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Mike DeBord & Tennessee: Is It The Right Choice This Time?

Seven years after almost becoming Phillip Fulmer's offensive coordinator, Mike DeBord could return to Knoxville under Butch Jones' watch. How would Tennessee fans react to this hire?

Mike DeBord, circa 2003 at Central Michigan
Mike DeBord, circa 2003 at Central Michigan
Danny Moloshok/Getty Images

One of the most read posts on our site this week was this one.  It's from 2008.

That's the last time a sitting Tennessee head coach went shopping for an offensive coordinator, and it was one of the most meaningful decisions Phillip Fulmer ever made.  Fresh off 10 wins and an SEC East Championship, Fulmer lost David Cutcliffe to Duke and from there had his choices.  One of them was Mike DeBord, Michigan's offensive coordinator in 1997-99 (one National Championship, two BCS appearances, two Big Ten titles) and again from 2006-07 (one three point loss to Ohio State to keep them from playing for it all, one 8-4 season which led to Lloyd Carr's retirement).

DeBord was the more natural fit for Fulmer, perceived as a pro-style I-formation "vanilla" coach who used superior talent and superior execution to pile up wins at a traditional powerhouse.  Instead, the Vols went younger and supposedly more dynamic, hiring Dave Clawson.  Fulmer had negative baggage still in storage for some in the fanbase, but Clawson helped bring it front and center with an anemic offense that did even worse in its first year at Wake Forest, the only unit to average less than four yards per play in at least the last six years.  Wake was significantly worse than the rest of college football, its 3.38 yards per play very much alone at the bottom; SMU was next at 4.08 yards per play.

Dave Clawson is our most famous example of how it can go wrong in the coordinator game, with Sal Sunseri a close second.  Both hires were most responsible for costing their head coach his job.  Butch Jones is in no danger of losing his job next year, but Tennessee's next offensive coordinator will be much more in Sunseri's boat than Clawson's:  he's not trying to carry the torch for a new generation or stem the tide of negativity, he's the guy who's supposed to be there for the breakthrough.

So now, seven years later, DeBord's name has again emerged as a candidate for Tennessee's offensive coordinator position.  Right now, he's the only name that's emerged, even more than current recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni.  He gave Butch Jones a job at Central Michigan, where he became the head coach following his first run as Michigan's offensive coordinator in 2000.  It's clear Butch knows DeBord and vice versa.

At his introductory press conference for this job, Butch Jones said he was going to hire the best staff in America...and, as it turned out, the "best staff in America" was mostly already working at Cincinnati.  This hasn't hurt Tennessee - the Vols have recruited like madmen and seem poised to move up the ladder in 2015 - but it could be an indication of Butch not wanting to go outside of what he knows.  He knows Azzanni.  He knows DeBord.  If Fulmer had stuck with what he knew, maybe we're not having this conversation at all right now, who knows.

On the other hand, DeBord comes with questions beyond simply age.  His track record at Michigan speaks for itself on paper.  The RTT article linked at the top of the page comes from our old friend Corn From A Jar, who longtime readers of this blog will remember.  In it you're hearing voices from a frustrated Michigan fanbase from a season gone wrong.  Granted, the 2007 Wolverines did score just 7 against Oregon and 3 against Ohio State in a pair of home losses.  But these guys are never as good or as bad as their own fanbase makes them look in the midst of something really great or really difficult.

Still, DeBord hasn't coached since 2012 with the Chicago Bears.  If Tennessee hires DeBord, it will be hiring the Michigan Olympic Sport Administrator.  I don't even know what that means.  I'm not sure that it matters.

I do know Butch Jones has earned enough trust within the fanbase to not jump to too many conclusions no matter who the Vols hire.  If Jones values comfort and stability, DeBord or Azzanni are the best choices.  DeBord didn't run Butch & Bajakian's stuff while at Michigan, but I doubt very much they're going to abandon it for the I when the best fullback on our roster is the starting tailback.

Are there other names out there we would applaud more than DeBord?  Probably; anybody who hires Sonny Cumbie is getting the other end of the spectrum, where it's easy to cheer what TCU did offensively this year and thus easy to overlook inexperience.  But unlike many thought with Fulmer in 2008, Butch doesn't need something to shake things up or a major evolutionary step.  What we do worked better than it ever has the last time we saw it, and it has naturally progressed quite well.  It will continue to do so as the Vols continue to recruit well; Josh Dobbs was our evolutionary step.

Look, I can hear and feel myself starting to defend this hire and it hasn't even been made yet.  Maybe we won't hire DeBord, or maybe people will react to it better than I think.  Some of us didn't want him seven years ago, and what we got instead help put Tennessee in a hole it still hasn't climbed out of.  Maybe this time stability and familiarity is the better choice.  Either way, Butch has earned enough trust to go get his guy, and for us to believe he's getting his guy because he's the right guy right now, not just because he's his guy.