Wiedmer: Would Phillip Fulmer be a good UT athletic director?

Wiedmer: Would Phillip Fulmer be a good UT athletic director?

June 9th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Coach Phil Fulmer.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

The notion of Phillip Fulmer becoming the University of Tennessee men's athletic director isn't exactly new. It's been around at least as early as January 2010, when the man who replaced Fulmer as football coach, Lane Kiffin, bolted for Southern Cal after just one season.

Ever since that moment, some who believed Fulmer had been wrongly forced out by athletic director Mike Hamilton have pushed for the 16-year head coach to return as AD.

With Hamilton's Tuesday resignation in the face of probable NCAA sanctions, that movement is apparently stronger than ever, as witness Stephen Hargis's page A-1 story today about a number of former Volunteers politicking for Fulmer to run the Big Orange athletic department.

And to at least one former Southeastern Conference and UT-Chattanooga athletic director, that grassroots campaign makes sense.

For much as Fulmer bleeds pale orange as both a former Vols player and coach, Steve Sloan was both an Alabama player and assistant coach under Bear Bryant and returned to the Capstone as AD in 1987.

"One advantage Phillip would have is that he already knows everybody, and that's a good thing," Sloan said Wednesday from his Florida home. "A big part of being an athletic director today is raising funds. He'd do well in that area because he already knows who to go to for money."

But that's not Fulmer's only strong selling point, should he choose to throw his ol' ball cap into the AD ring.

POLL: Should Phil Fulmer be the next UT athletic director?

"One benefit of being a head coach as long as he was is that you have a really good understanding of what coaches - all coaches, regardless of the sport - go through," Sloan said. "You understand recruiting issues, academic issues, public relations issues.

"That doesn't mean there's not a lot more to it. With the budgets these programs have, it's big business and at a program like Tennessee they expect you to run in the black. You've either got to know something about business or surround yourself with people who do. But that's also one of Phillip's strengths, I think. He already understands that you're only as good as the people around you."

Sloan linked himself with football coach Bill Curry when he returned to Alabama as AD. With each known for a squeaky-clean image, the duo were quickly dubbed the Righteous Brothers.

But when Curry failed to beat Auburn in any of his three seasons, the gig was up for both men, Sloan actually becoming the Vanderbilt offensive coordinator in 1990. He later became the AD at North Texas State, Central Florida and UTC, before retiring for good in 2006.

"The key, I think, is having a plan and sticking to it," Sloan said. "Never compromise your integrity. And practice these four things every day: organization, leadership, planning and control."

It all sounds simple, even with a $100 million budget to oversee, not to mention a diverse group of coaches, athletes and fans to please.

However, Rick Hart - who succeeded Sloan as UTC's athletic director - believes it's harder than ever for coaches to run athletic departments. And his grandfather, Dave Hart, was the University of Pittsburgh football coach before becoming the AD at both Louisville and Missouri. He finally wrapped up his career as the commissioner of the Southern Conference.

"The skill set and demands have changed a lot since then," UTC's Hart said. "The blueprint for a successful athletic director is different today than it was 10 years ago. There's much more of an entrepreneurial piece to it - very similar to being a CEO of a large company.

"That doesn't mean a former coach can't succeed. In fact, there were some coaches when I got the UTC job who expressed their concerns to me that because I hadn't been a college coach or athlete, I might not be able to relate to them. But that's where the ability to surround yourself with people who make the organization better is so important."

On that he and Sloan seem to agree, regardless of whom UT ultimately hires to replace Hamilton.

But Sloan also said something to flummox both Fulmer fans and Fulmer foes.

"Being an AD is not like being a football coach," he said. "It's a whole new ballgame."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.