Fulmer, fired by UT late in the 2008 season, is in his second season as a studio analyst for the CBS College Sports Network show on football Saturdays.
During a CBS teleconference Monday, Fulmer said it’s not easy to see the once-proud Vols struggling.
“It’s terrible,” Fulmer said. “It’s hard to watch something you’ve put most of your adult life into and had just played for the (SEC) championship (in 2007) and all of a sudden you’re watching what’s transpiring now through the program and an obvious attempt to change the culture of Tennessee football that failed.”
That change of culture Fulmer was referring to was the one-year reign of Lane Kiffin, who succeeded Fulmer in 2009 and left abruptly last January to take the head coach’s job at Southern California.
Fulmer said he supports Kiffin’s replacement, Derek Dooley.
After a 48-13 loss to Oregon last Saturday, Dooley questioned his players’ intensity in the second half after they fell behind 27-13.
“I think Derek’s doing a good job,” Fulmer said. “He’s doing what he has to do. He’s saying the right things, and when a coach has to talk about his team’s effort, that’s not a good sign. In the second half of the (Oregon) football game I think he thought his guys didn’t try as hard as a Tennessee football team is expected to try.
“He’s got some players. (Running back) Tauren Poole is obviously a guy that’s talented, but there’s a lot of work to be done, you know, at quarterback and defensively. There’s just a ton in the short term to be done and more importantly he’s looking at the big picture of the program long term, to recruit and get Tennessee back at the level that they’re expected to be at.”
Fulmer said he has had “two or three great meetings” with Dooley and welcomed the current coach to call him anytime.
Fulmer doesn’t see Dooley’s job at UT as a quick fix.
“You’re looking I think at a fairly long-term problem, certainly with all the transition that the program has been through in the last couple of years from me to Kiffin, a good number of players that left the program, just I think a general attitude. I know my last few years if you talked about only winning nine, it was an act of terror, and now they’re pushing and hoping to win six to get in a bowl game someway.
“So he’s got lots of challenges around him internal and otherwise that people need to give him time and need to support him,” Fulmer added. “He needs to work like heck to get some more players and to catch up just numbers wise. I think he’s playing with 76 guys right now through the transition.
“You know, find a way to get better. They’re not showing a lot of progress, or didn’t in the (second half against Oregon). The first game their girlfriends could have played and probably beat (UT) Martin and then Oregon was obviously better. There’s some teams that will be a little like (UT) as they go through the season and they need to get those wins.”
The Vols (1-1) play Florida on Saturday and Fulmer will be watching and offering his opinions from a New York studio.
During many of Fulmer’s years at UT (14 seasons as an assistant and the as coach from 1992-2008), the Florida game had national implications for both teams.
That has changed this year. Florida is in the national picture. UT isn’t.
“Tennessee’s fighting for its identity and its life in the SEC East,” Fulmer said “(with) Florida being in a little bit different situation probably because they’re fighting to be one of the top four or five football teams in the country.”
Fulmer said Florida has issues, such as blending a terrific recruiting class with returning players and adjusting to new assistant coaches.
UT’s issues appear to be more daunting.
“There’s just a lot of stuff that Florida’s going through,” Fulmer said. “Tennessee’s going through it in a different way in they’re just trying to find 11 good players to put on the field at the same time that are going to execute and give the kind of effort that they’re looking for.”
Fulmer said the UT fan base has suffered the past couple of years.
“I think the Tennessee family is very divided at this point and so much is centered around the job that (basketball coach) Bruce Pearl has done, and it has been fantastic,” Fulmer said. “Obviously the last couple of years, all the uncertainty around the football program, the intent, or the seemingly intent to change the culture of Tennessee football just made it a very divided place. As an alumnus myself, and obviously the years that I served there as an assistant and head coach, it hurts to see those kinds of things going on.”
As for a pick to win Saturday, Fulmer goes with Florida.
“I just think Florida’s ability to run the ball, they’re playing great in the kicking game and very well on defense is probably too much for Tennessee at this point,” Fulmer said.
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.