“What happened to us basically was our leadership,” Fulmer told a reporter from Al.com while attending SEC BeachFest in Gulf Shores, Ala., this past weekend.
He wasn’t referring to the leadership of the football program.
“We had four presidents in six years,” Fulmer said in explaining UT’s fall from football prominence. “We ended up with an athletic director that wasn’t prepared for the job. He got twisted like a pretzel by the middle management of the university.
“We lost a lot of edges that you have to have.”
Maybe UT’s revolving presidential door didn’t benefit the football program. And who could deny that former athletic director Mike Hamilton makes a wonderful target if you’re playing the blame game.
But the man most responsible for the decline of UT football was Fulmer.
The same coach who helped build Tennessee into a national champion in 1998 eventually ran the program into the ground.
“We lost a lot of edges,” he said.
In fact, Fulmer lost his edge.
His recruiting dropped off. His hires weren’t as good. And he couldn’t keep up with the competition when other SEC schools upgraded their coaching.
Of course, Fulmer doesn’t see it that way. He never did.
When a last-minute drive against Alabama swerved off course in 1994, Fulmer cited a poor decision by then freshman quarterback Peyton Manning.
When Florida blitzed the Vols 62-37 in 1995, Fulmer singled out Larry Binion for an awful punt.
When the Vols were overwhelmed by Kansas State in the 2001 Cotton Bowl, Fulmer’s telling postgame quote was directed at offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.
“I don’t know what Randy was thinking,” Fulmer said.
The 5-7 season of 2008 was characterized by Fulmer as a “perfect storm,” as though a series of supernatural events had combined to sabotage the program. If pressed on the subject, Fulmer probably would have thrown his first-year offensive coordinator (Dave Clawson) and his quarterback (Jonathan Crompton) under the bus.
Anybody but the head coach.
Hamilton swung and missed a lot as an athletic director. But he was right about the football program.
He knew it was headed in the wrong direction under Fulmer. That was never more evident than in 2005 when a Tennessee team loaded with future NFL players went 5-6.
Three years later, the talent was nowhere close to that. The three coaches that followed all have had to play catch-up.
And playing catch-up in the SEC means you’re running up a steep hill, as former coach Derek Dooley would attest. He was replaced by Butch Jones after a third consecutive losing season in 2012.
But Dooley took his multi-million-dollar buyout like a man. He found another job and didn’t blame anyone.
Fulmer was a huge factor in Tennessee’s success, first as an offensive coordinator in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then in taking the program to the highest level as a head coach in the mid-to-late 1990s when he recruited as well as any coach in the country.
He never had a problem taking the credit for that.
But when he was fired, the program was in far worse shape than when he succeeded Johnny Majors in 1993.
And, in Fulmer’s mind, that’s all on somebody else.