Kiffin’s Speech Wasn’t Just for the Fans

February 12, 2009

This is going to be the last thing I write about Lane Kiffin until SEC media days. Or until he opens his mouth again. Or unless I write something about USC from earlier in the decade. Or something.

Anyway, there were two major theories about his now-infamous speech on the day after signing day. One is that he was just being stupid. The other, which I subscribe to, is that he knew exactly what he was doing and was trying to re-energize the Tennessee fan base.

However, I’m beginning to think it was as much for a group of people that weren’t at the booster function. His players.

Rewind the clock a little more than four months. Tennessee conducted a press conference to announce that its ultimate company man was leaving, and it wasn’t his choice. It was a very emotional day for everyone there, and even I, a rival fan, couldn’t help but feel bad for Phillip Fulmer.

But as bad as I felt for him, I wasn’t angry about it. Fulmer’s players were angry about it, and they made sure that the UT administration knew about it. The Knoxville News Sentinel described the scene like this:

“Players marched en masse from UT’s football complex a few blocks away to arrive in the stadium 30 minutes before the 5 p.m. press conference. Some grumbled, while others interjected, including wide receiver Josh Briscoe, who asked [athletics director Mike] Hamilton during the press conference why it was more important ‘that we make a dollar than it is to keep a tradition and keep the Tennessee family the way it’s been for years.'”

That’s right, the Volunteer players practically stormed the castle with torches and pitchforks and openly questioned the athletics director during that press conference. Say what you want about Phillip Fulmer, and someone probably has already, but he definitely created an intense bond with his players.

Now, every new coach has to work to do to win over the players that were there before him. For instance, Urban Meyer’s 2005 team struggled heavily because many of his new guys were unhappy about the vanishing of the player’s coach regime that preceded him. In Tennessee’s case, it was going to be a tall task for whoever followed Fulmer in Knoxville given that they all clearly were not happy about him being forced out.

With his speech that angered rivals and turned the world against him, Kiffin may have turned his team for him. He said at a booster event yesterday that the controversy has “re-energized” the team:

“The bottom line is that our players are extremely motivated, because what’s happened is that, yeah, we’ve said some things that may have ruffled some feathers. We’ve maybe gone in and not been exactly as polite as we can be when we go into a school and wait our turn. But you want to know what? [The players] know we’re doing that, and I’m saying things publicly because they have to perform. When they feel their head coach and their staff have so much belief and so much trust in them, they’re down there working harder than ever.”

It’s probably pretty easy for players to be inspired by a coach who has yet to run them hard or chew them out in practice. When push comes to shove, there will be some guys who don’t fully buy into what Kiffin is selling. That much is inevitable with any new coach.

For now at least, he has them refocused on work. They aren’t sitting around trying to figure out how Coach Kiffin compares to Coach Fulmer, they’re figuring out how they’re going to make sure Kiffin’s verbal checks don’t bounce this fall.

With the goal for 2009 undoubtedly being a return to a bowl after missing one in 2008, that change among the players may be the most important side effect of his speech of all.


Just a Thought

November 5, 2008

It would never happen, but just imagine it for a second.

Auburn fires Tuberville at the end of the season. The boosters there don’t like him anyway, and the community thinks he betrayed their values by going after Tony Franklin and selling out to the spread. They want a return to pound-the-rock football. They want a guy who can recruit and raise money. They want someone Alabama hates.

So they hire… Phil Fulmer.

It would never happen of course. Phil is too close to UT I’ll bet to forsake it for another SEC school that quickly. Still though, what could be a bigger sideshow than Fulmer coaching inside the state of Alabama? Oh please, make it so.

So Long, Phil

November 4, 2008

It’s official – Phil Fulmer is leaving Tennessee at the end of the season.

I knew this news was coming, yet I didn’t fully believe it would happen until the word came down yesterday. He was by far the dean of SEC coaches and he’s been a Tennessee Man all his life. He brought the Big Orange a national title and two conference titles along with 150 wins. Only General Neyland himself has more in UT history.

Fulmer, along with Bobby Bowden, is one of the two great villains of my youth. He is one of just two rival coaches to bring home a national title in my lifetime, and he gave Florida an absolutely crushing defeat in 2001. Georgia and Auburn coaches came and went and LSU was no threat, but Fulmer was there and he was a winner.

Here’s the thing though: I don’t think I ever truly hated Phillip Fulmer. He was an easy target for mockery, from the “Can’t spell Citrus without UT” line to the Krispy Kreme jokes to his players’ frequent off-the-field issues. I can’t ever remember him condoning the injuring of other players like Bowden tacitly did, and he often took the high road in public disputes.

Loyalty doesn’t begin to describe the guy. I can never remember hearing Fulmer’s name attached to any other coaching job, college or pro. He played, was an assistant coach at, and and was head coach at UT. His assistants have almost never had to worry about losing their jobs. I’d even be willing to bet that David Cutcliffe, a guy who probably knows Fulmer better than any coach other than John Chavis, would tell you in private he wouldn’t have taken the Duke job had he known the new offense this year would lead to Fulmer’s departure.

Fulmer was a pivotal character in the growth of the SEC into the premier conference as college football has really hit the big time over the past couple of decades. He and Steve Spurrier kept the conference afloat in the national power rankings during an era when Georgia, Auburn, and LSU were going through troubles and Alabama was only periodically good. His Vols continued to be competitive and relevant for much of this decade too, winning the SEC East three times. He was even better about playing outside the region than just about anyone else in the conference, frequently scheduling road games at places like Notre Dame and Pac-10 schools.

Ultimately, he has not been living up to the standard he created for the program lately. The level that Tennessee attained means that two non-winning seasons in four years will get any coach shown the door. It is usually the guy who follows the legend who gets caught by high expectations, the Ron Zook and (soon to be) Ron Prince types, but Fulmer stayed around long enough to be that guy himself.

It is a shame that someone who won 150 games at one school cannot leave it on his own terms. Tennessee football is a bigger part of his life than any school is to any other active coach not named Paterno. Watching the press conference even made me feel a little emotional, because I could tell he was hurting so badly. There are no winners in cases like these.

So long, Phil. You were a credit to your university and one of the guys who enabled the conference to reach its lofty status. This Gator wishes you well in your life after coaching, and may the fish in the Tennessee River quake at the sound of your voice.

Fulmer Accuses Gator Coaches of Making Up The “Tennessee Quit” Theory

September 18, 2008

Do you remember last year’s Florida-Tennessee game? The whole 59-20 thing? Remember that? Here’s something if you forgot:

Okay, we should be on the same page now.

If you’re wondering how Florida could have scored at will for so long, you’re not alone. After the game, Derek Baldry, a former Army ranger and walk-on special teams guy for the Gators, said on a late extra point that his counterpart on the Vols told him not to worry about blocking. From there, the “Tennessee quit playing” theory was born.

Brandon Spikes has brought it up again this year, no doubt as a consequence of a reporter asking him about it. Replays show at least one Vol not attempting to rush a late kick, so the story rings true. At least one Tennessee beat writer has said recently that after the game some UT players admitted that some guys quit, so there’s plenty of evidence to support that explanation.

This year, the tune has changed of course. A video attached to some nonsense story about Florida not being tough away from home (which is so laughable in its content, it’s not worth rebutting) has several Vol players and the head coach commenting on the “Tennessee quit” thesis.

The players all say the things you’d expect them to say: that they didn’t quit, they know their teammates well and they’d never quit, they don’t know why the Florida players would say that, how they’re using it as motivation, and so forth. The real interesting thing was a quote from Phil Fulmer:

“It probably came from the coaches, you know, somewhere that was said and they’re just repeating what the coaches said… if they don’t respect us, then why are they practicing?”

As I mentioned before, the origin was Derek Baldry and not anyone on the UF coaching staff. If you need to see the video, it is kindly presented here. You can clearly see several Tennessee players not even trying to go after the extra point.

I have no idea where Fulmer came up with that. It would seem that he’s accusing Florida’s coaches with “inventing” the “myth” that some Tennessee players quit on the game, or at least on late extra points. It’s as if he has some sort of grudge against the Gator coaching staff, and I have no idea where that would come from (other than that whole 59-20 thing, though it is the Vol defenders’ job to stop UF from scoring).

This is not the kind of quote I’d expect from Fulmer as it would probably fan the flames with his team. Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson has already said that the UT coaches are trying to keep the guys from getting too jacked about the game:

“My concern with a game like this is sometimes guys get too hyped up, and they get outside of themselves and they try to do things they’re not capable of doing… I don’t think that helps people.”

And as for the whole “they don’t respect us” part, that makes no sense either. Meyer has never been anything but respectful towards Tennessee, including this week.

It’s one thing for players to be talking trash, it’s another for the head coach to do so. What Fulmer’s motivation is for accusing the Gator coaches of making things up is beyond me; maybe he just has a bad memory.

What was clear before this exchange and is clearer after is that Fulmer wants this one badly. It should make for a good game this weekend.

SEC Power Poll Ballot: Preseason

August 19, 2008

The preseason SEC Power Poll this year (conducted by Garnet and Black Attack) is not a ranking of the teams, but a ranking of the coaches. Specifically, it is a ranking of coaching ability.

My ballot is based on who is good now, and it is slanted towards performance in this decade. No lifetime achievement awards are being handed out here.

Here’s my list and the explanations.

1. Urban Meyer

Call it a homer pick if you want, but he’s done well everywhere he’s gone. He turned in an undefeated season at Utah, becoming the first BCS Buster ever. Let’s also not forget that he did it before the BCS expanded to five games.

At Florida he won a national and conference championship and got a quarterback a Heisman. He proved the spread could work in the SEC and did it so convincingly that other coaches in the league are going to install some spread-style goodness of their own in 2008. Add to that his ace recruiting abilities, and you have my vote for top SEC coach.

2. Tommy Tuberville

I should specify that this is a vote for the Tuberville of 2004 and on and not for the Tuberville of 2003 and prior. There is a difference, and I outlined it here.

The post-2003 Tuberville has been one of the best coaches in the country in that span, though the fact he’s only parlayed that into one conference title is the reason why he’s second on the list. He also gets points for abandoning his old, conservative offense and actually giving former outcast/spread guru Tony Franklin the shot at major college coaching that he deserves.

3. Mark Richt

Richt is on pace for becoming the most successful head coach in Georgia history. He has two conference titles and a 13-1 season that wins him a national title in nearly any other year than the 2002 season in which he did it. He also lost to Vandy in 2006, something that a top league coach shouldn’t do six years into his tenure despite the strides the Commodores have made under Bobby Johnson.

He ended up third in the league on my ballot. That is still nothing to sneeze at in the best coaching conference in the country. How he does with the heaps of expectations on him this year will help to sort out his place in the hierarchy as well as help to define his legacy as a head coach.

4. Nick Saban

I know some people will be upset seeing him this high, especially given the loss to Louisiana-Monroe last season. It’s difficult to blame him too much for the negative goings on last season though given that his predecessor was Mike Shula, a guy who never should have been given a head coaching position.

Despite that fact, all six of the losses were by eight points or less so the Tide was competitive in every one of them. He had a blowout win over the SEC East champ Tennessee. Let’s also not forget the BCS championship he won at LSU and the incredible amount of talent he left there when he bolted to the Dolphins.

5. Les Miles

I decided that the first five guys on the ballot had to be guys who have won the national title in this decade, or at least have done enough to win one in a normal year. Since Miles won his national title with two losses while Meyer’s and Saban’s came with one loss (and Tuber ville had an undefeated season and Richt had a 13-1 year), he ended up fifth.

Yes it’s true that he walked into a treasure trove of talent at LSU. It’s also true that he has gone 11-2 each of the past three seasons with two blowout wins in BCS bowls and a Peach Bowl win that ended Miami football as we knew it. He also doesn’t get nearly enough credit for keeping the LSU team together after the Hurricane Katrina disaster just days before the start of his first season in Baton Rouge. He’s colorful, but he can coach.

6. Bobby Petrino

I’m going to throw out his time with the Falcons, which was spent under conditions that pretty much no one could succeed under. Instead, I’m looking more at his time at Louisville where he turned it into one of the country’s best teams, nearly made the national title game, and helped save the Big East.

The immediate drop off after his departure should highlight how good of a coach he was. He still did win his BCS game as the Big East champ though, which unfortunately doesn’t mean a whole lot, and it was over surprise ACC champ Wake Forest, which makes it matter even less. He’s still got a bright offensive mind and knows how to build a winner, so he goes here.

7. Phil Fulmer

You could make a case for him being higher or lower on the list, but he’s listed here thanks to being the final guy who has won a division championship at his current school. His East Division title last season helped some, but the fact remains that he has not won a conference title since 1998 and none of his teams has truly been elite without David Cutcliffe.

He gets some points for hiring Dave Clawson but nothing big until we find out if the Clawfense can succeed long term in the conference. Fulmer didn’t really manage his staff as well as he could/should have in the time between the Cutcliffe stints, but maybe this is a step forward. He will have to win the conference again to move higher on my list though.

8. Steve Spurrier

It pains me a little to put him this low, but there’s not a lot he’s done at South Carolina to support putting him higher. The Orange Bowl win in his final year at Florida was this decade so it does count some, but not being able to break past seven wins at South Carolina hurts his ability to go higher on my list.

Now, he did go to two bowls in a row in 2005-06, which ties the longest bowl appearance streak in school history. Lou Holtz also left the school on probation and in questionable shape. However, I can’t ignore the epic collapse last season after climbing to #6 in the country. His upward mobility will be determined in large part by whether he can win the division.

9. Houston Nutt

This could be a little low, but we’re talking about ability to perform the duties of head coach with this list. He won the SEC West twice this decade, but with Matt Jones and Darren McFadden on those teams, you’d expect that to happen.

In recent years, his ability to be a head coach has appeared to decline. His regime at Arkansas had increasingly been marked by scandal, and last season there was precious little offensive talent behind the McFadden-Felix Jones combination. The cupboards at Ole Miss appear to be relatively full, so he’s going to need to produce quickly in Oxford.

10. Sylvester Croom

Mississippi State was a toxic waste dump of a program when he arrived, and he got it to eight wins and a bowl just four years later despite having no dominant offensive players. Even in Croom’s rebuilding years, he scored upsets over Florida in ’04 and Alabama in ’06 despite them being in better shape.

He has not been perfect; he initially wanted to run a West Coast scheme despite not having nearly the talent or practice time to pull it off. However he’s built a winner, and he built it the right way. If he can sustain it, he can move up.

11. Rich Brooks

Brooks has taken Kentucky to two consecutive bowls, and that should win him some sort of award. I mean, this is a school that used its newly-hired basketball coach to sell football tickets last fall despite having gone to a bowl the previous season.

I have a feeling though that any of the other guys on the list could have done that with the personnel Brooks had. I also suspect that many of them would have done it faster than he did. For that reason, he’s behind the rest.

12. Bobby Johnson

I actually like Bobby Johnson, so I don’t like ranking him last. He has made Vanderbilt a competitive team week in and week out, and he has defeated Tennessee and Georgia in recent years. That’s really good for a school that doesn’t even have an athletics director.

At the same time, he’s not yet made a bowl so I can’t put him ahead of guys who have. His 2005 team with Jay Cutler was his best chance to get eligible, but they lost late in the season to 3-8 Kentucky. As far as I know, Vanderbilt is happy with him so he’s not going anywhere, but I’d like to see him get a shot at a school with more resources.

Phillip Fulmer’s Record at Tennessee

July 25, 2008

It’s almost difficult to believe, but Phillip Fulmer has been the head coach at Tennessee for all or part of 15 seasons now. He took over on an interim basis in 1992 after Johnny Majors was fired mid-season, and he’s been the head man ever since. Fulmer is by far the dean of SEC coaches, with the second-longest tenure belonging to Tommy Tuberville who began at Auburn in 1999.

It is pretty remarkable, considering how high the coaching turnover in the league is. The fact that Tennessee won the first ever BCS championship in 1998 is a big reason as to why he is still employed. He recently got a contract extension that automatically extends by a year for every eight win season he posts, effectively amounting to a lifetime contract.

There has been considerable grumbling in Knoxville of late though. Part of it has to do with “the season of which we do not speak” according to Vols fans, the 5-6 campaign in 2005. A lot of it has to do with the fact that Tennessee has not won the SEC since the championship in ’98, and it has only won the conference twice in Fulmer’s 15 years.

In those nine seasons since the title, he has won 10+ games four times and won the SEC East three times. As good as that is for most programs, that’s below the standard that Fulmer set in his first six seasons when he won 10+ games five times and won the conference twice.

The fall from elite to very good coincided with David Cutcliffe’s departure to be the head coach at Ole Miss. Randy Sanders replaced him, and after three seasons of holding steady the offense tailed off from where it had been.

While it’s true that Tennessee did not have another Peyton Manning come through, the Vols still scored 33 a game with Tee Martin in ’98. Fulmer, nothing if not loyal, did not replace Sanders until after the disastrous ’05 season.

From 1993-98, Tennessee failed to hit 400 points in a season only once; from 1999-2005, Tennessee hit 400 points exactly once, scoring 400 on the nose in 2001. Cutcliffe returned, and it took just one warm up season before UT reached that plateau again, scoring 455 in 2007.

Throughout the past decade, John Chavis’ defenses have been good, allowing more than 300 points in a season just once (ironically, in the SEC East-winning 2007 year). That means the Big Orange faithful have their eyes squarely on first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson’s new offense. The hope is that he can add some new wrinkles that haven’t yet been seen coming the home sideline in Knoxville.

On to Fulmer’s record, first by site:

Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee
Site Wins Losses Totals
Home 89 16 105
Away 47 19 66
Neutral 3 3 6
Bowls 8 7 15
Totals 147 45 192

As before, games against I-AA competition have been left out.

Overall the record is one of consistent good teams, with a winning percentage of .766 for all 15 seasons. The only glaring weakness is the bowl record, which I would have thought would be better.

Here is Fulmer’s record broken down by tier of opponent. As always, first-tier opponents are teams that had a winning percentage of .750 or better, second tier were .500 to .749, third tier opponents were .250 to .499, and fourth tier opponents were .249 and below.

Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee
Tier Wins Losses Pct. Avg. Scored Avg. Allowed
First 23 26 .469 22 24
Second 50 16 .758 30 21
Third 53 3 .946 34 15
Fourth 21 0 1.000 42 11

I can’t find too much to quibble with here. Fulmer has been about even against the best teams over time, which is about all you can reasonably ask of a coach. The guys who run up big winning records against top tier competition are the exception, not the rule.

This is nice and all, but as I said above, the question about Fulmer is concerned with the time after the national title. Did he go soft? If so, but how much? What changed? To answer those questions, I supply these same charts for his time before and after the title.

Phillip Fulmer 1992-98
Site Wins Losses Totals
Home 41 3 45
Away 18 6 24
Neutral 3 0 3
Bowls 5 2 7
Totals 67 11 78
Phillip Fulmer 1992-98
Tier Wins Losses Pct. Avg. Scored Avg. Allowed
First 13 8 .619 27 24
Second 21 1 .955 34 18
Third 26 2 .929 40 15

What we see here is an excellent record. He had an .859 winning percentage, just three home losses, and sparkling record against the top two tiers. Basically, he won the games he should have won and did pretty well against the best teams.

Here are the same charts post-championship:

Phillip Fulmer 1999-2007
Site Wins Losses Totals
Home 48 13 45
Away 29 13 42
Neutral 0 3 3
Bowls 3 5 8
Totals 80 34 114
Phillip Fulmer 1999-2007
Tier Wins Losses Pct. Avg. Scored Avg. Allowed
First 10 18 .357 19 24
Second 29 15 .659 28 23
Third 27 1 .964 29 16

This suddenly went from great to just plain above average. The winning percentage dipped to .702, it became easier for opponents to win on Rocky Top, and the performance against the top tiers took a big turn to the south.

You’ll notice the defensive numbers are roughly the same, except for a five-point increase in points surrendered to the second tier. That probably wouldn’t have made a difference if the offense still scored 34 a game against that tier, but it fell by a touchdown to just 28. Suddenly a lot of those comfortable wins became a bit more exciting.

The record improved against the third tier somehow, but Tennessee couldn’t manage to put up even 30 a game against foes that finished under .500 on the year. Sure most people think of a boring running game and a defense-first philosophy when they think of the Vols, but their offenses could score with the best of them in the ’90s under David Cutcliffe.

It only took Cutcliffe two seasons to get the scoring back up to around where it had been before. Since Chavis’ defense will likely still be great with Rico McCoy and Eric Berry leading it, the burden has been rightly put on Dave Clawson to keep up the offensive gains realized under Cutcliffe. He must bring the declining running game back to a high level and make things less predictable.

Fulmer’s contract extension essentially ends any speculation of him being let go, providing another 2005 disaster doesn’t occur. The offseason chatter I’ve seen from the folks in orange has been cautiously optimistic, with high hopes for the Jonathan Crompton/Clawson combo.

At this point, Fulmer is what he is. That is why bringing in the relatively unknown Clawson was unexpected, but it could be the breath of fresh air the program needed to put it back over the top in the conference.

Will Clawson make Tennessee’s offense dynamic again, or will he have as little influence as Jimbo Fisher did in year one at FSU? It’s just one of the many interesting subplots that will make the 2008 college football season great.

LaMarcus Coker Reinstated

August 24, 2007

And just like that, LaMarcus Coker has been reinstated by Tennessee. I remarked that the phrasing left room open for him to return to the team quickly, and though he will miss the Cal game he will be back for all games after that. It shows that Phil Fulmer was serious about the issue that got Coker suspended since Coker won’t be traveling to Berkeley, but hopefully this is a sign that the guy is getting his life back on track.

Incidentally, I still think Tennessee wins at Cal.