Phillip Fulmer has one incredible challenge in front of him. Tennessee’s newly hired athletic director has to secure a coach that can hopefully lead the Vols back to their glory days when Fulmer won a national championship, two SEC titles and had the Vols at the forefront of college football’s elite programs. That seems like centuries ago.
There has been plenty of debate recently if UT is still an elite program. There is no question that it is. There is still the same tradition, fan support (albeit uneasy) and top-notch facilities just like when Fulmer was the coach. UT is an elite program. The question is if the head coaching position is still considered elite. That will largely be determined by who Fulmer is able to hire.
Fulmer faces a mess, even though he didn’t create it. Former athletic director John Currie struggled to make a competent hire. We can debate the reasons why, but that really doesn’t matter any longer. It’s time to move forward. But not everyone will so quickly forget that the Vols became a punching bag for the national media.
Many coaches that the Vols talked to under Currie may be so disenchanted by UT that they won’t even entertain the Vols just because Fulmer is at the helm. There’s also still uncertainty at UT. Fulmer only signed a two-year contract and there appears to be a power struggle among top boosters and UT chancellor Beverly Davenport.
Fulmer may have further complicated a coach’s pending decision by saying he would be very “present” within the program. Fulmer can help mentor a young coach, but some coaches could see that as a former championship coach looking over their shoulder. That could be a deterent for a prospective coach.
With all of the underlying issues, it’s probably time to forget the Vols making a “splash” hire. That means no Jon Gruden nor even Mike Gundy. Fulmer needs to make a solid hire and hope that coach is either a diamond in the rough or a coach that can grow into being elite. Fulmer knows football. There’s no question in my mind he can find that sort of coach, but it’s probably time to forget about “winning” the press conference.
If there is a possible splash hire, it’s most likely Washington’s Chris Petersen, who Fulmer reportedly was set to meet with. Petersen is one of the best coaches in the nation. He’d be a home run at UT, but most think he’ll likely stay at Washington.
Here are my thoughts on a list of names presented recently by FootballScoop.com listed in order of preferability. This is by no means the only candidates still in play:
Southern Methodist head coach Chad Morris: Morris has turned SMU into a respectable program after going 2-10 in his first season there in 2015. SMU was 7-5 last season. Morris has coached some good offenses at Clemson, has worked extensively with quarterbacks and has strong recruiting ties in Texas, where he was a highly respected high school coach from 1994-2009.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables: Considered one of the best defensive coaches in the country, Venables will get his shot one day. However, should it be at a school like UT? Venables could be the next Kirby Smart or he could be a complete bust. He received the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach in 2016 and has coached under Bob Stoops, Bill Snyder and Dabo Swinney. That’s good tutelage.
Former LSU head coach Les Miles: The only way I’m taking Miles is if he agrees to turn his offense over to a bona fide coordinator. Still, that scares me. He’s said he’d revamp his offense before and never really did so.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele: Sure, he’s a UT alum and he did a great job for Auburn. However, he’s been a career journeyman that posted a 9-36 at Baylor.
Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker: I have trouble seeing this being a real possibility.