Wiedmer: Phillip Fulmer's legacy is on the line with coaching hire

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)

Admit it, Big Orange Nation.

You're nervous about this endless search for Tennessee's next football coach. And who can blame you? Especially if you've hung on every word and rumor that's been uttered over the past 23 days of this unwitting comedy to replace the recently axed Butch Jones.

Whether it's Volgilantes launching a successful Twitter attack against Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, a former porn star comparing the incredible shrinking candidate pool to buying DVDs in the discount bin at Walmart or the shocking suspension of first-year athletic director John Currie in favor of former coach Phillip Fulmer, we haven't seen this many self-inflicted wounds since Charlie Sheen partied his way off the smash sitcom "Two and a Half Men."

But that's also why Volunteers fans should relax regardless of whoever ultimately is named today, tomorrow or next week as the school's 25th head football coach.

Because Fulmer isn't just in charge of hiring this new coach, his lasting legacy with the UT fan base may be defined by this decision.

Think about that for a minute. Despite being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, despite guiding the Vols to the 1998 national championship, despite putting together a preposterous five-year run of 54-8 from 1995 through 1999 that would be the envy of every Southern football program not named Alabama, most of that really good stuff happened close to 20 years ago.

There are UT students who weren't even born when Tee Martin hooked up with Peerless Price and Al Wilson hit everything that moved to lead the Vols past Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl for the very first Bowl Championship Series title.

So while the legend of Fulmer the coach will quite justifiably always be tied to that time and that title with anyone currently 30 and older, his determination to reinvent himself as the school's athletic director at the tender age of 67 also carries a risk.

That risk is this: If his pick to lead Team 122 and beyond is a bust, Fulmer's reputation suffers mightily within the Big Orange Nation. He's suddenly no longer the former UT offensive guard who took the program to a Rocky Top it hadn't reached since 1951. And the guy who coached Peyton. And the guy who whipped Bama seven straight years from 1995 to 2001.

Instead, he'd be remembered, at least in some ungrateful corners, as the old cuss who possibly backstabbed Currie on his way to further destroying the football program because he couldn't move on from his glory days.

That assessment might not be fair, since Fulmer undoubtedly already knows this. He's undoubtedly quite aware that inserting himself into this circus at this juncture could leave him as hated as Currie if his choice fails. And if he doesn't understand the importance of this decision, heaven help both Fulmer and the program.

But Fulmer also knows football and football coaches better than any search firm or bean-counting administrator on the planet. He knows what candidates can handle the fishbowl that is Knoxville, and the recruiting strategy that pretty much must blanket the whole country, and the right questions to ask Candidates A to Z to determine which have the brains, brass and balance to change the Vols from chumps to champs.

So whether UT turns to a defensive coordinator such as Jeremy Pruitt (Alabama), Kevin Steele (Auburn), Mel Tucker (Georgia) or Brent Venables (Clemson), an offensive coordinator such as ex-Vols hero Martin (Southern Cal), a current head coach such as Jeff Brohm (Purdue) or David Cutcliffe (Duke), former LSU coach Les Miles or a coach he's kept under wraps, Fulmer is going to make a hire he's certain will succeed.

That doesn't mean he will, of course. If the next UT coach is beset by as many injuries as Jones' later teams were, no amount of coaching genius might save him. Fulmer must also allow the attention to shift to the coach rather than himself. He's had his moments in the sun. Lots of them. Time to let somebody else be the coaching face of Big Orange football. Nine years past time, actually.

As he was wrapping up his introductory news conference as the new UT AD last Friday, Fulmer said, "There's an old saying that says it is amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit."

If he practices what he's preached, and his coaching choice accomplishes as much as Fulmer did in that role, the old coach just might one day go down as the all-time most valuable person in UT football history.

And don't think for a minute that Fulmer isn't counting on that.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

Vols head football coach search