AD Faces Trial by Hire

Funny thing about the metaphorical hot seat is that it fits fannies of all size, and so as Phillip Fulmer finally gets some relief after months of feeling the heat Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton takes his place.

His task is not an easy one. He has to replace a coach who has won 75 percent of his games over 16-plus seasons. He needs to make a hire as soon as possible to avoid further defection in the recruiting ranks and he must select from a limited field of candidates each of which is flawed.

The ideal candidate would be a proven winner, an outstanding recruiter, a good evaluator of talent, a high-energy personality capable of uniting and energizing a flagging fan base. He would get the best out of his talent and be an accomplished strategist if not an innovator. An offensive background would be preferable but not mandatory. He would surround himself with capable, hungry, ambitious assistants and delegate authority well.

Hamilton will not find a candidate who meets all of these qualification. Neither will he likely find someone with a Tennessee football background like the Vols have enjoyed the last 32 years.

In short there are no perfect candidates out there. The last Tennessee coach that appeared perfect on paper was Johnny Majors who came marching home in 1977 just days after taking Pittsburgh to an undefeated season and national championship. He faced a monumental rebuilding job at Tennessee and struggled in the early years before getting the program back on track, winning two SEC crowns in his last four seasons.

Doug Dickey, Bill Battle and Phillip Fulmer appeared far from perfect candidates since none of the three had any head coaching experience before taking the reins at Tennessee. However this trio amassed a combined record of 255-88-6 over 29 seasons.

Clearly an assistant coach could come into the job and succeed, but all three would find it harder to sustain success. Dickey left Tennessee for Florida and coached nine seasons going a modest 62-42-2. Battle went 31-5 his first three seasons but dropped off to 28-17-2 his last four and was fired after year seven. Finally Fulmer came out of the gate with a 61-13, two SEC titles and a national championship. Like Dickey and Battle Fulmer decline started in year seven, and he never won another SEC title over the last 10 years.

This would indicate the old adage: ‘It's easy to get on top than it is to stay there' has a strong element of truth to it. However it's also interesting to note that both Battle and Fulmer's early success came with programs that had gone 9-2 and 9-3 the previous seasons do neither assumed a rebuilding job. On the other hand Majors took over a program in decline that had just finished a 6-5 campaign and built it into a solid team. His experience at rebuilding the football fortunes at both Iowa State and Pittsburgh paid off. By contrast to the former assistants, Majors' breakthrough season at UT came in year No. 7 as the Vols 9-3 his best record till that point. Two years later the Vols won the SEC and finished No. 4 nationally after an upset of Miami in the Sugar Bowl.

Although Tennessee has talent it falls far short of Fulmer's early squads and the competition in the SEC has grown much stronger. As much as UT has to offer a perspective coach a championship caliber talent isn't one of them. That would appear to almost demand a coach with experience at rebuilding programs.

Making Hamilton's job tougher is the $6 million pay out to Fulmer, which could restrict what the Vols will be able to offer a coaching candidate. It is also a reminder of the contract extension given Fulmer last summer which in retrospect was a bad decision. Moreover there's the success of Nick Saban at Alabama which has created unrealistic expectations throughout the nation and particularly the SEC.

Finally there's Hamilton' success in hiring Bruce Pearl who has worked near miracles in his three-year stint on The Hill. That choice brought the Vols basketball program out of the hardwood wilderness and into the national spotlight. However it may also lead fans to believe he can do the same thing in football.

However there are far more variables in football and it's difficult for a football coach to have the same impact in the short term as a head coach in basketball. In fact SEC history suggests most initial attempts to replace an established and successful head coach are doomed to failure.

If Hamiltlon can manage to do it he won't only get off the hot seat he'll be in the drivers seat. Heck he may even have a street named after him.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories