After the Peach Bowl defeat, neither family or fan could identify the remains of a proud program; a perennial national title contender that traditionally played sound fundamental football and lived by the maxims that coaching legend General Robert R. Neyland used to build Tennessee into a gridiron powerhouse.
No, this was a team that stumbled blindly where the only the brave dare tread. It played its worst against the best competition despite receiving the greatest fan support in college football. Moreover, when push came to shove, this team didn't push back. The severe losses it suffered in the way of injuries were only compounded by its lack of will and wits. In short: It underachieved and was overwhelmed.
In the end, even the most positive Tennessee fan had to admit that the problems went deeper than the depleted depth chart. How they started and where they will end are matters weighing heavily on head coach Phillip Fulmer's mind. Unfortunately, the solutions won't be easily found or implemented, and they may be wrought with complications.
Coach Fulmer has enjoyed autonomy in regard to building his program and shaping his staff. That's the type of leverage you gain when you have experienced the degree of success he has during his decade reign on The Hill. But along with that high level of achievement, he has also incurred a standard of expectation that is daunting. An 8-5 record alone might not be enough to undermine his authority or credibility, but losing four games by big margins on home turf is something that won't fly with the fan base regardless of his overall winning percentage. And make no mistake, just as the mob was the beating heart of Rome, the fans are the heart and soul of Tennessee football.
The loss to Maryland is particularly distasteful because it's the worst bowl loss in Tennessee's rich history, and it occurred in the home of the SEC Championship game where Tennessee had a decisive home-field advantage. Losing to Miami was no disgrace, although a more competitive game would have made the defeat more palatable. However the losses to Florida, Georgia and Alabama in a single season is something that set off alarms in Big Orange Country.
How things got this bad this fast is a subject for debate, but the forensics point to the 2001 campaign in which the Vols were able to make numerous fourth-quarter comebacks to capture key victories over Arkansas, Alabama, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Kentucky and Florida. The Vols also made an 11th-hour rally against Georgia, but couldn't make it stand up.
Perhaps the Vols developed a false sense of security by winning in such a fashion which carried over into 2002. The dangers of that type of mindset, regardless of your talent level, were graphically illustrated in losses to Georgia and LSU in 2001 — two games in which the Vols blew leads and golden opportunities.
Unfortunately, Tennessee was ill equipped to play from behind and pull out dramatic victories in 2002 after losing 12 players to the NFL and suffering a devastating series of injuries. They lacked both the leaders and play-makers needed to live on the edge and survive. Instead there emerged a pattern of falling behind early and never coming back to even challenge, much less win. Eventually, the Vols confidence eroded as they appeared to know no other way to win, or lose for that matter.
The coaching staff often seemed at a loss to communicate needed adjustments, despite both coordinators moving from the booth to the sidelines after the Florida debacle. This is significant because as the playing field in college football has grown increasingly level, the importance of good strategists and game-day coaches has proportionally risen. That may in part explain how the programs at USC and Virginia have rebounded so quickly behind head coaches with NFL pedigrees.
Of course, this is merely a theory on how the Vols reached their current state. The greater issue is how will they resolved it?
The most viable approach might be to make changes on the UT staff and to consider changes in the system, particularly on offense where opponents seem to have a better bead on what Tennessee wants to do that the Vols themselves. Example: For every pass that was thrown to a spot that no receiver occupied this season, there was a blitz that would blow up a play in the backfield. The point is: If the system is too difficult for your own receivers and linemen to grasp, but easy for opponents to read, it requires an overhaul — not a tune-up.
One problem to making such a change is the fact that offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, like Fulmer, is deeply indoctrinated in a system Walt Harris brought to Tennessee in the mid-80s and neither has been exposed on a working basis to a wide variety of offenses. It's what they know best and what they have the most confidence in.
To make a change would require some input from outside UT's immediate football family, and it's difficult to bring somebody in to perform that task without offering a lot of authority to go with it. While it's more likely a subordinate or two would get the ax, it still might not bring about the necessary changes. No doubt, the offensive line and wide receivers were among the most disappointing units this season and both the coaches and personnel at those positions figure to be thoroughly evaluated.
Additionally, and obviously, the Vols need an influx of personnel from this year's recruiting class to bolster next season's rebound. However it's difficult to make wholesale changes on the staff without losing ground with key prospects. For instance: Would wide receiver Jayson Swain — the biggest name among UT's current list of seven verbal commitments — remain in the Vols fold if Pat Washington is replaced as wide receivers coach? For all the criticism he has received, Washington is probably the primary reason Swain chose the Vols.
This brings up another point to consider; for all Fulmer has accomplished as a recruiter there is a need at Tennessee for a recruiting star on the staff to supplement the head coach's sterling efforts. UT has a competent recruiting staff, but lacks the type of young, ambitious, high-energy presence that would complement the current group and push the staff to greater success. A couple of enthusiastic and gifted recruiters would also allow Fulmer the flexibility to focus more on the football program.
In absence of such additions, Fulmer should at least consider adding a recruiting coordinator who concentrates solely on recruiting without day-to-day coaching responsibilities.
These type of changes will be tough to command for a coach who places great value on loyalty. In fact, they are the type of changes former head coach Johnny Majors never hesitated to make during his revolving-door era. The end result was a lack of continuity or loyalty which destabilized the program and created inconsistency.
Fulmer was part of those staffs and doesn't want to return to a time when the head coach ruled through fear and openly criticized his subordinates. That's commendable and in keeping with Fulmer's compassionate character, but it could also become his achilles heel. While it's wise to avoid the failures of his predecessor, it's also prudent to recall Majors' successes. Because, above all, Johnny Majors was a survivor and superb PR man.
In the 1988 season, that has so often been used as a frame of reference during the shortcomings of the 2002 campaign, Majors made a change that completely turned the program around. After an 0-5 start in which the defense struggled mightily, Majors fired DC Ken Donahue and replaced him with Doug Matthews who, in turn, changed Tennessee from a 50-front to its present day 4-3 scheme.
The Vols played much better the next week against Alabama before dropping a 28-20 decision and closed the year with five straight victories. In 1989, Tennessee went 11-1 with a Cotton Bowl victory over Arkansas and a No. 4 national ranking. The program was back on the high ground and would go 43-9-2 from the point of the change until Fulmer took over before the bowl game in 1992.
Whether such a change is needed now is an issue for Fulmer to determine. The only thing for sure is that Tennessee can't continue to do things the same way and hope for different results.