The first casualty of Tennessee's lost campaign was offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who has long been a target of fan criticism. Speculation swirls around other staff members being replaced at season's end, but it's only in recent days that head coach Phillip Fulmer's status has come into question.
At first glance the idea of replacing the highly successful, veteran head coach seems absurd. The type of talk one would expect from the so-called fringe or lunatic element. But the deeper you dig the more it appears such a dramatic change, though improbable, is far from impossible.
If Fulmer's position is not in any danger, why would Tennessee's athletic director, along with a prominent member of the board of trustees, find it necessary to extend the proverbial public vote of confidence, which almost inevitably turns out to be the kiss of death?
The last such declaration of undying support from the administration for a Tennessee head coach was for Buzz Peterson, who now runs the basketball program at Coastal Carolina.
Of course, there's a big difference between Peterson and Fulmer, just as there's a major difference between Tennessee basketball and football. UT's football program essentially foots the bill for itself as well as the school's non-revenue producing sports. It's a huge business with a budget to match and it has grown under Fulmer's direction.
Perhaps that explains a quote attributed to Fulmer during the NBC broadcast of the Tennessee-Notre Dame game, in which, he is reported to have said: "it's a good thing I have built some equity." The accuracy of the quote or the circumstances under which it was given are not known. However, if accurate, it seems to be a rather presumptive statement.
Any equity accrued in his 13 seasons on the job falls more into the purview of salary than job security. It's also evident in the high compensation packages his staff members enjoy and in the wide berth he is given to run his program. It's found more in his automatic contract extensions and $4.6 million buyout than any guarantees of continued employment.
A persuasive argument could be made that a substantial portion of that perceived equity was spent during a turbulent offseason in which some 13 members of the Tennessee squad were arrested, suspended or toss off the team for a variety of off-the-field problems ranging from felonious assault to drug possession.
That was followed by the worst season of his head coaching career, as a Tennessee team that was picked in the nation's top five is currently tied for fifth in the SEC East Division.
This is the second time in four years that the Vols were picked to finish in the top five but failed to finish in the top 25. UT's staff received a pass in 2002 because of a rash of injuries that crippled the team. However, even when healthy the Vols didn't play well and were plagued by many of the same issues they've encounter this season i.e. penalties, turnovers and lack of cohesion.
The decline since 1998 is hard to ignore. The numbers bare out a program that has struggled to approach the success of Fulmer's teams of 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998. Whether it is a case of complacency, lack of player development, staff stagnation, bad luck or a combination of all of these factors is a matter of debate. What's known is that the Vols' level of talent rarely translated to their play on the field.
In truth, Fulmer probably has equity. Other programs have gone through lean times and their coaches survived. It's happened to both Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno. It's currently happening to Oklahoma coach Bobby Stoops, who is considered one of the hottest names in the business.
With the leveling of the playing field through the limitation of scholarships, distribution of skilled players and improved training methods, it's hard for any team to maintain excellence without interruption. Certainly there is a greater emphasis on quality coaching to maintain consistency. And it's fair to say Fulmer will be forced to make other staff changes that he has resisted in the past.
Given his achievements and winning percentage at Tennessee, Fulmer deserves a chance to right the ship. This is a different challenge than he has faced in the past, and it remains to be seen if he is up to making some of the tough decisions that await him.
And there's one more thing he should keep in mind before assuming his job is safe. Since 1998, or the better part of seven seasons, he has built a record of 59-25 at Tennessee. That sounds good, especially in light of this year's 3-5 mark, but is it good enough to assure his job?
Keep in mind Bill Battle, who coached UT from 1970 to 1976, had a 59-22-2 mark in seven seasons and was fired. Johnny Majors went 60-20-5 in his last seven full seasons on The Hill and was fired in 1992, after going 5-3 during a season he split with acting head coach Phillip Fulmer.
Battle's teams rarely had any off-field issues and never had a losing season. Majors is arguably the most popular player to ever wear the Orange. He also had a national championship to his credit at Pittsburgh (1976), and he won three SEC Championships in his last seven seasons at UT, along with two victories in the Sugar Bowl and one in the Cotton Bowl before the BCS rendered that Texas post season classic to second level status. Majors was 5-1 in bowl games his last seven years.
Fulmer hasn't won an SEC Championship since 1998 and has only been to one BCS bowl, which Tennessee lost. In post season contests the last seven seasons, Tennessee stands 2-6, including two losses in SEC title games and two losses in the Peach Bowl to a pair of ACC teams by a combined total of 57-17.
It would seem that equity, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.