I spoke to the Big Orange Tipoff Club in Knoxville last February. The event was at Calhoun’s, the restaurant on the Tennessee River that tweeted itself into trouble last month with an erroneous report about Jon Gruden and Peyton Manning eating there together — one of the first absurd moments in a ridiculous football coaching search that mercifully ended Thursday.
The crowd was large and engaged and asked good questions. Afterward, I was cornered by a particularly vociferous woman who wanted me to know that Tennessee fans felt betrayed by an athletic department populated by outsiders. The outgoing head of the department at the time was Dave Hart, who came from hated rival Alabama. The football coach was from Michigan and had never coached a day in the Southeastern Conference before he arrived.
She did not believe these interlopers sufficiently cared about the university, the state or the fans. She wanted Tennessee people in charge at Tennessee. The peculiar comfort of insularity is a powerful thing in college football.
The woman got her way, at least partially, last week. And then the Tennessean in charge hired a coach from Alabama.
Former football coaching hero Phil Fulmer completed a coup of sorts last week when the school forced out athletic director John Currie, the successor to Hart. Currie had been an assistant AD at Tennessee for a long time in the late 90s and earlier this century, but he wasn’t a “Tennessee man” through and through — he grew up in North Carolina and went to Wake Forest and was the AD at Kansas State before coming to Knoxville for the second time.
When outsider Currie moved to hire uber-outsider Greg Schiano on Nov. 26, the fan base lost it. It was a full revolt, including a distasteful tarring and feathering of Schiano based on unsubstantiated hearsay dating from his time at Penn State more than 20 years ago. The result was an abandonment of hiring Schiano and the emasculation of Currie.
The coaching search quickly flew off the rails, with no fewer than five post-Schiano candidates being reported as the focal point of Currie’s floundering efforts to recoup. Then the school fired him less than six months into his tenure and hired Fulmer, an administrative know-nothing but a Big Orange hero after coaching the Volunteers to the 1998 national title. And, it should be noted, Fulmer is a Tennessee native who played for the Volunteers as well.
Taking on the coaching search, Fulmer reportedly zeroed in on three SEC defensive coordinators: Auburn’s Kevin Steele; Georgia’s Mel Tucker; and the guy who ultimately got the job, Alabama’s Jeremy Pruitt.
A fan base that mobilized in response to hiring Schiano (career college head-coaching record 68-67) and considering Dave Doeren (career head-coaching record 55-34) showed no sign of anarchy at the mention of Steele (career head-coaching record of 9-36). Perhaps that’s because Vol For Life Fulmer was in charge — and because Steele was a Vol himself, playing at the school in the late 1970s.
Ultimately, though, Fulmer settled on Pruitt. And the reaction has been largely enthusiastic. While there might be some inherent aversion to hiring another ‘Bama man, this still falls within the Tennessee comfort zone for a couple of reasons:
* Pruitt is an SEC guy, through-and-through. Prospective coaches Schiano, Doeren, Mike Gundy, Jeff Brohm and Mike Leach all were SEC outsiders. He will talk like an SEC guy and presumably coach like an SEC guy, championing physical defense as one of life’s core values.
* Fulmer is Pruitt’s boss. If the Great Pumpkin is watching over the proceedings, any acts of Crimson Tide treason or sedition would be squelched.
Does that sound absurd? Yes, it does. But these are absurd times in Knoxville.
The suspicion here is that Currie would have been far more heavily criticized for hiring Pruitt than Fulmer has been. Call it a trust issue.
Will Pruitt succeed in returning Tennessee to glory? I have no idea. You have no idea. Vols fans have no idea. He’s never been a head coach before, so the canvas is blank. But a Tennessee man hiring an SEC man will at least be given a chance by the fan base.
It is tempting to consider this insular craving a Southern thing, but that would be inaccurate. Michigan fans had no tolerance for non-Michigan Man Rich Rodriguez, and greeted former Wolverine star quarterback Jim Harbaugh like an Apollo astronaut. Notre Dame fans were, however briefly, enamored with the hiring of alum Charlie Weis. USC is absolutely addicted to its own past when it comes to hiring athletic directors and coaches.
But think how many huge successes in college football have come from hiring outside of a fan base’s comfort zone: Urban Meyer at Florida; Nick Saban at LSU and Alabama; Les Miles at LSU; Mack Brown at Texas; Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. All of them won national championships at places where they had no prior history.
It’s even been known to happen at Tennessee. The namesake of the school’s football stadium, Gen. Robert Neyland, was born in Texas and went to college at West Point before coming to Knoxville and winning national titles.
No telling what The General would think of the circus in Knoxville. But the woman who cornered me last winter should be happy that the Phil Fulmer coup d’etat has put a Tennessee Man back in charge – even if he hired an Alabama Man. We’ll see how it works out.
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