KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The T on Tennessee’s football helmet stands for “toxic” these days, and it’s getting worse each day.
Vols athletic director Phillip Fulmer is surely aware time is not on his side after the school’s first-ever 8-loss season and winless SEC campaign.
There’s a great deal of work to be done, as evidenced by the fact that Tennessee had just one player earn All-SEC honors on Tuesday — second-team pick Trey Smith, a freshman offensive lineman.
“Tennessee’s problems now are recruiting, the player development culture there, and structure of the program,” one SEC coach told SEC Country on Monday. “Tennessee is toxic.”
That would certainly appear to be the case where prospective head coaches are concerned.
The Vols were turned down time and time again last week in the wake of Tennessee fans rejecting the proposed hire of controversial Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
Fulmer took control as AD on Friday, replacing John Currie after Currie’s coaching search with booster Jimmy Haslam and Tennessee legend Peyton Manning went awry.
Tee Martin emerges
Southern California offensive coordinator and former Vols championship quarterback Tee Martin immediately jumped to the forefront as a favorite for the job, both nationally and locally.
A source close to Fulmer, however, said the Hall of Fame coach “is going to be thorough and make sure he’s not overlooking anything.”
In the meantime, Tennessee’s 2018 recruiting class is slipping away. This is the first year of the new early signing period for recruits, which begins Dec. 20.
Asked about the deadline for hiring a coach before it does irreparable damage to the recruiting class, one SEC assistant coach said: “Yesterday — this is killing it.”
Sources confirmed to SEC Country that former LSU coach Les Miles has indeed made overtures to become the next Vols coach.
One would have to wonder if Martin would be wise to leave Pac-12 champion USC to come back to Tennessee for anything less than the head-coaching job. A lateral move for a coordinator position in a rebuilding program — even at his alma mater — wouldn’t make sense on the surface.
Also to be considered: Tennessee turned down Martin before, when he came back wanting to be a graduate assistant some 10 years ago, after his professional playing career. Instead, Fulmer and then-offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe hired Vols career backup quarterback Jim Bob Cooter.
Instead of getting his coaching career started at the college level at Tennessee, Martin had to coach high school football in Atlanta for two years before latching on as New Mexico’s quarterbacks coach in 2009.
In the long run, Martin working with and helping to develop quarterbacks such as Cam Newton and Taj Boyd, while developing relationships in Atlanta, has surely worked in his favor. Martin has become one of the most effective recruiters in the nation, in addition to leading the Trojans offense as the coordinator the last two seasons.
If the Vols go in another direction with this hire, the window to bring Martin back to Tennessee could close permanently, as another school likely will scoop him up for its top job.
Upset with Peyton Manning
A large segment of Tennessee’s 1998 football team has an active group text string and is trying desperately to avoid losing out on Martin, whom they believe to be the future of the program.
Al Wilson, the 1998 team captain, uncharacteristically went public with his displeasure with the process last Friday morning. Wilson was so upset he called out then-AD Currie and Manning for not prioritizing the current players’ needs during the search.
Indeed, many former Tennessee players are concerned that Manning has not endorsed Martin for the job, either privately with Currie, or now publicly.
Martin was Manning’s roommate for road games when the two were Vols players. Martin regularly praised Manning during the 1998 season, even while it was Martin leading the team to a perfect 13-0 record.
Another source close to Fulmer said there are no plans for a coach-in-waiting. So hiring Miles, 64, or another experienced coach with the 39-year-old Martin with a coach-in-waiting title could be unlikely.
Fulmer, however, is not one to cave to pressure. There’s no question the 67-year-old athletic director will follow his vision, and it will be his alone.
Whatever that vision is, Tennessee is in a spot, and Fulmer surely recognizes the need to move quickly to minimize the damage.