 basketball season, assistant Bill Gibbs guided the Vols to an 8-8 record the rest of the way, including a rare sweep of mighty Kentucky.

When Mears returned to the helm for the 1963-64 season, he was credited with the 16 Vol outcomes achieved under Gibbs, including the 2-0 mark against Adolph Rupp's Big Blue.

This did not please Rupp, who supposedly grumbled something along the lines of: "How can they say Mears beat me? He wasn't even in the gym!"

Almost half-a-century later, a Vol assistant (Tony Jones) again is filling in for a sidelined head coach (Bruce Pearl). And, once again, the outcomes achieved by the fill-in coach are being credited to the head man.

These aren't the only instances of an aide subbing for a head coach in Tennessee's athletics history, however.

- When Mears' emotional problems flared up again in 1976, associate head coach Stu Aberdeen filled in for a couple of pre-conference games. Those outcomes were credited to Mears' record.

- When Mears' health prevented him from answering the bell for the 1977-78 season, athletics director Bob Woodruff appointed Cliff Wettig "acting head coach" and gave him the reins. Wettig went 11-16 and was credited with all of the wins and losses after Mears retired following the season.

- When bypass surgery forced head coach John Majors to miss Tennessee's first three football games of 1992, offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer was designated acting head coach and guided the Vols to a 3-0 start. Majors returned but resigned under pressure after going 5-3, and Fulmer was named head coach in time for Tennessee's Hall of Fame Bowl game vs. Boston College. When he won that one, too, Fulmer was credited with a 4-0 record in '92 and Majors with a 5-3 record that season.

Bud Ford, Tennessee's associate athletics director for media relations, says the school's policy regarding wins and losses compiled by fill-in coaches has been consistent.

"It's based on the title of the person at the time," Ford said. "Wettig was named acting coach. The same happened with Fulmer."

Basically, here's the deal: Because Mears did not return for the season that followed Wettig's fill-in assignment in 1977-78, the wins and losses were credited to Wettig. Because Majors did not return for the season following Fulmer's fill-in assignment in 1992, the wins compiled under Fulmer were credited to Fulmer.

As Adolph Rupp noted nearly half-a-century ago, the logic of crediting an outcome to a head coach who didn't attend the game is debatable. For what it's worth, Pearl believes the wins and losses Tennessee compiles during his eight-game suspension should go on his record.

"Ultimately, I'm still responsible, for better or worse," Pearl said. "The only thing I can't do when I'm not coaching is execute (on game day) what we've planned on doing."

Essentially, Pearl believes his staffers deserve most of the credit when Tennessee wins but not the blame when it loses.

"They're not going to be to blame if we don't win but they're going to get the credit when we do," he said. "If we don't win, I'm going to get the blame. That's just how I feel."

Aided by assistants Steve Forbes and Jason Shay, Jones oversaw losses at Arkansas and at home to Florida in the first two games of Pearl's suspension. The three Vol aides subsequently guided the team to victories against Vanderbilt and at Georgia.

"I want to give them the credit," Pearl said of the rally. "They deserve the credit. They've earned it."

Still, the head man believes he ultimately is accountable for the success or failure of this team. He signed the players and taught them his system. He motivates them and disciplines them. He directs their practices and installs their game plans.

Given all of the above, Pearl says he cannot step aside on game day with the attitude that, "I'm not there, so you guys are on your own. I don't feel that way. They're on their own that day but they're not on their own from the minute they get back (from one game) to midnight on the day before (the next game).

"For better or worse, that's just how I felt."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories