Wiedmer: Fulmer not bad choice for Kansas

Wiedmer: Fulmer not bad choice for Kansas

December 7th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

It isn't often that one school's trash becomes another school's treasure as it pertains to major college football coaches. Once fired, rarely rehired.

Then again, it isn't often that a school tosses aside a 35-year relationship with an alumnus who coached it to a national championship, appeared in five SEC title contests and won more than 70 percent of his games, as Phillip Fulmer did at the University of Tennessee.

So if it may strike some as strange that at least one Lawrence, Kan., newspaper columnist is pushing Fulmer for the Kansas Jayhawks' vacant coaching position, it should cause at least as many people to wonder why Fulmer still is living off his $6 million buyout from the Volunteers rather than building a different program to prominence.

Yes, it's a long shot. After all, Fulmer and his friends seem to be the ones lobbying hardest for this. Coaching hires tend to be don't-call-us-we'll-call-you affairs, and there's zero evidence that KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger has reached out to Fulmer.

Yet the Jayhawks reportedly considered the Vols' 16-year head coach when they hired former Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill away from Buffalo two years ago.

Now that Kansas has decided it would rather pay Gill the remaining $6 million on his contract not to coach than coach -- remember when being a $6 million man was a good thing? -- it would do well to reconsider Fulmer.

Especially since his UT career must look better daily to all those in Big Orange Country smarting from current coach Derek Dooley's two losing seasons in two years on the job.

So why Kansas? Why did Fulmer reportedly call his old buddy Rich Jantz from the time both men were employed by the Wichita State athletic department -- Fulmer as an assistant football coach, Jantz a tennis coach -- and tell him, "Let them know I'm interested"?

Perhaps because that's the job that's open right now that Fulmer feels most comfortable landing. Perhaps because he enjoyed his time in Wichita as a young assistant. Or just maybe because given the current state of the Vols, he's desperate to land some job, any job to further prove his alma mater made a mistake n 2008 letting him go.

Yet there are plenty of reasons to think this could work, even if the 61-year-old Fulmer will be seen as a tad bit old to build a program as downtrodden as the Jayhawks.

For starters, Fulmer always has recruited nationally, which is even more of a must at KU than at UT, given the scarcity of top-flight Division I talent in the Sunflower State.

Second, coaches -- especially high school coaches -- love the guy. Those who fed him players before will again. Third, Fulmer had become a failure largely because of his own outrageous success over the first part of his career.

The man went 68-34 in his last eight seasons at UT, 39-34 for his last five. They'd stage parades for that in Lawrence, where only four of the Jayhawks' last 17 head coaches left with winning records and only two of them -- George Sauer (1946-47) and J.V. Sikes (1948-53) -- left KU more than two games over .500 for their time there.

Yet KU also stands 573-560-58 overall and counts Hall of Famers Gale Sayers and John Riggins among its alums.

And if its home stadium holds less than half what Neyland did, who's to say Fulmer wouldn't take half of the $2 million plus he was making in Knoxville to return?

It would be hypocritical of me to politic too strongly for Fulmer for I was rarely in his corner, though I've often written he deserved another season at UT to correct the Vols' course.

Perhaps he stayed too long. Perhaps the game changed as Fulmer stood pat. Perhaps he merely ran out of luck, which all coaches need an abundance of to win at a high level over 16 years.

But no one can ever say Fulmer doesn't know how to win or build a total program. He can be great with boosters, his players are intensely loyal and his peers admire him, or he wouldn't have been a past president of the coaches' association.

Nor would Kansas likely hire the exact same Fulmer that UT fired. Old loyalties would be unlikely to cloud his judgment when it came to staff hires. The KU brass could demand tougher academic and behavior standards, which Fulmer himself had begun to embrace at UT in his final seasons.

Beyond that, the argument that a 61-year-old coach is too old won't win fly in Kansas, since 72-year-old Bill Snyder just put the finishing touches on a 10-2 regular season during his second stint at Kansas State.

Of more immediate concern might be what Snyder did to Fulmer in the 2001 Cotton Bowl, whipping UT 35-21.

Still, as his good friend Jantz to the Lawrence Journal-World on Monday: "[Fulmer] had a 152-52 record playing in the best conference in America. He wanted the job two years ago, and they hired a guy who was 20-30 in a bad league."

Sounds like both school and coach could benefit from a second chance this time around.