First and 10: Since Fulmer, Tennessee has lost a ton of games. Its lunatic fan base has lost its mind
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
It was nearly a decade ago when the grand implosion started the big bang that led to mistake after mistake after mistake in the Tennessee football program.
And now there’s nothing left but a gaping black hole of hurt, embarrassment and shame. Sort of like that day in November 2008, when Vols legend Phillip Fulmer was forced out as coach.
Fulmer sat at the dais that day, choked up and fighting back tears from the end of a 32-year love affair with a program and its university. Those words at that emotional press conference still ring true today.
“Our Tennessee family is united in its goals, but divided in the right path to get there,” Fulmer said that day. “I love Tennessee too much to let her stay divided.”
So he walked away before being publicly fired, and over the next nine seasons, Tennessee devolved into this:
— A coach (Lane Kiffin) who rang up NCAA secondary violations in the 14 months he stayed in Knoxville before bolting for another job.
— A coach (Derek Dooley) who, after his second season of nothingness, had seven of his nine assistants leave for other jobs – and once compared his team to the German Forces in World War II.
— A coach (Butch Jones) who called a former player a “traitor” after he tried to help a woman who accused two Tennessee football players of sexual assault, a case that was part of Title IX lawsuit for “hostile sexual environment” that the university eventually settled for $2.5 million.
Meanwhile, on the field, Tennessee’s fall from the SEC elite has been staggering. The Vols are 57-56 (23-49 in SEC games) since Fulmer’s forced resignation, and just finished the first winless SEC season in school history.
And now the program is more divided than ever.
It doesn’t take Vols athletic director John Currie kowtowing to the lunatic fringe to figure that out. Currie had his man to replace the fired Jones, the latest failure in a long and bitter lost decade of football on Rocky Top.
He zeroed in on Greg Schiano, and once word leaked, the scariest reality for anyone in management at any job in any line of work revealed its dark and dangerous power (more on that later). It’s almost fitting, really, that an internet coup d’état that would’ve made Napoleon blush wrecked any hope of Currie getting his man.
These are the same Tennessee fans who insist there’s a chance Jon Gruden – no one loves hearing Jon Gruden will coach again more than Jon Gruden, people – will ride into Knoxville on his magic telestrator to save the day. Or that Chris Petersen will leave Washington for all things Big Orange.
These delusional dreamers in Knoxville had a coach that built Rutgers from a joke of a program in 2001, all the way to the top 10 in 2006 — and ran him off before the ink dried on the memorandum of understanding.
Now former Vols national championship quarterback Tee Martin is reportedly in the running for the job, and CBSSports.com reported that Tennessee offered Gruden $10 million a year.
What coach in his right mind (other than Martin) will take the Tennessee job now, knowing full well that the university bends at the fanatical and fevered whims of grown men and women with Twitter weapons, and young adults at an institution of higher learning who don’t understand fifth grade grammar, but know enough to know who they want running the show in Knoxville.
Fulmer wasn’t just crying a decade ago because of the end of a love affair. To be fair, it was unraveling under him, too. The Vols’ last relevant season was 2001, and over the next seven years, Tennessee lost 31 games – 19 by double digits – before Fulmer was forced out.
Understand this: 16 years of irrelevancy is like three forevers in college football. But it might take another 16 to get this program from underneath this self-inflicted mess.
2. The power of lunacy
So Tennessee fans decided they’d seen enough of the bad hires, and would take the coaching search into their own hands. With social media.
This should be the grand awakening of every manager at any job anywhere in the world: ignore social media and die by 10,000 retweet paper cuts.
That is, if the social media mob disagrees with you.
Because the same Tennessee fans using Schiano’s alleged knowledge of the Sandusky crimes at Penn State (a third-party allegation, denied by both originating parties and never proven in court), are the same fans who in 2014 turned a blind eye when Jones called a former player a “traitor” for defending a woman who accused two Vols players of sexual assault.
In fact, three weeks after the woman went public with her accusation, the Tennessee administration extended Jones’ contract to 2020.
So please, #VolsTwitter, spare me your righteous indignation about any alleged Schiano/Sandusky connection. You didn’t want Schiano because you didn’t think he could win in the meat grinder that is the SEC.
We’d all feel a lot better about your lunacy if you simply admitted it.
3. The Power of lunacy, The Epilogue
Here’s the problem with the past three hires at Tennessee: There was no core ideal, no foundation of who and what they are, to carry a program through rough times.
Kiffin never met bad publicity he didn’t like (and still doesn’t); Dooley was the smartest guy in the room and let you know every chance he could, and Jones threw around corny and contrived ideals that were more embarrassing (turnover trash can) than inspiring.
It’s time to move along this decade of destruction and simply find a coach and recruiter who, when interviewed, has a plan and has the charisma to pull it off. My suggestion: Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
When I asked Clemson coach Dabo Swinney last year about Elliott’s future as a head coach, he quickly shot back with, “If you interview Tony Elliott, you’re going to hire him.”
Few assistant coaches in the game are more ready to build their own program like Elliott, the measured, meticulous and charismatic architect of the Clemson offense. He saw last year that Alabama’s defensive backs hadn’t been challenged all season, and that the Tide had little depth in the secondary.
The idea in last year’s national championship game was to run as many plays as possible – running as many deep decoy routes as possible using Clemson’s depth at wide receiver – to simply wear down the Tide secondary. By the last two drives of the game, the Alabama secondary had tired legs, and Deshaun Watson picked them apart in two critical touchdown drives.
That’s coaching, and that’s game-planning – and that’s why Elliott should be high on Currie’s list.
4. The rematch
Here’s the problem for Georgia in its rematch with Auburn in this week’s SEC Championship Game: Jake Fromm is the same guy two weeks after the first loss to Auburn.
Which is to say, he’s a freshman who still is learning and adjusting to how elite defenses adjust to him. He was lost two weeks ago against Auburn, and it didn’t help that a Georgia offensive line that had dominated opponents all season was whipped at the point of attack. It also didn’t help that Georgia’s wideouts couldn’t separate in man coverage.
All of that added up to Fromm struggling in the critical 3rd-and-7-plus scenario. In 10 of those situations in the blowout loss to Auburn, Fromm completed two passes, threw six incompletions and was sacked twice.
He hasn’t suddenly changed in wins against overmatched Kentucky and Georgia Tech.
He better hope his offensive line has, or at least gets more of a push in the run game to keep Fromm from having to make double-digit third and 7-plus throws.
5. The Weekly Five (plus 4)
It’s championship week, and that means another bonus week of Five picks against the spread. This time, nine picks – one for each of the FBS conference championship games.
- Stanford (+2.5) vs. USC
- Oklahoma (-5.5) vs. TCU
- Wisconsin (+6) vs. Ohio State
- Miami vs. Clemson (-7.5)
- Georgia vs. Auburn (-2.5)
- Akron (+17.5) vs. Toledo
- Memphis (+7.5) at UCF
- North Texas at FAU (-9.5)
- Fresno State (+10) at Boise State
Last week: (6-3)
Season: 43-26 (.623)
6. Behind the maroon mask
Forget that Dan Mullen was Florida’s fourth choice behind Chip Kelly, Scott Frost and Mike Gundy. Pete Carroll was USC’s fourth or fifth choice, too.
While we highlight the idea of Mullen as the quarterback whisperer, it might be more prudent to look where it matters most: wins and losses.
Developing Josh Harris (Bowling Green), Alex Smith (Utah), Chris Leak and Tim Tebow (Florida) and Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State) is impressive.
Wins and losses vs. Power 5 schools is another thing.
Mullen was 69-46 at MSU, but if you take away wins and losses against Group of 5 FBS teams (BYU included) and FCS teams, that number shrinks to 38-44. That’s right, Mullen’s teams at Mississippi State feasted on the overmatched, going 31-2 vs. Group of 5 teams and FCS teams.
Mullen was 30-34 vs. SEC, and 8-10 vs. non-conference Power 5 opponents. Those are undeniable facts.
But there’s always some gray in between. The biggest question: What will Mullen do when he can recruit from the most talent-rich state for skills players? Does he have the charisma to beat Mark Richt and Jimbo Fisher (for now) – two of the best recruiters in the game – for elite recruits?
Because more than anything, that’s what the Florida job comes down to: Can you win in February (and December, now) — against not only the SEC, but two powerhouse programs in your own state — can you develop players and can you win games that matter?
Jim McElwain whiffed on all three. Will Muschamp recruited at an elite level and developed NFL players on defense, but couldn’t win big games.
Mullen’s 38-44 record against Power 5 teams is at the very least cause for pause until he proves he can win on Signing Days.
7. Closing in
Criticized for paying $10 million in walk away money to Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M is on the verge of landing the best coaching hire in college football since Ohio State plucked Urban Meyer from retirement.
If the Aggies can poach Jimbo Fisher from Florida State – there are signs that are beginning to point to more than just conjecture – the program that has stood in the shadows of the SEC elite suddenly becomes a dangerous force.
Texas A&M regents have announced a meeting for Thursday the discussion of “ legal and personnel issues relating to the football program, including issues relating to appointment of new head coach.”
On Monday, Fisher again reiterated that he doesn’t talk about coaching searches, when asked about the Texas A&M job. When pressed about what he tells his team when the rumor mill runs rampant, Fisher said, “I’m here coaching you right now.”
Fisher is one of the games best recruiters, and an elite developer of quarterbacks, including first round picks Christian Ponder, E.J. Manuel and Jameis Winston at FSU.
Over and over again we’ve seen teams that beat SEC king Alabama are teams that have elite quarterback play.
Fisher will bring that advantage to Texas A&M, and will change the dynamic in the ultra-competitive SEC West.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Hey Matt: What happened last weekend against Clemson was embarrassing. I’m starting to think (Will) Muschamp may not be the right man for the job at South Carolina. Talk me off the ledge.
Caroline Stephens, Greenville, S.C.
Caroline, I’m looking at this rebuild at South Carolina 180 degrees differently than you. The Clemson loss was horrible, and showed the clear gap between one of the top three teams in the nation and a team searching for answers on both sides of the ball.
Frankly, I’m shocked Muschamp got eight wins from this team. It’s not like the Gamecocks are loaded with talent. The offense is limited because of injuries to critical skill players, leaving QB Jake Bentley throwing to receivers who run the wrong route – and a pick six soon follows.
Muschamp has been a proven recruiter everywhere he has coached. Give him time, and he will get elite players to South Carolina. Considering the level of talent on the roster when he arrived last year, winning a bowl game and getting to nine wins might be as impressive as Steve Spurrier winning 11 games.
9. Numbers game
15. Ole Miss decided that Matt Luke, who somehow held it all together in Oxford this fall despite a looming NCAA hammer and a season-ending injury to its best player, deserved a shot at the permanent gig.
While this is a heartwarming story of a former Ole Miss player realizing his coaching dream, let’s be realistic. It’s only getting worse at Ole Miss over the next few years.
Why, you ask? Look no further than the 15 Level 1 allegations (worst in the NCAA playbook) Ole Miss is facing when its NCAA fate is soon released.
Don’t be shocked if the NCAA adds another year of a bowl ban, and eliminates more scholarships as part of its response the 15 Level 1 allegations. The biggies – lack of institutional control, failure to monitor for former coach Hugh Freeze, a $13-15,000 payment to then-recruit Leo Lewis – highlight a deep and disturbing set of issues.
10. Quote to note
Florida coach Dan Mullen on his first day on the job: “I got to go up in (Steve Spurrier’s) office today, and he’s got the computer open and he’s got game film up. I love ball and he loves ball. So I’m sure we’ll have some really interesting ball decisions in there talking football.”