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Tennessee Moments of the Decade #2-3: The Fulmer Era Ends & The Kiffin Era Begins

How much have things changed in one year?

What if Arian Foster doesn't fumble against UCLA and Auburn?  Then what if Fulmer hadn't been removed the week of the Wyoming game, and the Vols survive?

What if the Vols went 8-4 instead of 5-7 last year?  What if the Vols beat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl the same way Kentucky did to finish 9-4 in 2008, with Fulmer getting his contractually-obligated extension?

And then what if the 2009 season unfolded exactly the same way?

Fulmer's seat would've been boiling immediately following the UCLA loss.  He would've gotten no credit for "moral victories" against Florida and Alabama.  Big wins over Georgia and South Carolina would've been minimized, and the loss to Auburn would've been inflated.  And perhaps the blowout loss at Ole Miss would've been the final straw.

Either way, the fanbase would've been divided, again, every week.  Wins would be neither appreciated nor enjoyed, at least not the way they should be.  And a 7-5 season would be fuel on the fire.  The season we saw in 2009, at the tail end of the Fulmer era, might've been enough to cost him his job.

But a 7-5 season at the beginning of the Lane Kiffin era?  It's a good start.

There's no one to blame for the way that works.  And perhaps more than anything else, it goes to show how necessary a coaching move was at the end of last season.  Because maybe sometimes, we just need change.

The biggest thing the move from Fulmer to Kiffin did was press the rest button on our ridiculous expectations.  They were expectations that Fulmer rightfully earned.  And they were expectations that Fulmer rightfully caught the most responsibility for when they weren't upheld.

Tennessee is used to winning.  I will continue to use this stat over and over again, because it's so ridicuous it deserves greater recognition:  under Fulmer, the Vols went 1-4 against Florida between October 1994 and November 1999.  They went 37-0 against the rest of the SEC. 

In the 90s, the Vols went 100-22-2, won three SEC titles (one under Johnny Majors) and the 1998 National Championship, while appearing in a traditional January 1 bowl every year, including two BCS appearances. 

This decade, the Vols are 83-43, including Kiffin's 7-5 mark.  The Vols won the SEC East three times but fell short in Atlanta, and appeared in traditional January 1 bowls only five times.  Lots of programs would kill to win two-thirds of their games in a decade, as the Vols have done in the last ten years.  But for us, it was a step backward.  And without making a change, 2009 would've been another step in that direction.

But with Kiffin and the new staff, 2009 has become a step forward.

I don't know if Fulmer will coach again.  The culture is such that teams that fire their head coach are always looking to get younger and find the next Urban Meyer; one wonders if these past few weeks have been a rude awakening for Fulmer, and if he's had more outgoing than incoming calls regarding coaching opportunities in 2010. 

I hope that eventually, Fulmer finds his way back to Knoxville on a more permanent basis.  He doesn't have to work for the university or serve as a special advisor to this or that.  But if Fulmer's options continue to decrease, he will likely have to choose between serving as an assistant on someone else's staff, or taking a job at a program that is a far, far cry from ours.  I'm not sure that either is a good idea, and I'm not sure if Fulmer would pull the trigger on either.

But despite the decline of the last ten years and despite the uncomfortable exit, Fulmer's contribution to Tennessee remains above all others except for the guy the stadium is named after.  And whether it's in the next year or in the next decade, Fulmer deserves the public appreciation and access within the program that eluded Johnny Majors for the duration of Fulmer's career.  Maybe that's impossible until Fulmer's recruits are all out of the program, and Kiffin has either been fired for falling short on old expectations, or has created new ones with his own success and earned his own security.  Either way, Fulmer will always be a Tennessee guy.

But sometimes, we just need change.

The change Kiffin has brought has been obvious in many ways.  The Vols too went for the younger model, and focused on recruiting.  Kiffin's approach in hiring one of the best assistant coaching staffs in the nation has also emphasized recruiting, but the fact that Jim Chaney and Monte Kiffin are your coordinators means the Vols are doing okay on the field as well.

It's also a system with no fall guys:  Kiffin calls the plays and his father runs the defense.  If Tennessee wins or if Tennessee loses, it will be because of the Kiffin Family.

Both Fulmer and Kiffin were excellent recruiters, though the Vols slipped in a couple of years late in Fulmer's career.  Kiffin made an instant impact on that front, putting together an excellent first class on very short notice, including the nation's best player in Bryce Brown.  That trend has continued thus far in putting together the class of 2010.

And it will be interesting to see if Kiffin's mouth continues to run at its current pace.  If the Vols stay at 7-5 forever, the talk will become meaningless.  If the Vols win championships, will Kiffin still feel the need to verbally engage his opponents?  Is he an agitator out of habit or necessity?

We're still learning, we fans and our head coach.  We've gotten to know each other fairly well in our first year together, but we're anxious to see where this relationship might lead, and hope it has the stuff to go the distance.  The first year wasn't what Bruce Pearl gave us, and it wasn't a disaster either - it's what we thought it would be. 

But it was different.  And maybe we needed different.  Because now we're treating 7-5 with hope instead of despair.

The one constant remains Tennessee herself, the program bigger than both Kiffin and Fulmer.  Both are responsible for the state she's in today, for better and for worse.  Fulmer took her to the mountaintop, and gradually slid down.  Kiffin took the reigns from the bottom, and built for himself a steady foundation in his first try, but knows he must move upward from here.

We love Fulmer for what he's done for us in the past.  And we love Kiffin because he's our head coach, and he's off to a good start.  Both men now have their names written in the story of Tennessee Football.  Our hope is in that story continuing to move forward.