A natural human tendency has played out in Tennessee's Athletic Department in the last three years: when something goes wrong, go hard in the other direction.
Lane Kiffin was the anti-Fulmer: younger, brasher, and generally thought to be more exciting. I'm not sure who the original source of this quote is, but when names like Butch Davis were brought up to replace Fulmer, a popular question was, "Do you want to change the sparkplugs, or do you want a new engine?" And like many a newly-divorced man, we spent it all on the flashy sports car that was only good for speeding tickets. Phillip Fulmer was many things, but the flashy sports car was not one of them.
So when Kiffin left, the Vols went for a coach who is much more like Fulmer. Given the timetable, any hire would've been somewhat of a reach and the coach from Louisiana Tech certainly qualified. But it didn't take us long to see that the things we tried to ignore about Kiffin - most notably his blatant disrespect for UT's traditions - were not an issue for Derek Dooley, who has gained incredible traction with both fans and players past and present with the Vol For Life mantra.
Bruce Pearl did lots of things well, but in the midst of his departure, the pendulum swung from showmanship to stability. The Vols hired a guy who would get crushed by Pearl in a press conference or postgame show, but brings the background, rebuilding experience, and clean record Tennessee Basketball needs. Professionally, we hope he's very similar to Pearl, only with more honesty. But personally, he's in many ways the anti-Pearl.
So with Mike Hamilton gone, I expect The Powers That Be at Tennessee to make a hire that isn't primarily focused on continuing the things Hamilton did well - facilities and fund raising - but one that will directly address the things that cost him his job: running a clean administration, and doing so through better monitoring of its head coaches.
They took a step in that direction Thursday when they named Joan Cronan the interim AD instead of those who operated within the Hamilton regime like David Blackburn or Chris Fuller. This is not at all to say that Blackburn and Fuller haven't done a good job or shouldn't ultimately be considered for the job. But given all that's gone on in the last three years, the move to Cronan made the most sense.
Cronan The Barbarian has run a tight, clean ship in Knoxville for decades. And her positive and lengthy working relationship with Pat Summitt gives her all the experience she needs to understand and interact with the high profile coaches on the men's side. She'd would be an excellent candidate for the "real" job, but it doesn't appear that she's interested in it given her planned retirement next year.
Still, the same reasons they went with Cronan now should be many of the same factors behind the decision they'll make later. The pendulum's path demands a hire with a clean track record and strong leadership experience. For this reason, I would be very surprised if the Vols hired someone who has never been an AD before (like Hamilton in 2003). I'd also be surprised if the Vols hired Kentucky's Mitch Barnhart (who worked for the Vols until 1998), but he appeared to take himself out of the running yesterday. Barnhart would've been a great case study for how heavily The Powers That Be at Tennessee weigh perception: Kentucky's athletic department has been successful under his watch, but would the same administration who openly acknowledged that they paid close attention to the national media in the handling of Bruce Pearl be willing to hire the guy who hired John Calipari? (Again, we're talking about perception, UK fans.) I think Barnhart is a very good athletic director, but the pendulum will demand a hire where a question like that won't even be asked.
The name generating the most conversation continues to be Phillip Fulmer. Our poll from Wednesday continues to run at a similar percentage to the one at KNS: just over half of UT fans support the idea of Fulmer as AD, but not enough over half to make it any kind of mandate from the people. Even if it was, it wouldn't be enough to force the administration's hand; the Vols moved on Bruce Pearl with as much as 90% of the fanbase against it, though we may soon officially discover via the NCAA that it was really the only play on the table.
It makes sense that Fulmer would be the middle ground. But what The Powers That Be will also know is that you can hire someone else from the outside and avoid all of the backlash from the 40something percent who are against the hiring of Fulmer. While at least some of that percentage would go away, moving forward and embracing the hire, if the move was actually made...some amount of that percentage would always be there, always ready to point a finger at Phillip when something went wrong, whether it was his fault or not. Fulmer is the most dramatic hire the university could make...and I'd like to get back to having our drama be on-the-field/court instead of off of it (as long as it does not involve losing any additional games in mythical extra time).
And here's the other thing: is Fulmer truly the best man for the job? I think the simple fact that the answer to that question is debatable, at least, will point The Powers That Be in another direction. Fulmer could be great as the AD...but because there's the uncertainty that comes with inexperience, regardless of all the other baggage with Fulmer, I'd be surprised if he actually ends up with the job.
This brings us back to the old, "I love Fulmer, but..." - the final words for many in his corner in 2008 - and they're still not easy words today. I love Coach Fulmer. I want him to be involved with Tennessee in some capacity. I don't want him to have to wait the sixteen years Johnny Majors had to wait to get back in the picture. No one embodies a Vol For Life more than he does. And as mentioned a couple days ago, if he does get the job it will not take me long to embrace it.
But if the pendulum still swings the way it has the last few years, it's going to move past Fulmer and everyone else in the Tennessee Family for Mr. Outside Hire (or Ms. Outside Hire) with prior experience and a clean record.