Who will new UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer target to take over Vols football?

Who will new UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer target to take over Vols football?

December 3rd, 2017 by David Cobb in Sports - College

Phillip Fulmer smiles during a press conference, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, in Knoxville, Tenn., where he was named athletic director at the University of Tennessee. The university placed former AD John Currie on paid leave amid what has been a tumultuous and embarrassing football coaching search. (Calvin Mattheis/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Newly installed Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer is resetting the university's search for a football coach.

Though Fulmer has never worked as an athletic administrator, he brings the eye of a national championship-winning coach to a process that has been riddled with controversy. The 67-year-old Winchester, Tenn., native also brings a firsthand understanding of the football program's storied history, which he has been part of as a player, assistant and head coach.

So where does the search go from here?

Finances could be more of a concern now than they were last week, when Tennessee made Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy an offer reportedly worth $7 million per year. For reference, fired Volunteers coach Butch Jones made $4.1 million per year.

Fulmer is making $575,000. Meanwhile, his "suspended" predecessor, John Currie, continues making a $900,000 salary as the university considers trying to fire Currie with cause. It seems Tennessee's parting with Currie could end in litigation over his buyout of more than $5 million. It is also possible Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who nearly became Tennessee's coach the Sunday after Thanksgiving, will pursue litigation against the university.

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All of this is on top of widespread speculation that hiring Fulmer as athletic director may have gone against the wishes of the university's most prominent boosters, Jim and Jimmy Haslam.

Nevertheless, Tennessee maintains one of the nation's most profitable football programs and should still have the buying power to land interviews with good candidates.

Here are a few possibilities:

Obvious ties

» Tee Martin (Southern California offensive coordinator): USC is 21-5 with a Rose Bowl win and a Pac-12 championship during Tee Martin's two seasons as the school's OC. Martin, who led Tennessee to a national championship at quarterback under Fulmer in 1998, does not have any head coaching experience. But considering the upward trajectory of Martin's career and his relationship with Fulmer, it's logical that Martin be considered as a head coach, associate head coach or head coach in waiting with Fulmer now directing the coaching search.

» Kevin Steele (Auburn defensive coordinator): His two years playing as a linebacker at Tennessee (1978-79) actually came during Fulmer's stints on staffs at Wichita State and Vanderbilt. The two did work together at Tennessee under Johnny Majors from 1980 to '82, though. Steele knows the Southeastern Conference, but his lone stint as a head coach at Baylor (1999-2002) was unsuccessful. Hiring Steele as head coach might feel like a discount-aisle purchase, but it could be a good move if he can surround himself with a premier staff.

» David Cutcliffe (Duke coach): Cutcliffe, 63, already opted against discussing the vacancy once, according to ESPN. But with his former boss in charge now, perhaps he would pick up the phone. Cutcliffe and Fulmer worked together at Tennessee from 1982 '98 and again from 2006 to '07.

How about now?

» Chad Morris (Southern Methodist coach): Morris reportedly interviewed with Currie already, but that went nowhere. Perhaps Fulmer would feel compelled to give Morris another look? The former longtime Texas high school football coach made a name for himself as the offensive coordinator at Clemson and has turned SMU into a bowl program in his third year there.

» Kevin Sumlin (former Texas A&M coach): Sumlin's name came up briefly last week while Currie was running the search. ESPN reported Sunday that Sumlin is Central Florida's top target for its vacancy. He had a 51-26 record at Texas A&M that included a 25-23 mark in the SEC.

» Mike Leach (Washington State coach): Seems like a longshot, but talks between Currie and Leach were reportedly going quite well before Currie was summoned to the chancellor's office, placed on "paid suspension" and replaced by Fulmer on Friday.

Wild cards

» Les Miles (former LSU coach): He has made no secret of his desire to coach again, and he and Fulmer have reportedly talked recently. The nature and timing of that conversation was characterized differently in varying reports that surfaced Sunday. Miles has won a national championship with an SEC program. It's also worth noting former Tennessee player and defensive coordinator John Chavis, who worked with Fulmer, also worked for Miles from 2009 to '14. Chavis has been at Texas A&M since 2015 but is presumably looking for a job now that Jimbo Fisher is taking over at Texas A&M.

» Mike Norvell (Memphis coach): With Auburn coach Gus Malzahn turning Arkansas down, Norvell appears to be a likely candidate for the Razorbacks' job. But it might be worth giving Norvell a call. The 36-year-old former Arizona State offensive coordinator has kept the momentum going at Memphis with an 18-7 record in his two seasons there. For some reason, his name has not picked up steam in connection with the Tennessee search yet.

» Dana Holgersen (West Virginia coach): This is truly a wild card, but Holgersen comes from an impressive offensive coaching tree that includes three names that have already surfaced in conjunction with the Tennessee opening. Holgersen has worked for Leach, Sumlin and Gundy. And he has won 10 games twice in his seven years at West Virginia in a job that has grown considerably harder since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12.

Contact David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com.

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