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Revisiting the idea of Phil Fulmer, Interim Tennessee Head Coach

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No reason, why do you ask

Photo by Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Remember 2019 Tennessee football? (Remember 2019 anything?) The Volunteers started the year 2-5 before closing the year on a six-game winning streak. That 8-5 effort was anything but forgettable: It started with opening home losses to Georgia State (38-30) and BYU (29-26), and ended in a massive comeback win over Indiana in the Gator Bowl.

Roundabout the time the Volunteers were smarting from that opening week loss to GSU, I kinda/maybe outlined a path in which head coach Jeremy Pruitt would be fired and current athletic director Phil Fulmer ended up coaching UT again.

For no reason (Tennessee is 2-4) whatsoever (lost those four in a row) at all (Arkansas beat them), let’s revisit the relevancy of Jeremy Pruitt after two-plus seasons by seeing if this Fulmer-for-coach argument still holds up.

Because right now a fourth-quarter comeback vs. Indiana is the signature win for Tennessee’s sitting head coach (15-16 overall, the exact same record as Butch Jones through 31 games in Knoxville) , unless you can find a member of Big Orange Nation willing to admit that beating Kentucky is something special.

You’re Phil Fulmer, Tenneesse Volunteer football’s usurper turned king turned exile turned kingmaker. You’re also the program’s only consistent narrative arc in the modern era.

Still extremely true.

Except that it’s less an arc and more an Appalachian ouroboros, so let’s see if you can end up coaching Tennessee football again - and how soon.

There is some symmetry here: In 1992, Tennessee head football coach Johnny Majors underwent an emergency heart bypass on the eve of the upcoming football season. As his offensive coordinators, you went on a 3-0 run as interim head coach to start the ‘92 season, beating No. 14 Georgia in Athens and No. 4 Florida at home. Those wins helped you forever changed the Volunteers’ course, for better and worse.

According to Majors, he recovered physically but never professionally, because of you. His absence didn’t matter as much as three consecutive losses after he returned (a single point cost the Vols Arkansas and South Carolina, and a 17-10 loss to No. 4 Alabama in Neyland Stadium).

When the school named you head coach effective at the end of 1992, Majors refused to coach the bowl game and you, a former Tennessee offensive lineman, had sealed your coup. Majors, quite publicly, never forgot your transgressions. But two years later you successfully wooed Peyton Manning away from Ole Miss. Four years after that you won a national title. You became the hero.

God forbid this pandemic stretch into another football season, or I doubt this will be the last time we see a usurping assistant coach boot their infirmed boss into an employment Sparta pit.

27 years and a bounty of plot twists later, “your” head coach Jeremy Pruitt just oversaw arguably the worst loss in Tennessee football history, 38-30, to FBS neophyte and 26-point underdog Georgia State. It was the first UT defeat by a Group of Five team since a 2008 Vols loss to Wyoming accelerated your own firing, and GSU’s first win over a Power Five school in their short program history.

Days after I wrote this G5 BYU won in Knoxville, which, now… quality loss, amirite?

It’s been ten years since that ill-fated one year stint of your reviled replacement, Lane Kiffin, who warmly welcomed back Majors to the program as a flourish against you and yours. Ten years since Kiffin abandoned your program for USC, creating a cascade of dissatisfaction. It’s far from impossible that 2019 might end with you as the head coach of the Vols once again.

OK, a few things:

  1. Obviously, Pruitt survived ‘19 by revamping the defense to steamroll the nougaty-soft back end of the conference schedule and upset those powerhouse Hoosiers.
  2. The logic presented above portends that Lane Kiffin will one day invite Houston Nutt to some sort of on-field dedication at Ole Miss for the sole purpose of infuriating Hugh Freeze and I am very much here for that, reader.

Here’s what it would take:

You would need uncertainty. You’ve got it. You returned to Knoxville as athletic director amid a publicly-imploded coaching search after Butch Jones was let go in 2017. Your predecessor in that gig, John Currie, was dismissed in very large part for his one-two pick of Greg Schiano and Mike Leach. You steered the school instead towards Alabama’s defensive coordinator. It was an easy sell (perhaps easier than it should’ve been), as Vol fans had recently seen Kirby Smart leave that same job to instill a renewed sense of elitism in Georgia.

Except that Pruitt has shown zero sign of replicating Smart’s success, or even Will Muschamp’s… progress. Tennessee never lost to a Group of Five team once during the hiccuping Kiffin / Derek Dooley / Jones run, and a loss Saturday to BYU would make a seven or even six win second season nearly impossible.

Oh look, the national media duffed a statistical projection, shudder to think...

You would need a valley to rise from. It’s waiting around the corner. Things will be inarguably tougher for the Vols moving forward. September ends with the onset of a four-game run against Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama. That’s four teams with 24 conference wins last year, plus both division titles, the conference championship and a playoff win. If the system failures on display vs. Georgia State persist to almost any degree, it’s possible Tennessee could be 1-6 entering the less-threatening stretch of the year.

If you could spin your own serendipity, you’d locate the lowest starting point possible and the best possible onboarding point to show progress. That means firing Pruitt and naming yourself interim after Alabama.

Well kiss my biscuits and call Coach Pruitt electric, because his tenure sure is the Tennessee Valley Authority, y’all. Here, we find a fresh new mess Fulmer could pivot from: The Vols are 2-4 with three ranked teams (Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M) left in their four remaining games.

That’s as bad a state of affairs as a devious courtier like Fulmer could ask for, but the problem is that if he assumed control at any point this year, it would be really, really hard to make a case for himself — if that’s even what he’s asking for at all.

In previous reporting, I’ve encountered a desire from certain Vol boosters and fans to see Fulmer assume some kind of Barry Alvarez role. The Wisconsin athletic director is also head coach emeritus, and micromanages the football program in a much more publicly acknowledged manner than Fulmer and the Vols (except when Phil gets caught doing exactly that).

Alvarez has stepped in as an interim for bowl games when the Badgers have been between coaches, but he’s always followed that up by hiring a new coach and returned to his maestro position in the athletic department. For purposes of this exercise, we’re assuming Phil Fulmer desires to be the head coach of Tennessee again.

You know, like how Jon Gruden finally returned to coaching after a significant time away!

You would need a noticeable financial burden. You can create it. Pruitt is in the second year of a six year contract for $3.8 million per season in Knoxville. The buyout math is 60 percent of the $3.8 million annual salary, multiplied by the number of years remaining. That puts the price tag on ousting Pruitt at around $9 million, which doesn’t include buyouts for any assistant coaches or whatever it would take to hire the next Tennessee head coach and staff. Did we mention that you’re also still paying Butch Jones’ $8.25 million buyout through 2021 (or until Jones takes an on-field coaching job again)?

The math here is old, so let’s refigure that 60 percent marker on…

Wait what...

The school extended Pruitt’s deal by TWO YEARS? AND GAVE HIM A RAISE?

The hell were they worried about, exactly? The NFL calling? Nick Saban retiring? I guess Fulmer really, really respects the current quality of Indiana football. Speaking of the Hoosiers, did you know Michael Penix was committed to Tennessee? He switched to Indiana when Pruitt was hired.

Pruit is now on track to make $4.2 million a year by 2022, and with the extension and 60 percent clause for a buyout, would cost Tennessee about $14 million to get rid of right now. During a pandemic economy. Oh and Butch Jones still hasn’t taken an on-field coaching job, putting the paying-you-not-to-coach tab at around $20 million.

You would need motivation. And let’s not kid ourselves, you’ve got it to spare. You of course know that all football coaches are totalitarian as a function, let alone the rare few handed the nuclear codes to hire themselves. You can ignore the obvious aspirational blueprint set by Barry Alvarez, the former, sometimes, and always head coach of Wisconsin. You can even ignore this year’s Mack Brown / Les Miles sexagenarian retread fad in coaching hires.

Yeah, so the song remains the same here; the notes and verses all still work, except for the noticeable sting of Fulmer’s decision to extend Pruitt. Multiple reports said that deal was in the works after the end of last season and wasn’t finalized until September, meaning that in the eyes of Fulmer, Pruitt earned more money after a season that included losing to Georgia State and not just Georgia.

By bumping Pruitt’s deal up — an extension that has thus far earned wins over South Carolina and Missouri — Tennessee has wiped out any potential financial gain they’d receive if Jones became an on-field coach again heading into 2021 (the likelihood of which is dim in a potentially frozen job market).

You’re Phillip Fulmer, the man who helped author the demise of the head coach he worked for in order to become one himself, who in turn met a similar fate because a need to manage power overshadowed the function of what that power allowed you to do.

Maybe I got the joke wrong. If the current path persists, a normal program would look for a new athletic director before they ate another ill-conceived contract.

It’s inevitable, because this is Tennessee, where you succeeded in changing the standard binary logic of a program - success or failure - to a program with you or a program without you.

That’s as true as ever.