Fulmer's program may be coming to a crossroads

Phillip Fulmer is one of the best recruiters in college football. He works hard at it, but he also has the touch it takes in a player's living room to tip the scales in favor of Tennessee.

He has the piercing baby blues, the warm smile and the friendly demeanor that mamas love. And as with all college coaches, part of his sales pitch is a pious pledge to make Johnny Testosterone not just a better man-eating linebacker, but a better person.

"I believe that you must be closely involved with your players, much like a parent," Fulmer says in the 2004 Volunteers media guide. "You must guide and direct them, socially, academically and spiritually, as well as athletically."

If you go by the police blotter, Fulmer's surrogate parenting has been abysmal over the last 13 months. Guidance and direction? The coach should be able to guide his players through the booking process by now, and direct them to the program-friendly attorneys in Knoxville. Beyond that, Fulmer's off-field authority is in question at present.

Eleven Volunteers football players have been arrested or issued citations since the end of February 2004. Four have been arrested on assault charges this week, including the best athlete on the Tennessee team, freshman quarterback Brent Schaeffer. And three players are currently facing felony charges for aggravated assault, stemming from two separate altercations in 2005.

Two players have been charged in a March 5 assault at a campus party that left a student with a broken jaw that reportedly remains wired shut to this day. Defensive end Robert Ayres told police he hit the victim twice. Linebacker Jerod Mayo says he is innocent and is a victim of mistaken identity; a former Tennessee football player signed an affidavit saying he saw Mayo hit the victim in the jaw.

Another player, 6-foot-7, 295-pound defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, had his aggravated assault case sent to the grand jury this week. McDaniel faces charges that he broke a student's face in four places in an altercation during a January pickup basketball game.

If you thought other SEC schools delighted in referring to Tennessee as UThug before, what are they saying now?

Clearly, the Vols are not the only program with off-the-field issues – and there figure to be more in the coming months. Coaches love having their players on campus for summer school to work out and bond, but the collateral damage often comes in behavioral flare-ups. Lighter course loads mean more free time, and more free time generally means more problems.

Just as clearly, the majority of the Tennessee players have done more good than harm to the program's reputation. Much is given to major-college athletes, but much is demanded as well – and most meet the demands admirably.

But before apologists declare this Big Orange crime spree to be "blown out of proportion," to use a favorite term when things go bad, consider two things:

  • This isn't stuff that routinely happens among the student population as a whole but never makes headlines. According to the UT office of public relations, campus police reported two incidents of aggravated assault in all of 2004 for a student body of more than 19,000. We're talking about two alleged aggravated assaults on campus involving members of an 85-man squad in a span of three months.

  • Fulmer himself says he's been humiliated by his players' conduct.

    "I'm extremely embarrassed and disappointed in the actions of a number
    of our players over the last several months," Fulmer said in an impromptu dissertation after spring practice Tuesday night. "I apologize to the university
    community, [school president] Dr. [John] Petersen, [athletic director] Mike Hamilton and all the fans who follow our program.

    "We have a large majority of our guys who are doing the right things and a few who have embarrassed us in a very big way."

    The question now is what Fulmer plans to do about the embarrassment. At times like these, it's up to the head coach to confront the problem, with all the power vested in a man with a seven-figure income and statewide support. Does his team slide into Outlaw Program status, or does he do something that resonates with the young men he's allegedly guiding and directing?

    Talking the talk in a recruit's living room or in front of a wall of minicams is one thing. Walking the walk – and laying down the law – is something else.

    When it comes to crime and punishment, Fulmer has rarely been Iron Fist Phil. He's doled out soft punishments and second chances like the neighborhood grandma who distributes candy to the kids on the block.

    "We're in the young people business here, very much so," Fulmer said Tuesday. "I pride myself in the fact that we run a disciplined football program, but at the same time we're compassionate when compassion needs to be there and we try to help young people."

    Sometimes it's worked – guys have used that slack positively, growing up and becoming responsible, successful players and students. Sometimes it hasn't. Wide receiver James Banks was given every chance imaginable before finally getting himself kicked off the team last year for failed drug tests.

    But you wonder if the leniency hasn't emboldened the program's knucklehead minority.

    If the first punishment is nothing worse than running the stadium steps, what's the deterrent to going to that party, anyway? And if trouble erupts, well, how much will it affect you?

    If the worst thing that can happen is, say, a three-game suspension, is that enough incentive to walk away when someone insults your manhood? Why not cave in his face?

    It would seem high time (past time, really) for a zero-tolerance edict from the coach. Next guy to get in a fight that wasn't absolute self defense gets a one-way ticket out of Knoxville. That might not be consistent with past behavioral statutes, but look where past behavioral statutes have gotten the program.

    These are the times every football coach fears, almost as much as a three-game losing streak. Fulmer has never had one of those, but he has a behavioral crisis on his hands now. It's time to step up the surrogate parenting a notch or two in Knoxville.

    Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.