Wiedmer: UT should hire both Fulmer and Blackburn

No one loves the University of Tennessee more than former football coach Phillip Fulmer. He grew up in the Volunteer State, played for the Vols, then spent the vast majority of his 36-year college coaching career as a UT assistant or head coach.

If reports are correct that the 66-year-old native of Winchester, Tenn., has emerged as the favorite to become the next UT athletic director, it would certainly seem the school would be in good hands.

photo Former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer, shown here during his final season with the Volunteers in 2008, is excited about the potential of this year's team but has his concerns.
photo Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 7/14/16. David Blackburn, Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics for The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, stands in front of McKenzie Arena where his office is located.

The same could also be said for current University of Tennessee at Chattanooga AD David Blackburn, a former Fulmer assistant and longtime UT athletic department administrator. Overseeing all of the Vols' athletic teams would also be a dream come true for Blackburn, who was raised just up Interstate 75 in Loudon, Tenn.

These are both good men with good intentions for their Big Orange U. Let either one ultimately be chosen for that job and the school would be better off than it is today, if only because the search would be over and the man running the program would understand the need to reunite quickly a badly divided and disagreeable fan base.

Nor are those the only positives regarding Fulmer and Blackburn. Both men know how to sell their product. Fulmer's connections throughout the state are vast and wealthy. He can raise money with the best of them and he understands the life of a coach better than most - its highs, lows and everything in between.

As for Blackburn, because of his current post, he already knows how to run an athletic department and run it on a tight budget, which could become more and more useful, even in the currently cash-rich Southeastern Conference.

But that shouldn't mean that they're the only choices or that the school shouldn't consider a new beginning, a fresh voice, a different direction than the road to nowhere the UT athletic department has been on for close to a decade.

Yet it is also at this point that those strongly supporting Fulmer might rightly argue that the last time the Vols were in good hands was when former football coach Doug Dickey was in charge. Since he retired in 2002, the football program has been mediocre at best, the men's basketball team has been on a roller coaster that included an NCAA investigation and forced departure of Bruce Pearl, the women's basketball team no longer owns the SEC and the baseball program has become invisible come the postseason.

That isn't to say that the man who replaced Dickey, Mike Hamilton, didn't have his strong points. He upgraded facilities - especially Neyland Stadium - to where it might be as good as any on-campus facility anywhere.

Though Pearl ultimately let Hamilton down, he also generated enough excitement to encourage the remodeling of Thompson-Boling Arena, which is now the envy of almost every program in the country outside of Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA.

As for the retiring UT AD, Dave Hart, he'll be appreciated far more by the man who replaces him than the Big Orange Nation that's happy to see him leave. While Hart needlessly angered Lady Vols fans with his stubborn attempt to create a single UT "brand" by doing away with the Lady Vols name in favor of Vols only (he later agreed to keep the old moniker for women's basketball alone), he dramatically improved academic performance by athletes, cut costs, raised revenue and ultimately dealt fairly well with a string of lawsuits accusing the school of encouraging "a hostile sexual environment."

Had he not hired the rules-challenged Donnie Tyndall as basketball coach, Hart might have deserved a hefty raise rather than a hasty retreat. But now he's done and UT needs to find someone to replace him at a pace a bit quicker than its current inchworm advance.

Of course, this one quote from Fulmer in a recent Tennessean article makes you wonder if he's willing to make the tough decisions on hiring and firing coaches that all ADs must make.

Said Fulmer: "Butch (Jones) has done a great job with the football team. I love (men's basketball coach) Rick Barnes and watching his kids play basketball. Talent-wise he hasn't had time to get it to where he wants it to be, but they play so hard and they're fun to watch. And I've known Holly (Warlick, the women's basketball coach) since she was a kid."

The Jones quote alone could cost Fulmer the job in some corners.

So here's an idea that should please both the Fulmer faction and Blackburn backers. Hire them both. Let Fulmer raise the money and make the speeches. Let Blackburn attend to the details and hire coaches, since he's certainly proved adept at that at UTC.

Is that a change Volniacs the region over can believe in? Tough to know. But Blackburn and Fulmer were both a part of some far better Big Orange athletic years than we've seen of late. In this case, going backward to build the future might not be a bad idea.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.