KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee football program is steeped in tradition and historically one of the best in college football.
From the early days of General Robert Neyland winning four national championships and posting a 173-31-12 record, to Doug Dickey’s time in the 1960s, followed by Tennessee’s own Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer maintaining the Volunteer program at a championship level for 32 years – the Tennessee football program had not hit rocky times until the 2010s.
Butch Jones enters Year 5 after becoming, as he calls it, “the caretaker of Tennessee football” in 2013.
Expectations were not met in 2016 as preseason SEC East favorites, but the Volunteers defeated Florida for the first time since 2004 and defeated Georgia for the first time in back-to-back seasons since 2006 and 2007. Jones’ program also delivered the first stretch of three consecutive bowl appearances since 2002-2004. It sounds cliche to bring up the “first-time since” mantras, but it is the continuous proof of how far the program has fallen since Hall-of-Fame coach Fulmer’s departure following the 2008 season.
Two-time All-American (1968, 1969), SEC defensive player of the year (1969) and college football Hall-of-Fame linebacker Steve Kiner has been around throughout all of the head coaching regimes since Doug Dickey.
Kiner gave his thoughts on the current state of the program under Jones, as well as the important decision the university will make in hiring the next athletics director in the near future.
“It’s politics as usual with people inside that make decisions – and it’s more political decisions than what’s best for the athletic department,” Kiner told Saturday Down South. “If the university is going to do what is best for the athletic program, Phillip Fulmer should be the athletics director. End of conversation.
“I don’t know why they ever let Coach Fulmer go as a head coach – it’s beyond me. It’s one of the dumbest things and the football program is still paying for it.”
Kiner played alongside Fulmer at Tennessee. Kiner played for the Big Orange from 1966-1969 and Fulmer, a guard, played from 1968-1971.
“Fulmer was a sophomore when I was a senior,” Kiner said. “Phillip was a good guy, a stand up guy. I thought it was a mistake when they asked him to step down and I would love to see Phillip get the athletics director job.”
Current athletics director Dave Hart announced his departure on Aug. 18, saying his final day would be no later than June 30, 2017.
Six months later, there is not a replacement determined.
Kiner said nothing about this process makes sense.
“With Fulmer playing football here at Tennessee and being an assistant and head coach, any other candidate is out the door with me,” Kiner said. “Fulmer’s lifelong time at the university brings value. A former athlete knows the landscape of what players are going through, they know the circumstances, they just have a better feel for it.”
Fulmer, the former national champion and two-time SEC champion head coach, and David Blackburn seem to be the two finalists to replace Hart, who was hired in 2011.
Blackburn, a Loudon, Tenn., native, graduated from Tennessee after serving two years as head football student manager and student assistant under head coach Majors. He joined the Tennessee athletics department in 1992. His roles included of five years as an assistant athletics director for football administration under Fulmer. Blackburn currently holds the athletics director position at Chattanooga.
Kiner understands the good that Blackburn brings, but also understands that it is time to bring a former player and coach home to the position in overseeing the athletics department, as well as what Fulmer can bring with fundraising and getting things done with men’s and women’s athletics.
“Blackburn may be a real good businessman, that’s great, but as far as connecting with the athletes, (Fulmer) brings that with the men’s and women’s athletics,” Kiner said. “If they don’t want to hire Fulmer as athletics director – then what’s it all about? Fundraising is a big factor and he brings that to the table.”
Another element of the AD position is overseeing changes and progress of current coaches. Fulmer obviously has experience at evaluating coaches and managing change.
For Jones, his offseason has been one of assistant coaching changes following a season that did not end as expected. Kiner approved of Jones shuffling the staff to make things correct.
“I don’t really know the background of the coaches he is bringing in, but he has been shuffling the staff and rightfully so,” Kiner said. “He needs to find something that is going to work for him. I haven’t seen a lot of play on either side of the ball I like in the last year. I liked what (Joshua) Dobbs brought, he has a lot of good athletes on roster, but the continuity is not there on game day. The trust factor needs to be of the guy lined up next to you and I don’t see them playing with that level of confidence.”
Kiner sees how hiring Fulmer would benefit Jones.
“I think Fulmer would get along with Butch,” Kiner said. “I think Butch is a good coach, whether he is a great coach or not, I don’t know. He needs to take it to the next level and prove that. I don’t see anything that Jones has done that has hurt the program.
“Coach Jones has been committed to Tennessee since the day he walked on campus. He puts all of his heart, all of his energy into what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s knocking on the door and close to where they want to be. The commitment needs to be there from everyone that wants to be there.”
Lastly, the criticism that Jones takes of talking about the recruiting criteria and portfolio he has, being 5-star hearts or “champions of life,” Kiner understands the nature of the sayings from being an under-sized prospect himself and turning into a college football Hall-of-Famer and a nine-year NFL player.
“When I was recruited, I wasn’t a 5-star recruit,” Kiner said. “I do not agree with the 3-, 4-, 5-star stuff – they’re going to be twice of what they were at 20, 21 years old, if they develop, from when they were recruited. It doesn’t have anything to do with how big and good they are coming in, it’s how they develop and how good they are when they finish in the program.”