Tennessee won’t win the SEC or the SEC East. It won’t play in a Jan. 1 bowl or finish in the top 10.
But if you believe in football miracles, the Vols still could win enough games to earn head coach Phillip Fulmer a contract extension.
Never mind UT’s 2-4 start or its 0-3 record in the SEC. The season could be worth millions of dollars to its head coach.
Of course, that won’t likely happen. That’s not the point.
It could happen. That’s the point.
If UT wins eight games, Fulmer gets a bonus year added to his most recent contract, which was finalized this summer. Call it Christmas in July.
The deal validated Fulmer’s status as one of the luckiest coaches in America. If they gave a Heisman Trophy for agents, Jimmy Sexton (Fulmer’s agent) would win by acclamation.
It’s bewildering enough that the UT athletic director Mike Hamilton would agree to pay Fulmer an average of $2.9 million over the breadth of the seven-year contract. It’s incomprehensible that he would deem a four-loss season worthy of a contract extension.
That’s not 20-20 hindsight. That’s how Fulmer’s new contract was viewed by most fans and media before this disaster of a football season began to unfold.
The Rollover on Rocky Top was downright dizzying to most fans, many of whom cling to the notion that UT football is something special. Under the contract, Fulmer could lose to Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and one more opponent, then still be rewarded at season’s end. Couple that contract with UT’s bad start and you can understand the fans’ current hostility.
They’re paying more than ever to follow UT football, and their coach is being paid more for less. No wonder, fewer fans are going to Neyland Stadium. No wonder, some of them actually hope UT loses, so there will be a coaching change.
Fulmer is the last guy most UT fans want to pull against. He played and served as an assistant coach at UT. He led the Vols to a national championship. He and his wife donated $1 million to the university. He’s UT football through-and-through.
So what better scenario for UT football than Fulmer returning the Vols to their glory days — and his glory days. Any athletic director would find that appealing, which might help explain why Hamilton gave his coach a vote of confidence worth millions.
That wasn’t just wishful thinking. Hamilton could point to UT winning the SEC East last season. He also could point to back-to-back, nine- and 10-win seasons, which distanced the program from its 5-6 failure of 2005.
But it was naïve to evaluate the program on last year’s record. Rivals Florida and Alabama beat the Vols by a combined margin of 63 points. Victories against South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt were decided, in large part, by missed field goals.
After last season and before the finalization of Fulmer’s contract, you had more reason to wonder about the program’s direction.
David Cutcliffe, UT’s best coach, left to become the head coach at Duke. Popular assistant coach Trooper Taylor took a job at Oklahoma State.
The coaching upheaval impacted the recruiting class, which wasn’t up to UT’s standards. At the same time, a series of player arrests reflected the program’s lack of discipline.
Yet none of that prevented UT from rewarding Fulmer with an outrageously lucrative contract.
It made no sense in July. It makes less sense now.
UT already has been outscored 56-20 by Florida and Georgia. Second-ranked Alabama is coming Oct. 25, raising the possibility that “Roll Tide” will echo louder than ever throughout Neyland Stadium.
“Rollover” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Sports editor John Adams may be reach at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org