The following is an excerpt from Mark Nagi’s still-to-be titled book on Tennessee athletics. The book, which examines the decade of struggles that led to the fan revolt on “Schiano Sunday,” will be available in June. This excerpt comes from Chapter 19, “Return of the Battle Captain,” as new athletic director Phillip Fulmer closes in on finding a football coach.
Considering what a mess the coaching search had been, Fulmer’s three options weren’t too shabby (sorry, Chris Petersen wasn’t leaving Washington, even if UT were offering Saban-level money). Kevin Steele did have Tennessee ties after two stints under Johnny Majors in the 1980s, and some fans were in favor of getting more Tennessee guys in the program.
Steele was a well-respected assistant and had just helped Auburn beat Alabama and win the SEC West Division title. But Steele hadn’t been a head coach in 15 years and his four seasons at Baylor were putrid. The Bears went 9-36, with a 1-31 mark in the Big 12. And he was the guy that Derek Dooley wanted to hire in 2012 for the defensive coordinator job that eventually went to Sal Sunseri. Steele would have been a tough sell.
It would come down to a choice between the defensive coordinators from the eventual national championship finalists.
Mel Tucker was 45 and had been in coaching for the better part of two decades. He worked under Jim Tressel at Ohio State, Romeo Crennel with the Cleveland Browns and Jack Del Rio with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He had three stints as a Nick Saban assistant: He was a grad assistant at Michigan State in 1997-98, he was LSU’s secondary coach in 2000 and he was Alabama’s secondary coach in 2015.
But it was his most recent work at Georgia that deservedly was at the top of his résumé. Tucker’s Bulldogs were the sixth-ranked defense in the nation at the end of the 2017 season (counting the semifinal win over Oklahoma and the championship game loss to Alabama), allowing less than 300 yards of offense per game. Tennessee fans were aware of what a Tucker defense could do: On September 30, Georgia shut out the Vols 41-0. The Bulldogs forced four turnovers and the Vols picked up only seven first downs all day.
The following month, Georgia coach Kirby Smart was asked about how Tucker might fare as a head coach in the future. Tucker had no head-coaching experience aside from a five-game stint as the interim coach of the Jaguars in 2011 (they went 2-3).
“Mel’s a great leader. He commands great respect,” Smart said. “Players really follow Mel’s lead. He does a tremendous job of game-planning, X and O-ing and calling the game. But more important than that, he’s a very loyal soldier that helps guys out. If guys are struggling or their confidence is struggling, he’s able to go to pep them up. They follow his lead. So, yeah, he’d do a tremendous job.”
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