Dave Hooker audio
With Tennessee off to a 2-4 start and winless in three SEC games, athletic director Mike Hamilton refused to rule out a mid-season coaching change if UT’s football program doesn’t improve, but said he’d much prefer following his standard method of operations.
“Our traditional model at the University of Tennessee is that we evaluate these kinds of things on a year-end basis,” said Hamilton in an exclusive interview with the News Sentinel on Tuesday and his first public comments in weeks on the subject. “That doesn’t preclude you from doing something different.
“But our typical model is that you let the seasons play out and then you evaluate them appropriately and give the student athletes and coaches their best chance to be successful in any particular year.”
That means — unless things go really bad for the Vols — Hamilton plans to evaluate coach Phillip Fulmer following the season. Hamilton said dissension within the football program is one of the few reasons he might intervene.
Clemson, Hamilton’s alma mater, fired coach Tommy Bowden on Monday following a 3-3 start amid high expectations.
Further down the chain of command, Fulmer said he has no intention of making an Auburn-like change with UT’s offensive coordinator, the position held by first-year UT coach Dave Clawson.
Auburn fired offensive coordinator Tony Franklin last week. The Tigers’ new spread offense averaged just 18.7 points in its first five games.
Reports from Auburn also suggested a rift developed between Franklin and other members of the coaching staff.
The Vols (2-4, 0-3 SEC) are ranked 104th nationally in total offense.
“Generally I’m a very loyal person,” Fulmer said at UT’s media day on Tuesday. “If somebody is not doing what they should do or not cooperating … or being belligerent or being bad for the team, then certainly whatever’s best for the team.
“If somebody’s working hard and doing a good job and it’s just not happening for them, I’ve been there as a coordinator.”
Fulmer said he was pleased with the work ethic of his offensive staff, including Clawson.
Hamilton declined to put a win-loss record on what it would take to make a coaching change. Instead, Hamilton said he was looking for a program that showed signs of heading in the right direction.
When pressed on the issue, particularly a 6-6 record, Hamilton said tersely, “Our goals are not to be a .500 ball club.”
The Vols have six games remaining. And even though it’s mid-October, Hamilton said he’s heard from concerned boosters and realizes that losing donations may soon become a possibility if the Vols don’t improve.
“That’s always a risk, particularly in a year with economic situations being as they are,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton confirmed that some boosters have discussed Fulmer’s possible replacement, but said those conversations have been limited.
More than just a .500 record, Fulmer is also fighting off apathy from UT’s fan base.
“You don’t want apathy,” Hamilton said. “Apathy is a program killer.”
And not just the football program.
More than 80 percent of UT’s athletic department revenue comes from football, meaning apathy could harm most every sport on campus if allowed to grow unfettered.
“I think there’s some fan apathy out there, yeah, without question, but I do think there’s a lot of people that still want to be a part of that (Tennessee football) experience,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said finances won’t be an issue if a change is made. He said there is a $7 million reserve in place to cover such unforeseen expenses. That would nearly cover the cost of the football coaches’ buyouts, which Hamilton said could be over $7.5 million. That figure depends on whether coaches are hired elsewhere.
UT also will receive an extra $15 million from the SEC’s new deal with television partner ESPN, which would give UT more flexibility to fire and hire coaches.
Hamilton said he learned a lesson when he fired basketball coach Buzz Peterson, whose contract stipulated that he receive his full buyout within a month.
Peterson demanded the buyout, meaning the athletic department had to borrow money from the university and pay it back with interest.
Since then, head coaches’ buyouts are payable over four years. Fulmer’s buyout is $6 million pending an interpretation concerning annual base pay raises that could lower it to $5.47 million.
“If it was the right thing for the institution,” Hamilton said, “there is a methodology in place to cover that.”
Hamilton defended Fulmer’s contract, which has been roundly criticized by fans and media since it was announced last summer.
Hamilton said he thought the contract was appropriate, adding that UT only extended the contract by one year, gave Fulmer just a 5 percent annualized raise and was fair based on market value (Fulmer is still the seventh-highest-paid coach in the SEC).
Hamilton said the contract was also based on the high expectations UT had with an experienced team in 2008 that had won the SEC East in 2007.
Hamilton, however, admitted that a lower buyout may have been possible considering Fulmer has rarely shown sincere intentions to leave UT.
“I don’t disagree with that but again it was market place driven,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton also addressed the stipulation that guarantees Fulmer a rollover extension by winning eight games.
Hamilton said that clause was added to avoid renegotiating a contract during recruiting season every season, as had been done with UT’s football coach since Bill Battle in the 1970s.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with what our expectations are,” Hamilton said of the eight-win rollover. “Our expectations are obviously significantly more than that at Tennessee from a historical perspective.”
And all that doesn’t even take into consideration Fulmer’s asking price.
“There might have been other numbers that were asked for,” Hamilton said. “… Let me clarify this. This is not something I would have done with a new coach.”
Hamilton also wasn’t playing the “what-if” game. In other words, with a few points here and there — notably against UCLA and Auburn — the Vols could be 4-2.
“That’s athletics,” Hamilton said. “Yeah, you could maybe make an argument that we might have won UCLA or Auburn, but we didn’t.
“We have to accept that. We’ve won some close games in our history. That has a balancing effect.”
Hamilton also emphasized that some patience might be in order as the Vols adapt to a new offense.
“Change doesn’t necessarily happen overnight,” he said. “You have to consider that. It’s not the end factor in any decision but it certainly plays into it.”
That certainly didn’t seem to mean that a change on UT’s staff following a .500 or sub-.500 season would guarantee Fulmer another year.
“I believe it’s the AD’s responsibility to hire the head coaches and hold the head coach accountable for their decisions,” Hamilton said. “They’re the ones who know it best. They’re the ones who are in it everyday.
“I believe in ultimate accountability in that regard. That’s how I judge all of my coaches.”
Hamilton made it clear that his office is well aware of the situation, that his football program may well be at a crossroad.
“We’re very well aware of some discontent in the marketplace,” Hamilton said. “We’re very well aware that we’re not playing up to the level that our fans expect us to play right now.
“But we’re also committed to try to give our student athletes and coaches the best opportunity to succeed while we can.”