Fulmer Agrees to Step Down as Tennessee's Coach: Three Reasons Why it Came to This

At season's end, Phil Fulmer will reportedly be out at Tennessee after 17 years on the job. You could take this as one of two things. This is either the final betrayal of a loyal company man who invested 30 years in the program as a player, assistant coach, and head man and delivered a national title and two SEC titles, or it is the final step in a long, sad process of divorce from a known quantity no longer fulfilling the needs of the Tennessee program. ↵

↵The latter is the more accurate read of the two given the slow decline in the skills and performance of the Tennessee program. The Vols did make the SEC championship last year, but fell into the slot as a result of some SEC East schedule tiebreakers before losing to eventual national champions LSU. This is the SEC, though, and not even having human turnover generator Eric Berry mauling people in the defensive backfield can help a team increasingly giving off signs of declining competence. ↵

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↵The key steps in Fulmer's decline, in short: ↵
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↵Recruiting. When Fulmer came into the league in 1993, the SEC was a two horse race between Florida and the Big Orange. Eight out of 10 conference championships in the span from 1993-2002 went to the SEC East, and of those, seven went to Florida or Tennessee. Armed with the financial advantage of what was annually the highest recruiting budget in the nation, Fulmer recruited coast-to-coast and took much of what he wanted. ↵

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↵From 2001 or so on, though, the increased competition from programs on all sides began to show. Top to bottom, Tennessee's roster grew thinner on talent, a fact backed up by NFL draft numbers. From 2000-2002, Tennessee had 24 players taken in the draft; from 2005-2007, that number fell to 14. As goes recruiting, so goes the program, and slipping in the handshake wars cost Fulmer. ↵

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↵Human Resources. Fulmer's reliance on Dave Clawson and his simplified West Coast offense cost him dearly. Clawson, a first-time FBS coordinator, brought an unnecessarily complex system that takes years to learn into a situation where time was not a luxury. The Tennessee offense sputtered, and with it so did Fulmer's chances of holding onto his job. ↵

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↵Fatigue. If someone gets a divorce after three years, you think: well, maybe they didn't really give it a shot. When someone gets divorced after 17 years, though, I generally assume they know what they're doing, and are totally and completely sick of each other. Such may be the case with Fulmer. He's a completely known quantity, a conservative, punt-happy, run-first and ask questions later throwback of a coach whose idea of daring consists of using a rugby kick on special teams. ↵

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↵Doubt whether Tennessee properly understands who they're going to hire as a replacement. Do not doubt that they know what they're getting rid of, though: after 17 years, they would know better than anyone, and are comfortable sending the Great Pumpkin into his patch with a fat retirement package -- $6 million in total payable over 48 months -- and as much dignity as he can muster on the way out. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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