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Phillip Fulmer looks over as University of Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport speaks during a press conference, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, in Knoxville, Tenn., where Fulmer was named athletic director. 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)

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Wiedmer: If anyone can unify Big Orange Nation, Fulmer can

ATLANTA — As former University of Tennessee football star Chad Clifton drove down I-75 Friday morning toward the Big Peach, his phone began to overload with text messages.

"I thought it was going to explode," he said inside the Hyatt Regency, where he was to be honored as one of the Southeastern Conference's football legends during a Friday night banquet. "Everyone was calling about (UT athletic director) John Currie being fired.

"It's just wild and crazy in Knoxville right now. I've never seen anything like it."

The Big Orange Nation, not to mention the rest of the college football community, may never have seen anything quite like what took place on the UT campus Friday.

Not only was Currie fired, but former coach Phillip Fulmer — a College Football Hall of Famer and something of a legend himself in Big Orange Country — was named Currie's replacement.

At this point, would it surprise anyone if Fulmer called a news conference in the coming days to inform the public that after looking far and wide for a capable replacement for Butch Jones, he has determined he is still the best man for the job and therefore will be returning to the Volunteers' sideline for the first time since 2008?

Talk about wild and crazy.

Not that Fulmer in any way sounded like someone wanting to take that challenge on at the semi-retiring age of 67.

When asked at Friday's news conference about that very scenario, he replied: "No. I will not serve as the interim head coach or as the head coach. I have done my duty that way, and I enjoyed it very much. I will be coaching (his grandkids') little league team some. That will be my coaching."

No better, more necessary words could have been spoken. At least for this weekend. And while the UT coaching search needs to continue, all of college football — especially the SEC — needs to take a deep breath and strongly consider if this is the image the sport wants to project.

And we're not only talking about Tennessee. As of Friday, Ole Miss was hit with serious NCAA sanctions at least partly because Mississippi State players told what boosters from both schools had offered them, apparently cutting a deal with the NCAA that whatever rules State broke would be ignored in order to ransack the Rebels.

To further the theater of the absurd, the Bulldogs coach while those violations occurred, Dan Mullen, was just hired by Florida, whose athletic director, Scott Stricklin, formerly was MSU's AD.

Beyond that, the 14-team SEC will have at least six schools with new coaches a year from now and that number could climb to seven if Auburn's Gus Malzahn leaves the Tigers after the SEC title game for Arkansas.

But only Tennessee, at least to this point, is a national punchline that's churning out even more dark comedy skits by the minute.

Even SEC commissioner Greg Sankey struggled to remain neutral and positive about the Vols during a Friday news conference prior to today's league-title game between East beast Georgia and the West's best, Auburn.

"I know we've seen a lot of turbulence in the coaching realm," Sankey said. "That's presented some challenges to the University of Tennessee. I'm not fully up to speed on today's news (Currie's firing/Fulmer's hiring). I'm going to be careful about any observations there."

Sankey is right to be careful. He represents UT as much as he does Georgia or Auburn or Texas A&M.

But what happened this past week in Knoxville is a black eye for all concerned, including chancellor Beverly Davenport — who failed to realize how lukewarm to cold most folks were regarding Currie due to his earlier time in Knoxville as an assistant AD — and the Volgilante fan base who so gleefully torpedoed the potential hirings of Greg Schiano and Dave Doeren. And quite possibly Fulmer himself, who never has been quite able to remove himself from the athletic department, though he can at least rightfully say the place hasn't been nearly as successful in his absence as during his employment.

However, what's most important now is for everyone from the Volgilante Twitter Army to Davenport to Fulmer to whoever ultimately becomes the new football coach to, in Fulmer's words: "All pull together to be part of the solution."

That said, to realistically make that happen, Fulmer needs to find somebody the Big Orange Nation can come together to support.

Who that may be is hard to know today, but a sentence or two from Fulmer certainly could describe a couple of past UT football folks no longer in the program.

Asked about what UT football needs, Fulmer said, "I hope to be a stabilizing and unifying force through this, just because we do have some gray hair and lots of experience at this place, and sometimes when you're younger, you screwed it up so bad that you figured it out later. You don't make the same mistakes again."

He may not have meant it as such, but you could argue that he was either describing the much younger coach who succeeded him, Lane Kiffin, or the quarterback who won Fulmer that 1998 national title: current Southern Cal offensive coordinator Tee Martin.

"I'd like to see Tee," Clifton said. "I think most of the (former) players would."

Or maybe Fulmer will convince Martin to work with Kiffin. If that won't stabilize and unify Big Orange Nation, nothing will.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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