KNOXVILLE — Many of the nation’s top programs pleaded for Josh McNeil’s signature four years ago.
Southern Cal, Florida and LSU highlighted the list of schools he was interested in, and several comparable programs tried to sway the nation’s top-ranked high school center in their direction.
But McNeil disappointed all those coaches when he signed with the University of Tennessee in January 2005.
Why did he choose Phillip Fulmer’s Volunteers?
“I could tell that Tennessee was just difference than any other place I went to, as far as being a family and being a close group,” McNeil said.
It was different, at least in terms of stability. Fulmer had given 34 years of service to UT, with nearly half of that — 16 seasons and four games — as the head coach.
John Chavis, another UT grad, replaced just one assistant during his 14-year stint as the Vols’ defensive coordinator.
Most of that, and maybe all of that, will change.
Fulmer is unemployed, and his replacement — 33-year-old former Oakland Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin — won’t keep much from the old regime. Several sources close to the UT program confirmed Sunday night that Kiffin had already informed offensive coordinator Dave Clawson and every defensive assistant that they wouldn’t be retained.
UT confirmed in a Sunday night release news that it tried to delay for days: That Kiffin is the program’s 21st head coach.
“Coach Fulmer won’t be our coach any more,” UT sophomore safety star Eric Berry said. “It’s weird to even just think about that.”
But it is reality.
“This is one of those things where I’m sure it’s going to take a few days and everything — I guess my wife could kick me out of the house, because I don’t have anything to do right now — to realize how big of a deal it is,” Fulmer said after Saturday’s season-ending, 28-10 victory over Kentucky.
Fulmer is out, and Kiffin will be introduced this afternoon as his replacement.
Kiffin, a former offensive coordinator at Southern California, became the youngest coach in modern NFL history when owner Al Davis plucked the then 31-year-old from Pete Carroll in January 2007.
UT athletic director Mike Hamilton and several in his administration grew increasingly frustrated the past few days with reports on Kiffin that, in their opinion, tainted Saturday’s “Phillip Fulmer Appreciation Day” festivities.
Several players still refused to address the situation Saturday night, but Fulmer admitted to calling a Friday night meeting to address the future and keep the team focused on 2008’s final four quarters — after all, there would be no bowl game.
Fulmer said his Friday night message was simple: “Things change and times change, and sometimes life isn’t always the way you want it to be.
“I’ve accepted that, and I want them to accept the fact that they’ve got new opportunities and a new coach,” Fulmer added. “To me, they ought to win every football game next year. How’s that for pressure on the new guy?”
The sadness that undoubtedly followed Fulmer seemed to subside Saturday. He implored the team in a pregame speech to put asside the negativity and enjoy their final few hours with each other.
“Let’s not go out there and spend our last game feeling sorry for ourselves,” sophomore cornerback and Knoxville native Dennis Rogan said when asked to quote Fulmer’s speech. “Let’s go out there and play for each other and go out on top and sing together one more time. Let’s go out with a bang.”
The Vols did that, but now comes a much tougher challenge.
UT is a 5-7 team that will need to learn a completely new scheme for next season, while most of the Southeastern Conference will simply refine it’s philosophies. The Vols don’t have a proven quarterback, and they are losing key players in at least a few significant spots.
Many of those departing players, such as defensive end Robert Ayers, were leaders that held the team together during a somber November.
Ayers said he would tell the team’s returning players to “enjoy the once in a lifetime experience” of playing SEC football, and “don’t take anything for granted.”
Senior strongside linebacker Nevin McKenzie said he would remind the youngsters to “always remember that this is still Tennessee.”
It’s no longer Fulmer’s Tennessee, though.
“All the players on this team, a lot of the guys that are coming back, we’re still very, very close,” McNeil said. “We’re all a bunch of brothers just fighting for each other. Obviously, we’re losing the head of our family. But, as Coach Fulmer said, ‘When something like this happens, adversity only brings you together even more.’
“I think this whole experience will just draw this team even closer together and just make us realize that we rely on each other, and that’s what’s important.”
New leadership has already (if only slightly) emerged in the locker room.
Junior quarterback Jonathan Crompton and junior defensive tackle Dan Williams have been keeping close tabs on their young teammates the past few weeks, checking on their class attendance and tutor appointments. Williams said he hadn’t missed either “in a long time.”
“First off, we’ve got to finish the semester in the classroom,” Crompton said. “But after that, we’ve got to have same mindset going in to work hard every day and get some workouts in before everybody goes home before Christmas.
“We leave after we’re done with finals, so up until then, it’s just if you’re injured, just relax and get healthy and rehab. And if you’re not, work out and get your schoolwork done.”
Kiffin — who has already called several UT high school recruits — will want his full arsenal for spring practice. He’ll want his players in shape on and off the field.
Both sides will want to make a good first impression.
“The biggest thing is whenever the new coaches come in, they’re going to tell us what they expect,” McNeil said. “And as a group of seniors, we’ve got to lead by example. Whatever the new coach wants, we’ve got to make sure everybody’s on board, and start working toward having a great season next season.
“Obviously, with a new coach coming in, there’s going to be changes. He’s going to have to earn our respect, and obviously, we’re going to have to earn his respect. We’re going to have to go out there and show what we can do as players, and everybody (will hopefully) fall in line with what he wants to get done.”
The family aspect might survive at UT, too.
Several media outlets have reported that Kiffin’s father, longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, could follow his son to Knoxville.
Monte Kiffin, 68, is the architect of the renowned “Tampa Two” defensive system that has troubled NFL offenses for two decades.
Kiffin’s brother-in-law, David Reaves, who has been at USC for the past seven years, resigned late Sunday to pursue other coaching opportunities. Reaves has been a full-time member of the South Carolina coaching staff for the past five years after two seasons as a graduate assistant. He was given the duties of recruiting coordinator in February of 2006 and was handed the full-time quarterback coaching duties in the spring of 2007.
“We also appreciate the job David has done,” South Carolina coach Spurrier said. “He had a wonderful opportunity presented to him and will be moving on. We wish him the best.”
Reaves, is expected to take position on Kiffin’s UT staff.
“Tennessee is a special place, and there’s no doubt that we’ll bring in special coaches,” redshirt freshman quarterback B.J. Coleman of Chattanooga said. “This job will attract the best candidates, and we’ll get the right guy to lead us back where Tennessee should be.
“It’s just up to us, as players, to take that coaching and get the job done. We have the talent to do it ... if we follow our leaders.”