At that point it had been so long since Tennessee had been to the next level (heretofore defined as a consistent nation-title contender and perennial SEC powerhouse) most UT fans would require a road map to get there. However Fulmer delivered on that ambitious aim in short order, leading the Vols to their first national championship in 47 years in only his sixth full season on the job. That was a feat that bridged the gap to Tennessee's gridiron glory days under the General.
Again Tennessee was in the title hunt in late November of 1999, and within a win of a return trip to the championship game last December. There was also the 1995 season in which the Vols finished No. 2 and No. 3 in the USA/CNN and Associated Press polls, respectively. UT's cumulative record from 1995 through 1998 was a spectacular 45-5.
No doubt, Fulmer has taken Tennessee to football's equivalent of the Promised Land and the last thing Vol fans want to hear is that, like Moses, he could be on borrowed time. So we won't say that. In fact, we don't even have to discuss the matter further in this piece, but odds are it won't be far from mind.
Instead we'll discuss the rest of the conference and what has become a full-fledged trend of quick-change artists.
Besides Fulmer isn't exactly the Lone Ranger, there is another exception in Starkville, Miss., in head coach Jackie Sherrill who is the ranking dean among SEC head coaches with 11 years on the job. Unfortunately, Sherrill's longevity may be more of an aberration than an exception. He has a 70-56-2 mark during his tenure at Mississippi State which might set off cow bells in Starkville, but would incite riots at the SEC's original Big Six — Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee.
Those are the schools that have the best records, the highest stature, the richest tradition, the biggest stadiums and the largest fan base. At these schools football isn't just business, it's big business and the flow of dollars, which prop up the entire athletic infrastructure, is often in direct proportion to the team's success. The head coach's offices at these institutions are pressure cookers and the seats are hot even when their occupants are cool.
There's pressure to win at any college head coaching job especially in the SEC, but the standards of success are different at Mississippi State than they are at Tennessee. Sherrill isn't a good gauge because Bulldog fans don't expect to go 12-1 or 13-0 every year. They probably figure they couldn't do much better, and they only have to look at Vanderbilt and Kentucky to know they could do worse. Additionally, Sherrill hasn't exactly had to fend off suitors since arriving at Starkville from Texas A&M in 1991 — one step ahead of NCAA investigators. Sometime last year Sherrill commented that he wanted to complete his coaching career at Mississippi State. That's easy to say when you have no options, and many head coaches would consider Starkville to be pigskin purgatory. Perhaps after, allegedly, playing fast and loose with the rules at Washington State, Pittsburgh and Texas A&M, Sherrill is paying his penance.
Believe me: I don't want to turn this into a bash Jack fest but, outside of the Magnolia State, when most people hear the name Jackie Sherrill they think of a coaching outlaw who survives by dredging the junior college ranks, and who once castrated a bull in front of his team to inspire it for an upcoming game with the Texas Longhorns. (What's with that: couldn't he accomplish the same thing by serving up an undercooked slab of beef?)
For purposes of this examination we'll compare Fulmer — who is entering his 11th season at UT and his 10th full year at the wheel — with the rest of the Big Six and SEC. Coach Fulmer's decade on the job at Tennessee is actually three years longer than the head coaches at Auburn, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU have combined. Tommy Tuberville is second on this list with three years at Auburn, Nick Saban has two at LSU while Dennis Franchione and Mark Richt have one year each. Ron Zook takes over this year from Steve Spurrier who left after his 12 seasons at Florida. By the way, Spurrier's stint at his alma mater is the longest in Florida history. Is it any wonder Gator baiters are nervous? Another interesting aside about the current crop of the Big Six head coaches that hints of a trend: Fulmer, Richt and Zook got their current jobs without college head coaching experience, while Tuberville, Saban and Franchione had a combined 29 years of head coaching experience going into their SEC gigs.
Fulmer's experience edge over the entire SEC East is even greater, reaching the two-to-one mark at 10 years to five years combined for the rest of the East. South Carolina's Lou Holtz has three of those years. Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Florida have two years combined between them.
In fact, the average stay for the 12 current SEC head coaches is a mere 3.25 years. If you throw out the aberration (Sherrill) and the exception (Fulmer) that number falls to 1.8 years. If you combine the abberration and the exception you have a 21 to 17 years experience edge over the rest of the conference. If you throw out the aberration, the exception has more than half as many years at Tennessee as the other 10 current SEC head coaches have combined (10 to 18).
These numbers are staggering, to say nothing of revealing, when compared to decades past. Paul "Bear" Bryant spent 32 years as an SEC head coach, including eight at Kentucky. Auburn's Ralph "'Shug" Jordan and Georgia's Vince Dooley each had a quarter of a century on the job and Johnny Vaught was at the Ole Miss helm for 24 years. Charlie McClendon called the shots in Baton Rogue for 18 years while Johnny Majors headed UT for 16 years a span no SEC coach has matched since Johnny left the Hill in 1992.
General Robert R. Neyland was UT's head coach for 21 years between 1926 in 1952 a period that included a couple of calls to active duty. Even Vanderbilt had an era of stability with Dan McGugin guiding the Commodores' ship for 29 years.
The last of these 20-plus year tenures ended when Dooley stepped down as Georgia's head coach in 1988. None were carried out under a separate athletic director or with the financial windfall that is a part of today's huge TV contracts. The football frontier these prodigious pigskin pioneers founded has changed immensely. Today the stakes are higher, the scrutiny greater and the pressure more intense. Scholarship limitations have sent the margin for error in recruiting soaring, and the rules that govern recruiting are stricter and more rigidly enforced. Nowadays it's not just a matter of doing your job, it's about pleasing a boss who answers to a board that is bombarded by a cadre of constituencies with special interests covering the spectrum.
Yes the college football landscape has certainly changed since the Bear Bryants and General Neylands roamed the SEC. They were kings of their domains whereas SEC coaches today are often victims of the very beast their proud predecessors created.
The numbers reflect that fact. But what do they foretell?