Fulmer, Dooley, Cuonzo and Patience

Streeter Lecka

Looking back at a tumultuous season and how our fanbase has handled coaches on the hot seat.

At the back end of a week when Cuonzo Martin chose to stay with the Vols over leaving for Marquette, we've already shared a number of words on fan behavior.  I_S's points on campaigning for another coach, denying the resources to succeed, and never giving Cuonzo a chance are all symptoms of fans who jumped to a conclusion too quickly. The presence of Bruce Pearl certainly accelerated the leap, but I think now in hindsight with Martin on the verge of a contract extension after a Sweet 16 there are some things we can learn.

More than anything, there's this: you don't want to miss the chance to enjoy your team. Tennessee's schedule was strange this year with the only ranked opponents on the table an undefeated team and two Final Four participants. So there were no "big wins" in the moment, at least none that made you feel confident in this team's eventual Sweet 16 promise. But there were certainly games to enjoy, many of them blowouts over old SEC foes. But at times we can make up our minds so much as fans and prematurely decide this guy isn't the right guy, it can cause us to do something other than fully enjoy winning. And hey, after much of what we'll talk about in this post over the last decade - yes, the frustration and misery described in this post now stretch a full ten years - we want to be people who celebrate every chance we get.

Looking back at the conclusions we've jumped to as a fanbase, right and wrong, also shows us how basketball and football are different when evaluating your head coach. Consider the fates of the last three coaches on the hot seat in Knoxville, non-show-cause division:

Phillip Fulmer

  • First real sign of trouble: 2005
  • Majority of fanbase turned: 29-9 L vs #2 Alabama, October 25, 2008
  • Administration last straw: 27-6 L at South Carolina, November 1, 2008
The entire point of this post isn't to debate when the majority of the fanbase turned on Fulmer; the vocal minority is certainly a big part of causing others to jump to conclusions, but in my opinion there were still plenty of quieter Fulmer supporters who would've held the majority vote until the Vols got dusted by Alabama and Neyland Stadium emptied very quickly. Because of Fulmer's history fans were far more likely to give him every possible benefit of the doubt. So in this case there was only one additional week between when the majority of fans gave up on Fulmer and when the administration pulled the trigger, but you also had three years of a growing storm behind it. 2005 cost Randy Sanders his job and put Fulmer on the hot seat for the first time ever, seven years removed from a National Championship. Fulmer won enough early in 2006 to keep the wolves away. But when the big wins came late in 2007, many fans called for his job as the Vols were getting crushed by Florida 59-20.

The conclusion that Fulmer was no longer the best man for the job would eventually be one shared by the administration, so in one sense those fans were right. But in another very real sense, some of the most passionate anti-Fulmer group probably found themselves unable to fully enjoy moments like the 35-14 destruction of Georgia or the four overtime SEC East clincher against Kentucky in 2007. There were dozens of other factors in the Fulmer conversation, and his dismissal came after pulling out several backs-against-the-wall wins. But sometimes we can make up our minds so quickly and with so much passion, a refusal to even consider being wrong can lead to missing out on wins like the ones between 2005 and 2008. Fans who called for Fulmer's job may have been right in the long run, but in the moment they also may have missed a chance to enjoy winning football.

Derek Dooley
  • First real sign of trouble: 10-7 L at Kentucky, November 26, 2011
  • Majority of fanbase turned: 41-31 L at #19 Mississippi State, October 13, 2012
  • Administration last straw: 51-48 4OT L vs Missouri, November 10, 2012
Ah, this one goes down much easier. Plenty of Vol fans raised their voices against Dooley when he pulled Justin Worley's redshirt at Alabama, but after beating Vanderbilt in overtime in Tyler Bray's return from injury all seemed okay with another bowl bid a sure thing after beating Kentucky. But when we didn't beat Kentucky - an all-time embarrassment - everything swung hard against Dooley.

Again, I believe the majority is often silent, so I think most didn't turn on him until after the Vols lost at Mississippi State. In particular, I know the moment came when the Vols failed to field a kickoff in that game. I'm more of a gut feeling kind of person, and in that moment I just remember feeling like this would be it, and Dooley wouldn't make it.
However, I'm also usually the last guy off the bandwagon. I can't and don't speak for all of the idiot optimists, I'm just one with a keyboard and an audience. So even after Mississippi State, I and a few others argued in a pro-Dooley voice, because if he was able to beat Alabama and/or South Carolina and then win out as the favorite from there, there would still be a reasonable argument for him keeping his job. "Yeah, but he's not going to beat Alabama or South Carolina," was the common response; though Dooley and the Vols did come painfully close to getting the Gamecocks, by that time Grudenmania had taken over so quickly all of us were a little under its spell.

The best case scenario is almost always for your team to win. Sounds like rocket science, of course, but the best argument against it I know is the Missouri game in 2012. If Dooley squeaks it out in any of those four overtimes, then the team actually shows up against Vanderbilt? We might be looking at Year One of someone else and a horrible progress-preventing recruiting class instead of Year Two of Butch Jones.

So there's at least one argument, as much as I hate to say it, where in extreme circumstances it could be better for your team to lose if it makes the difference between a bad coach staying or going, especially one where the majority of the fanbase has already turned.

However, I don't think that argument holds nearly as much water in basketball.

Cuonzo Martin
  • First sign of real trouble: 65-58 L vs NC State, December 18, 2013
  • Majority of fanbase turned: 68-65 OT L at Texas A&M, February 22, 2014
  • Administration last straw: Nope.
There's an obvious joke here about Bruce Pearl accelerating the timeline. The UTEP loss was very frustrating but only the second loss of the season. But when the Vols got dusted at home by NC State, Tennessee was 6-4 and the conversation changed dramatically. If you want to say the majority turned one loss earlier, at Missouri, I'll buy it. But in either case it was premature, and here's why: if your team still has a chance to earn an at-large bid, your entire season still has a chance to be successful.

This isn't like arguing for Dooley on the merits of beating South Carolina or Missouri. In football not all wins are equal, but in basketball March wins are worth exponentially more. If you can dance - and not via a crazy run in your conference tournament, but by being good enough for at-large selection, even via Dayton - you still have a chance. Few pegged the Vols in the Sweet 16 when the bracket was announced. But look no further than how the narrative of the entire season has changed in Lexington in the last month. John Calipari's entire method was in the fire, but in four wins and one month it has come out refined, stronger than ever. The comparison isn't exact, but Cuonzo Martin too went from a hotter seat than ever to a greater accomplishment than ever.

I went to the Vanderbilt game a week after the A&M loss, still supporting the team and all. But I was very ambivalent about the outcome that day, if I'm honest. I believe those three weeks were truly the point of no return for Cuonzo, where any additional loss would've taken Tennessee out of the NCAA Tournament conversation. But the Vols got hot again, their third consecutive 8-1 run at the end of the season. And because it's college basketball and not college football, those wins matter way more (as does the way the Vols played against Michigan). You can't judge the whole body of work based on four good games in the NCAA Tournament, but it's insane to value those games less than anything in the regular season. And I'm not saying we should give Cuonzo a ten year extension after one trip to the Sweet 16. But I do believe, as does the administration, that he has earned the right to continue as our basketball coach. And as our basketball coach, he has earned our support.

So next year, if/when the Vols struggle and get off to another slow start, I simply find it better if we don't give up on the team or its coach until they're truly dead. Patience is such a frustrating word in sports, but that doesn't mean it has no place here. Turns out these Vols were only mostly dead, and slightly alive can still work a miracle or two. And more than anything, don't let premature conclusions ruin the chance to enjoy wins. We need more of that around here, and Cuonzo has certainly earned the chance to bring us more good memories in March. He's our basketball coach, and as that he deserves our support, but now even more after winning when it mattered most. And hopefully we can jump to fewer conclusions and enjoy more winning.

When did you give up on Fulmer, Dooley, and Cuonzo? And what do we have right or wrong about patience and fanhood?
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