When Cutcliffe left to become head coach at Ole Miss following the 1998 season, Fulmer promoted Randy Sanders from running backs coach to offensive coordinator. When Sanders left following the 2005 season, Fulmer brought back Cutcliffe for a second tour of duty.
To recap: Fulmer's first four hires for coordinator vacancies consisted of two UT grads from his own staff (Chavis, Sanders), a fellow staffer (Cutcliffe) and a former staffer (Cutcliffe again).
Given this obvious fondness for "keeping it in the family," most observers were stunned last January when Fulmer hired Dave Clawson to succeed Cutcliffe, who had left to become head man at Duke. In addition to NOT being a UT guy, Clawson wasn't even a Div. 1 guy. He was hired away from Div. 1-AA Richmond.
Eight months later, some observers are still bemused by Fulmer's decision to go outside the family ... and he's still bemused that they're bemused.
"We were very blessed to have Walt Harris, Kippy Brown and all of that string of guys, so it was an easy hire to promote within," Fulmer said. "And it wasn't a stretch. These guys were darned good at what they're doing."
Maybe so, but the promotion of the unheralded Chavis raised eyebrows in 1995 and the promotion of the unproven Sanders raised even more in 1999. Those moves suggested Fulmer was unwilling to venture outside the state's borders for coordinators. So, when Cutcliffe left last December, most observers assumed Fulmer would fill the vacancy by promoting an aide (Trooper Taylor, Greg Adkins) or by hiring a former Vol assistant (Kippy Brown, Doug Marrone).
After briefly considering members of his own staff and making unsuccessful overtures to Brown and Marrone, however, Fulmer decided it was time to break with tradition and bring in an outsider.
"It wasn't difficult because as I looked at the staff I thought the guys were all good coaches but they might not be quite ready for what we were trying to do," Fulmer said. "So, who is the person? We went through the process of researching it, and Dave came out with it.
"Was it hard? No, it was a process. If we'd had somebody internally that we felt like was 100 percent ready and going to be a fit, we would've considered that."
Fulmer was intrigued by Clawson's success as head man at Fordham and Richmond. The Vol boss was even more intrigued when he met the charismatic Clawson in person.
Asked what impressed him most, Fulmer replied, "The interview, his background. Everywhere he's been he's had success. He's taken marginal to below-marginal programs and turned them into winners. He has taken really good players and found a way to get them the football."
During a stint as offensive coordinator at Villanova, Clawson molded Brian Westbrook into the first Wildcat back to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same season, a feat Fulmer described as "pretty darned impressive."
Clawson's ability to adjust and adapt his system and his personnel to achieve maximum production was the clincher.
"You knew he had the mentality to do whatever it took to make the offense go," Fulmer said, "and he knew how to take a player and get him the ball."
After coaching Div. 1-AA players at Richmond, Clawson will be working with a higher-quality athlete at Tennessee.
"He has a little bit more of a luxury here than maybe he's had anywhere else he's been because there are several guys here who have the potential (to be difference-makers) and other really solid guys," Fulmer said. "Marrying all of that up will be interesting."
Not as interesting as Fulmer's decision to go outside the family last January, however. That move still has some folks buzzing.
"I like the fact everybody's excited that we did something different," Fulmer said. "That's OK. That's a good piece of the puzzle."