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Rocky bottom

The Vols are struggling, could Fulmer be the problem?

Posted: Thursday November 3, 2005 12:28PM; Updated: Saturday November 5, 2005 6:50PM

SI.com's Cory McCartney takes a weekly look around the college football nation, with inside reports from each of the six BCS conferences and beyond.


Phillip Fulmer; Britton Colquitt
With Saturday's loss at Notre Dame, Phillip Fulmer cemented the worst record of his 14 years in Knoxville.
Bill Frakes/SI
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Here's one thing Tennessee doesn't want to own up to: The real problem with the Vols isn't Randy Sanders, who resigned as offensive coordinator earlier this week. It isn't the season-ending injury to Gerald Riggs Jr. And it isn't a quarterback soap opera with so many twists and turns you'd think they were living on Wysteria Lane. No, the real problem is -- Phillip Fulmer.

Yes, he has the best winning percentage of any coach with at least 10 years experience. He won a national title in 1998 and has five SEC Eastern Division titles in eight years. But to quote Janet Jackson: What Have You Done For Me Lately? Fulmer has just two SEC titles in 13 years and hasn't won one in the past seven. Six years have passed since Tennessee has played in a BCS bowl and the Vols haven't finished in the AP top 10 in four years.

Then there's Fulmer's record against the SEC's other elite coaches. He's 1-4 against Georgia's Mark Richt, 1-3 versus Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and, of course, there's Fulmer's personal Kryptonite, Steve Spurrier, who improved to 8-3 against the Vols' coach with last Saturday's 16-15 win.

Sanders, the man behind an offense ranked 99th in the nation, was Tennessee's scapegoat. But is Sanders to blame for the first three-game skid of Fulmer's career? Is he the reason for a four-game losing streak in the division or Tennessee's inability to live up to its No. 3 preseason ranking? Quarterback Rick Clausen won't buy that Sanders was even the problem with the offense.

"I'm just so upset that Coach Sanders got the blame for it. He's not the problem," Clausen told The Tennessean. "He hasn't been the problem. In 2001, he wasn't the problem when the offense was great. Apparently, in 2002, when injuries came, he was the problem. Apparently Coach [Mike] Barry was a problem as well because he got fired. I guess you just have to have somebody to blame if things don't go right."

But the blame may eventually come down to Fulmer. And it's not as if coaches of his prestige haven't been pushed out the door before, regardless of their records. Just look at Ohio State, where Earl Bruce (.750 winning percentage) and John Cooper (.705) were given the boot. Cooper was blamed for not having control of the program, and Fulmer may be dealing with the same scenario, considering 11 Vols have had run-ins with the law in the last 13 months.

I'm not saying that a three-game skid is a reason to can a coach, but the last time the Vols lost three games in a row was in '92 -- when Tennessee fired legendary coach Johnny Majors and hired Fulmer. Interestingly, that came just six days after the Vols' last loss to South Carolina.