Will Fulmer Lead Vols Back to Lead Pack? (Part 1)

Criticism is as much a part of the head football coaching position at Tennessee as the pursuit of perfection, and if you don't achieve the later, you're sure to experience the former.

It's not enough to play sound football and win games, you've got to entertain fans and impress pollsters, which translates to: launch the sphere and light up the scoreboard. You've got to fill seats and sell souvenirs. You've got to sign the top prospects and go to the best bowls. Plus, you're expected to maintain an ongoing advantage over every other team in the best football conference in America — all the time.

If you contribute anything to play calling, some are sure to label you a control freak. However if there is an off-field problem related to discipline you'll likely be scrutinized by those same critics for not having control of your program. Keep assistant coaches that some fans perceive as ineffective and they question if you're tough enough to handle the dirty work that goes with the territory. However, if you fire assistants in wholesale fashion after a bad season and critics will question the stability of your program, or your judgment for hiring such assistants in the first place. Punt on fourth down and one near midfield and you're blasted for being too conservative. Go for it on fourth and one and fail, and you're accused of playing dumb football.

When Phillip Fulmer accepted the head coaching job after UT conducted a cursory search of candidates in 1992, he designated "the next level" as the program's not-too-distant destination. Tennessee reached that elite level of perennial powers and national title contenders in 1995 when sophomore Peyton Manning led the Vols to an 11-1 record, a Citrus Bowl victory over Ohio State and No. 2 ranking. Over a four-year span (1995-1998), Tennessee would go 47-5, culminating in the 13-0 national championship season.

The Vols first national championship in 47 years earned them full accreditation in college football's upper crust. In two of the next three seasons, they were a mere win a way from returning to the BCS title game. In 1999, they needed to win out against Arkansas, Kentucky and Vanderbilt to earn a title defense, but an upset by the Razorbacks knocked them out of contention.

In 2001, UT needed a second win over LSU in the SEC Championship game to get a shot at the title in the Rose Bowl vs. Miami. In fact, if the Vols had managed to hold a lead at home over Georgia in the final 37 seconds earlier that fall, they still would have been Pasadena bound even with a loss to the Tigers, much as Nebraska eventually did. Interestingly, Tennessee was roughly a touchdown favorite in all three of the aforementioned setbacks and in each game they failed to hold a second-half lead.

The frustrations caused by those near misses combined with the high expectations for the 2002 campaign and its subsequent collapse, created the current undercurrent of discontent that surfaces on message boards, talk shows and around water coolers in Big Orange Country.

To be sure, we're talking about a vocal minority as most Tennessee fans, while deeply disappointed by last season's results, understand the Vols endured an incredible series of serious injuries. What many didn't understand was Tennessee's lack of focus, competitiveness and consistency and those hot stove issues as UT begins preparation for spring practice.

Tennessee has had only three sub par seasons in Fulmer's decade at the helm. The 1994 and the 2000 seasons were very similar in that UT didn't have an established quarterback and lost early contests by small margins. (The only exception was Florida's 31-0 win in 1994). Once Manning took over as a true freshman starter in ‘94 and Clausen did the same in 2000, the Vols won 12 of their remaining 13 contests combined in those years and went on to post 11-1 and 11-2 records, respectively, the following seasons.

Fulmer's three worst seasons add up to a 24-13 record which isn't bad for low-water marks. Compare that to Robert Neyland's three worst seasons at Tennessee in which the Vols were a collective 15-12-3. Bowden Wyatt's three worst seasons added up to 13-17-1. In Johnny Majors three worst seasons, the Vols went 13-19.

It should also be noted that those predecessors didn't have to deal with early entries into the NFL Draft. Two players (Carl Pickens and Chuck Webb) did leave early during Majors 16 years, but Fulmer suffered twice that number in a single season when Deon Grant, Jamal Lewis, Shaun Ellis and Cosey Coleman left after their junior season in 1999. Last year, they were followed by Donte Stallworth, Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson who had another year of eligibility after sitting out as a partial qualifier in 1998. This season, Tennessee lost Jason Witten and Kelley Washington. That's nine outstanding players in just four years. Whether it was coincidental, or not, the multiple defections in 1999 and 2001 preceded off years in 2000 and 2002, while the loss of QB Heath Shuler after the 1993 season led to an off year in 1994.

Fulmer also has more severe scholarship restrictions than former Tennessee coaches. That makes it difficult to find replacements for established stars because most topflight recruits are looking for playing time and are often reluctant to commit to a school that has sophomore starters ahead of them. Therefore, when players leave after their junior seasons there normally isn't developed talent ready to step into the breach, and the team suffers.

Granted every big-time program has to deal with early entries in the NFL Draft, but no other team in the nation has sent as many players to the NFL in the last nine years as Tennessee has, and Fulmer is the man primarily responsible for recruiting all those star-studded classes.

Although these points are not offered up as excuses, they are all contributing factors that have to be considered in any serious evaluation of the job Fulmer has done at Tennessee. There is undoubtedly room for improvement and areas of concern that have to addressed before the Vols can regain title-contender form. Likewise, there is ample evidence that Fulmer is the best man to get the job done.

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