Huge Shoes to Phil

With Big Orange Country still reverberating from the resignation of head coach Phillip Fulmer, the retention and recruitment of Tennessee's Class of 2008 ranks just below the coaching search itself in terms of program priorities.

A potential top 10 class nationally could quickly unravel if Tennessee becomes involved in a protracted nationwide coaching search. That gives competitors a chance to pick off prized prospects that will invariably examine their options in the light of uncertainty around UT's coaching hire.

Some losses are probably unavoidable given those 21 prospects already committed to Tennessee were at least partly attracted by the program's stability and built relationships with a staff that will be largely, if not completely, different.

Mike Hamilton's biggest obstacle isn't finding a qualified candidate as there is a teeming pool of viable options that offer a variety of strengths and styles. Sure some will hesitate to plunge into the shark invested waters of the SEC with a talent base smaller than those of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Louisiana and South Carolina. Hamilton's dilemma is finding a successor that is not already on another job and unable to assume duties on The Hill before the end of the bowl season or barely a month before national signing day.

That would eliminate a lot of head coaches as well as some assistants. Even getting permission to contact a gainfully employed coach before the season concludes could become a messy process. Throw in the fact several schools are currently looking for a head coach and others will soon be joining the hunt, it's clear this process could become long and tedious.

If the end result is a substandard recruiting class it would be the Vols' third such class in the last four years, following the 2006 and 2008 signing classes that failed to crack the top 20 nationally. That could translate to a more arduous rebuilding task which in turn could weaken UT's appeal to coaching candidates. Being the first to follow a highly successful head coach like Fulmer, who is one of Tennessee's own is going to be tough enough to pitch to prospective coaches.

Tennessee is unlikely to find a head coach who recruits as consistently well as Fulmer. In truth he may be the best recruiting head coach in the business. Granted he has a lot to recruit to but that gap has narrowed in recent years particularly in the SEC where the Vols have long held an edge in facilities and fan support.

The point being the Tennessee head coaching job is more attractive now than it will be in January. And the Vols need boots on the ground spreading a positive image of the future and reassuring prospects already committed to be a part of that future. The best case scenario is a candidate emerges who's available for immediate duty. He needs time to hire a staff and an opportunity to get a head start on installing his system which will be the third different offense in as many years at Tennessee.

Former USC offensive coordinator and Oakland Raider head coach Lane Kiffin makes sense for Tennessee from an availability standpoint just as he does to Clemson, Washington and others in the market for a head coach. Of course, that will drive up his price, and while he meets the qualifications of head coaching experience, being a talented recruiter with an offensive background and a high-energy personality, at age 33, he remains an unproven coaching commodity over the long haul.

It's unlikely Tennessee would be interested in a head coach that might become available in the same way Fulmer is. Tommy Tuberville comes to mind if he is soon to be axed as is heavily rumored. It's hard to see UT going in that direction. A more likely scenario would be a head coach without anything at stake in the way of post season play. However that presents its own set of drawbacks since odds are that would be a coach who is still rebuilding or one in decline.

Still it seems unlikely Hamilton would have moved this soon to dismiss Fulmer unless he had someone in mind to replace him. That may be giving the athletic director too much credit, or too little, as he may be even further along in the process. As tired as many Tennessee fans may have become with maddening inconsistencies experienced under Fulmer since 2002, he'll be missed by most come national signing day every year. Say what they may no one can deny, that the big man knows how to recruit.


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