Despite success, Fulmer finds himself on the hot seat

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Never has Phillip Fulmer's future been a hotter (or more polarizing) topic than it is right now at Tennessee.

Everywhere you turn -- barber shops, radio talk shows, boardrooms and chat rooms -- they're debating whether one of the winningest football coaches in Southeastern Conference history has lost his touch.

And if he has, can he get it back?

Never mind that Tennessee heads into the final three games of the season as the only team in the Eastern Division (6-3 overall, 3-2 in SEC) that controls its own destiny. There's a very clear division right now in the Big Orange Nation on where this program is or isn't headed.

Fulmer, in his 34th year at his alma mater either as a player, assistant coach or head coach, has no desire to join that debate. Not now, anyway. The only future he's concerned about is Saturday in Neyland Stadium against a streaking Arkansas team and the Hogs' version of Double Trouble -- running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

"If you're in this business long enough, I don't know anybody that hasn't had their challenges along the way," Fulmer said. "You deal with it and go on about your business. You concern yourself with what you can control and that's our football team, their attitude and how they go about their business.

"The rest of it … you block out."

Even for a hardened veteran like Fulmer, that's easier said than done. This is his home, his school, the place he's invested so much of his heart and soul.

The glare of the 1998 national championship has long since faded, and lost in the fallout of what's been a pretty mediocre run for much of this decade is an overall body of work that speaks for itself.

Fulmer, 57, is sixth all-time with 92 SEC wins. For perspective, other than Steve Spurrier with 98 wins, each coach in front of Fulmer has already been enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame (as a coach), and all but Vince Dooley have stadiums named after them.

But it's what Fulmer has done lately, or more precisely, what he hasn't done that finds him on the slipperiest slope of his coaching career. Even some of his most loyal supporters are concerned that his best days are behind him, especially given the changing landscape in the SEC.

Fulmer's critics point to the fact that he's just 11-11 in his past 22 SEC games. They point out that he's just 10-17 in his past 27 games against nationally ranked teams. They cite his 2-6 postseason record (SEC championship and bowl games) since the beginning of the 2000 season. They point to nine losses against unranked teams in that same span.

The 59-20 loss to Florida was Tennessee's worst beating in more than a quarter century, and then to follow that up a month later with a 41-17 meltdown at Alabama (with Nick Saban standing on the other sideline) made Fulmer an easy target.

"I can't speak for everybody on the team, but the general consensus is that we don't like our coach being talked about the way some people are talking about him," junior tailback Arian Foster said. "We support our coach 100 percent, just like he's supported us 100 percent. He's a good guy, and he's doing his job. We still have a chance to meet our goals.

"I guarantee you that if we win out and go to the SEC and go to the Sugar Bowl, if everything goes like we plan, he'll be back on that pedestal again.

"People can just be very fickle sometimes."

Still, there's a faction that wants him out no matter what. For them, the ugly losses to Florida and Alabama were the final straw regardless of what the Vols do the rest of the way, even if they reach the SEC championship game in Atlanta. Some fans on talk shows have gone as far as to say they're hoping for a few more losses this season to get Fulmer out and would gladly sacrifice a trip to the championship game if that means getting a new head coach and a new direction.

David Douglas, a former offensive lineman at Tennessee who also played six seasons in the NFL, scoffs at such talk.

"I'm a fan, too, and get frustrated like anybody else," said Douglas, whose son, Aaron, is one of the top prospects in the state and has already committed to play for the Vols. "But I hear people say, 'I'm a graduate and I'm a fan, but I want them to lose because I want to get rid of Coach Fulmer.'

"I'm sorry, I can't accept that. I don't agree with that. If that's the case, then no … you're not a fan."

Douglas was one of nearly 200 former players who signed an open letter this week to Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton expressing their support for Fulmer. It was the brainchild of David Moon, who played under Fulmer on the offensive line in the 1980s and is now the president of an investment management firm in Knoxville. Among the players who signed the letter, which appeared in Friday's editions as an advertisement of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, were Peyton Manning, Bill Bates, Jason Witten, Dale Jones, Albert Haynesworth and Todd Kelly.

The letter closed by saying: "[Fulmer] represents the best of what a university can and should be. He prepares young men for life. Given his accomplishments at Tennessee, the discussions surrounding his future here would be laughable -- if the potential consequences weren't so serious. Don't misunderstand us; the seriousness of the consequences has nothing to do with the possibility of Phillip Fulmer losing a job. The terrible loss would be if the University of Tennessee lost Phillip Fulmer."

Other players have opted to take a more middle-of-the-road stance.

Bubba Miller, another of Fulmer's offensive line pupils, admits that watching the Vols the past few years has been difficult. In many ways, he thinks they've become stale.

But that doesn't mean he advocates a coaching change.
"I don't feel like the program is beyond salvaging, and I don't necessarily think getting a new coach will fix everything," said Miller, an All-SEC performer in 1995 and seven-year NFL veteran. "I do feel like an influx of fresh ideas in any organization is not always a bad thing. You see it in business every day, and I don't think an athletic department, particularly football at this level, is any different than a business.

"I don't agree with those who say we've hit rock bottom. We're in the driver's seat in the Eastern Division, and that says a lot about the resiliency of the players and coaches. The way we lost to Florida and Alabama probably makes it look a lot worse than it is. I just think that an infusion of fresh ideas is necessary to keep any business running at the top."

Tennessee's most influential booster, Pilot Corp. founder and CEO Jim Haslam, has struggled through the lows of this season like any other fan. His advice is to keep an open mind.

"It's not fair to anybody to talk about what may or may not happen until after the season," said Haslam, who played under Gen. Robert Neyland and has donated millions of dollars to the university. "We're playing for a chance to go to the SEC championship game. Let's play the season out and see where we end up, and then we can take a very critical look at the program."

Fulmer's buyout if the Vols were to make a change following this season would be $4.675 million paid out over a 48-month period. If you include his entire staff, the total buyout would be $7.635 million, although an assistant coach's buyout would be reduced by the amount of his new salary per month if he takes another job.

Ultimately, finances won't be the determining factor in whether Fulmer survives, according to UT insiders. There's also no magic number in terms of wins, although he'd almost certainly be back at eight wins. Seven wins might be dicey, and anything less would be a certain pink slip.

This much seems certain, though. If Fulmer doesn't make it to Atlanta this season and is back for the 2008 season, he'll have to do one of two things to go out the way he wants to and probably deserves to. That's either get to the SEC championship game or play in a BCS bowl.

Hamilton, who scored big when he brought in men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl two years ago, refuses to get into the hypothetical. He chooses his words carefully, but is adamant about doing all he can to support this staff and this team.

He's heard from disgruntled Tennessee fans, particularly in the aftermath of the Florida and Alabama losses, but says it's embellishing the situation to suggest that he's been inundated with mail pushing for Fulmer's ouster.
"There were a large number of people I got mail from who talked about how much they loved and respected Coach Fulmer, but expressed their disappointment in those particular games," Hamilton said. "The last five years haven't been as good, and that's a fact. But the reality also is that Phillip's doing it the right way, representing Tennessee the right way and is a native son.

The last five years haven't been as good, and that's a fact. But the reality also is that Phillip's doing it the right way, representing Tennessee the right way and is a native son.

Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton

"Familiarity breeds contempt sometimes, and with the new coaches around the league, it's natural that people would ask some of the questions they're asking about Phillip. If I had seen after the 5-6 season [in 2005] that there was a state of denial, I would have had great concern. I did not see denial. What I saw were coaches who were passionate about proving who they were and what they were about, and I still see that."

For the second time in three years, Fulmer is likely to make staff changes at season's end. Staff continuity has been a hallmark of his tenure at Tennessee. But he overhauled his offensive staff following the 2005 season, bringing back David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator after Randy Sanders resigned under pressure.

Given the Vols' problems on defense, Fulmer will almost certainly address that side of the ball following this season. They've been decimated in the secondary by injuries, dismissals and other casualties and have lost five starters in the last two seasons. The defensive front has lacked the impact players the Vols were known for during their glory years, and it's all added up to being ranked 11th in the SEC in both scoring defense and total defense.

Fulmer contends that the Vols have a chance to be even better next season and thinks this freshman class is one of the best he's signed. Defensive backs Eric Berry, Dennis Rogan and Brent Vinson have all shown flashes, while tailback Lennon Creer and receiver Gerald Jones are starting to get more chances offensively.

The strength of Tennessee's team this season has been its offensive line, and all five starters return next season.

Fulmer took some heat earlier this year for saying the Vols would stay the course after the crushing defeat to Florida. He says that's not being stubborn as much as it is sticking to your guns.

And, now, here they are, right where everybody hoped they would be back in August: Bearing down on the SEC championship game and not needing any help from anybody else to get there.

"Staying the course means you stay determined," Fulmer said. "You have a process you believe in and tweak it every way that you can.

"But you don't panic."

Nor do you write the epitaph on a season (or a coach) in September and October. Not this season, anyway, and certainly not with Fulmer, who's been the consummate survivor in a league that chews up and spits out coaches.

"A team reflects its coach, and this team has a whole lot of heart," Foster said. "We feel privileged to be in this position. Florida helped us out twice by losing.

"We feel like it's time to quit waiting on other people and take control of what we can control."

Which just might be their coach's destiny.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.