Fourteen months ago, Phillip Fulmer accepted the challenge of “fixing” Tennessee football.
Because of what he previously accomplished, because of his competitiveness, wisdom and experience, I want to believe it will happen. It is obvious he is working at it.
Football absolutely must be repaired. Restoration to national prominence is critical. This giant athletic operation depends on it – other sports, mortgage payments, good people.
The athletics department spent millions more than it had last year. Much of that deficit was payment for football mistakes, buyouts for coaches who don’t work here anymore. Red numbers were compounded by declining attendance.
Losing is expensive. Fans stay home – or go fishing. For sure, they don’t buy tickets or popcorn. Empty seats at Neyland Stadium are glaring evidence of the 10-year decline.
Long, long ago, when early Volunteers were struggling, famous professor Nathan Washington Dougherty hired young Robert Reese Neyland as coach. The assignment was simplified: Beat Vanderbilt. That was a big deal then. The Commodores were dominant.
Fulmer, as new athletic director, could have said “Beat Vanderbilt” when he brought in Jeremy Pruitt to lead the current resurrection. Vanderbilt is the bottom rung on the ladder. This low standard of acceptability won’t launch a coach into the hall of fame, but the first opportunity could have earned a little bowl bid and significant bonus.
Such is the plight of Big Orange Country.
It appears Fulmer is all in on helping Pruitt succeed. Money is no object. Tennessee is leading the world in salaries for assistant coaches. Each time Pruitt changes his mind, Fulmer says OK, opens the cash drawer and pays some more.
In the beginning, Pruitt had enough to hire the best coaching staff he could imagine. We have seen 30 percent turnover, and more is possible.
Bringing in Jim Chaney from Georgia cost a $4.8 million commitment. The cost for Tee Martin will be huge after the Southern Cal supplement runs out.
Last week, the head coach made another probable improvement in his staff. He said so long to ex-Vol Terry Fair, defensive backfield instructor, and purchased the services of highly regarded Derrick Ansley, late of the Oakland Raiders.
That switch again clobbered the budget. Fair gets the $250,000 remaining on his contract. Ansley got half of what was in the vault.
We don’t know yet if raiding the Raiders irritated his highness, the great Jon Gruden. We’ll get a clue if he doesn’t show up as featured speaker for the UT coaching clinic.
We don’t know yet whether Pruitt is really fixing the Vols or just running in place. He finished recruiting boldly and got close to the national top 10 in rankings. Butch Jones did that from time to time.
Tennessee ran ahead of seven teams and behind six in the Southeastern Conference. What Pruitt did was very exciting for Tennessee fans but did not alarm Alabama or Georgia.
Tennessee did recruit to need. Those five-star offensive linemen and the very promising linebackers might be godsends. Mistakes be damned, it is possible all four will start this fall.
We’ll know more about Pruitt’s future when we see if new offensive coordinator Chaney can actually transform hamburger into prime rib. Because Pruitt wants a more physical concept, Chaney has spoken of presenting a knockdown and drag-out attack.
That will require better blocking and tougher running. That will require remarkable improvement from returning lettermen and speed learning by newcomers.
To Pruitt’s credit, he is in touch with reality. He knows 5-7 was below expectations. He knows total collapses in the company of Missouri and Vandy remain hard to explain. He saw, up close, how those bad losses scuffed most of the shine off upset victories over Auburn and Kentucky.
He knows the offensive line has to get better. He has his fingers crossed that the defensive front will survive.
It is meaningful that the coach accepts responsibility, does not alibi, does not offer fancy phrases as a substitute for results. It is encouraging that he recognized the problem, the shortage of talent, and went after big-name prep prospects and signed some.
I felt bad for Terry Fair, but if Derrick Ansley is the best in the business, I applaud upgrading staff potential. My liberal friends won’t even notice the cost. That’s Fulmer’s problem.
Marvin West invites reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]