KNOXVILLE — When Phillip Fulmer reluctantly stepped aside as the University of Tennessee football coach on Nov. 3, he spoke of the UT fans being united in their goals but divided on the best way to reach them.
Judging from Saturday’s crowd at Neyland Stadium for the Vols’ 28-10 win over Kentucky, both those assertions apparently remain, especially when it comes to Lane Kiffin, who is expected to become Fulmer’s successor as early as Monday.
“I was fine with Coach Fulmer,” said 28-year-old Danny Hayes, a UT season-ticket holder for the past 10 years. “But if we were going to start over, I wish we were getting a higher name, like (Texas Tech’s Mike) Leach, maybe. At least (North Carolina’s) Butch Davis.”
Mark Anderton coaches football at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro. He labeled Kiffin “a good hire.”
But he also was quick to voice his displeasure over the events that led to Saturday’s Phillip Fulmer Appreciation Day.
“If they were going to get rid of Coach Fulmer, it could have been done a lot differently,” Anderton said. “The man’s spent 35 years of his life in this program. I don’t think anything should have been announced until this game was over.”
Brice Woolward is a 21-year-old West Point cadet from Jefferson City, Tenn., but also a huge UT football fan. It didn’t take him long to assess, “I think it’s time for Tennessee to have a change.”
However, he is less certain about Kiffin becoming that change.
“I don’t know that much about him,” he said. “I know they were looking at some bigger names. Maybe he can bring a little new excitement to the program, though.”
Shawn Bryson brought a lot of excitement to the Vols during their 1998 national championship season, including UT’s first touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl win over Florida State and a key touchdown in the pivotal September win over Florida.
Honored before Saturday’s kickoff, Bryson was quick to profess, “Obviously, I’d rather have Coach Fulmer. He should still be our coach. And I don’t know a lot about Kiffin. But he coached in the (National Football) league, so he must know a lot about the game.”
The 33-year-old Kiffin was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders for 20 games. He won five and was relieved of his duties by cantankerous owner Al Davis early this fall. His attraction to UT athletic director Mike Hamilton apparently centers on his skill as both a recruiting and co-offensive coordinator at Southern Cal, as well as the staff he might assemble, including his father, Monte — the defensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
To show how divided the state remains, an informal poll of 20 in-state sports writers before kickoff showed that 14 believed Fulmer should have been fired but 16 believed someone other than Kiffin should be hired. Two of the four who believed Kiffin was the best choice qualified their belief depending on whom Kiffin named to his staff.
Anderton, dressed head-to-toe in UT orange, was also interested in Kiffin’s potential staff.
“He’s a young guy who did an incredible job in recruiting at USC,” the high school coach said. “If he can convince his dad to come with him, it sounds like he could have a great staff.”
Whether that staff can swiftly unite a divided Big Orange fan base remains uncertain.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...