Fulmer gets extension, but no raise

Excellence should be rewarded; mediocrity should not.

That's why I'm glad the University of Tennessee elected NOT to give head football coach Phillip Fulmer a raise this year. Fulmer got a one-year contract extension over the weekend that retains his services through Dec. 31, 2009 but his annual salary package of $1.65 million was not sweetened.

That's as it should be. Tennessee would be hard-pressed to find anyone who could handle the dual chore of recruiter/head coach as well as Fulmer, so extending his contract was a smart move. His overall record is an imposing 103-25, and his winning percentage (.805) ranks second among active Division I-A coaches. In short, he's a keeper.

However, Fulmer went 8-5 last fall with a team that was projected to contend for the national title. He should not be rewarded for that.

Granted, the 2002 Vols suffered a glut of key injuries but Fulmer's job includes dealing with injuries, transfers, academic casualties, etc. Basically, his job is making the most of the talent available. He and his staff failed last fall, which was never more evident than during Tennessee's 30-3 humiliation at the hands of Maryland in the Peach Bowl.

Since becoming UT's fulltime head coach in 1993, Fulmer has recorded 10 consecutive winning seasons and 10 consecutive bowl appearances. He has won a national championship and two SEC championships. But fans are asking the inevitable question: What have you done for us lately?

After going 45-5 (a .900 winning percentage) from 1995-98, Fulmer has gone 36-14 (a .720 winning percentage) in the four years since. His 2000 team went 8-4 and was battered by Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. His 2001 team fell apart in the SEC Championship game, blowing a shot at the national title. His 2002 team might be the greatest underachiever in school history.

In announcing the extension of Fulmer's contract, athletics director Doug Dickey said: ''I'm pleased to make this renewal of Coach Fulmer's contract. Phillip has operated a winning and exemplary program and continues to provide excellent management. His leadership is reflected not only at Tennessee but also by his recent election to president of the AFCA.''

School president John Shumaker also praised the Vols' head man.

"Phillip Fulmer is a great coach and a wonderful individual,'' Shumaker said. ''We are happy to have him at Tennessee, and I look forward to many more years of his leadership of our football program."

Much has been made of the fact that 19 Vol starters missed a combined 71 games because of injury in 2002. There is no doubt that this destroyed Tennessee's chances of being an elite team last fall. However, Tennessee still had enough quality players that it should've been competitive against Alabama, Florida, Miami and Maryland. Instead, the Vols were manhandled by each of these teams.

Can Fulmer right the ship? He thinks so, based on the comments he made after receiving the new contract.

''I am very pleased with the extension and the continued confidence the university shows in our program,'' Fulmer said. ''We had a very unusual year with extenuating circumstances, but look forward to many great years ahead.''

The question is: Will 2003 be one of those ''great years'' or another exercise in futility?

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