The Tennessee Vols athletic department stepped back into the modern era of college sports two years ago this week. Things have worked out pretty well since.
Depending on your perspective, that seems like eons ago or just yesterday. It’s hard to believe that an athletic department that was recently challenging for a national championship in football could have been utilizing a mindset that was nearly 100 years old, but that’s exactly what the Vols were doing.
Turn back to mid-January in 2021 for a moment. Tennessee’s athletic director was Phillip Fulmer, who was a successful coach during his time at Tennessee. There’s no question that Fulmer did his best to lead his alma mater when he was named athletic director in December 2017, even if it was also self-serving to take the position. One could say Fulmer was a natural choice since he was named a consultant to the athletic department in June 2017. Sadly, for the Vols, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Now, let’s be clear, this is not a criticism of Fulmer. Sure, he wanted to be involved, wanted to help and did the best he could. However, athletic director jobs in big-time college athletics are not for the untrained or uninitiated. The Tennessee Vols and Fulmer learned that the hard way. It’s not Fulmer’s fault he took the job. It was the university’s fault for offering it to him.
Fulmer’s hires were a mixed bag, but one stands out from the rest. Football coach Jeremy Pruitt’s program was a five-alarm dumpster fire.
As for the others, volleyball coach Eve Rackham has turned the Lady Vols into an NCAA Tournament team. Golf coach Brennan Webb has captured seven tournament titles and six individuals while at Tennessee. Lady Vol basketball coach Kelly Harper’s team is surging at 14-6 after some began calling for her job. Those hires alone are above average, but let’s be clear, an athletic director in the SEC is judged on football first and last, except for perhaps Kentucky.
Finding a football coach isn’t easy, even at a place like Tennessee. There’s a lot of competition for just a few great coaches. For proof, take a look at their salaries.
Although no one with the Tennessee Vols would admit it, I seriously doubt Pruitt was the Vols’ first choice to replace Butch Jones. Pruitt had no experience as a head coach and doesn’t exactly come across as the type of guy that would wow an interviewer.
Tennessee replaced Fulmer with athletic director Danny White. Good choice. Good resume. White, who was hired just days after Fulmer parted ways, spent his entire career in college athletics, had success as an athletic director at Buffalo and Central Florida. Fulmer spent his life studying football.
White has made five hires since he accepted the Tennessee Vols job. It’s too early to determine what will happen with women’s golf, soccer, track and field and soccer, but it’s apparent that White tabbed the right guy with Heupel.
The hire was decisive and didn’t make that much of a splash. Again, it’s impossible to know if Heupel was the first choice, but he was the right choice. Being an administrator instead of a coach for 20 years means you have connections. That means that getting turned down by one candidate doesn’t mean disaster is on the horizon. With Fulmer or any other former coach as an athletic director, disaster was just a matter of time.