Can Phillip Fulmer find the ‘one’ guy who can unite fan base — and win games?

Phillip Fulmer

Phillip Fulmer has one incredible challenge in front of him.

Tennessee’s newly hired athletic director must secure a coach who can hopefully lead the Vols back to their glory days of the 1990s, when Fulmer won a national championship, two SEC titles and had the Vols at the forefront of college football’s elite programs.

That seems like centuries ago.

There has been plenty of debate recently about whether UT remains an elite program. There is no question that it is. There is still the same tradition, fan support (albeit uneasy) and top-notch facilities, just like when Fulmer was the coach. UT is an elite program. The question is whether the coaching position is still considered elite. That largely will be determined by who Fulmer is able to hire.

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Fulmer faces a mess, even though he didn’t create it. Former athletic director John Currie struggled to make a competent hire. We can debate the reasons, but that really doesn’t matter any longer. It’s time to move forward. But not everyone will so quickly forget that the Vols became a punching bag for the national media.

Many coaches the Vols talked to under Currie may be so disenchanted by UT that they won’t even entertain the Vols just because Fulmer is at the helm. There’s also uncertainty at UT. Fulmer signed a two-year contract, and there appears to be a power struggle among top boosters and UT chancellor Beverly Davenport.

Fulmer may have further complicated a coach’s pending decision by saying he would be “present” within the program. Fulmer can help mentor a young coach, but some more experienced coaches could see that as a former championship coach trying to look over their shoulder. That could be a deterrent to a hire.

With the underlying issues, it’s probably time to forget the Vols making a “splash” hire. That means no Jon Gruden nor even Mike Gundy. Fulmer needs to make a solid hire and hope that the coach is either a diamond in the rough or a coach who can grow into being elite. Fulmer knows football. There’s no question in my mind he can find that sort of coach, but it’s probably time to forget about “winning” the news conference.

If there is a possible splash hire, it’s most likely Washington’s Chris Petersen. Petersen is one of the best coaches in the nation. He’d be a home run at UT, but most think he’ll stay at Washington.

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