Tennessee football: How Vols not redshirting Tee Martin got Phillip Fulmer fired

19 Sep 1998: Quarterback Tee Martin #17 of the Tennessee Volunteers in action during a game against the Florida Gators at the Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Volunteers defeated the Gators 20-17. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport
19 Sep 1998: Quarterback Tee Martin #17 of the Tennessee Volunteers in action during a game against the Florida Gators at the Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Volunteers defeated the Gators 20-17. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport /

Tee Martin is a Tennessee football legend for winning a national title. But did the Volunteers not redshirting him in 1996 cost Phillip Fulmer his job?

Two of the major figures from the 1998 Tennessee football national championship team are back on Rocky Top. Phillip Fulmer is the Vols’ athletic director, and Tee Martin is a wide receivers coach studying under Jeremy Pruitt.

But their paths back into roles with the university were not smooth. Martin lost his job as the USC Trojans offensive coordinator. Fulmer, meanwhile, came back to save the program nearly a decade after he was fired. But how did it come to that?

Arguably one of the most significant figureheads in Tennessee football history, Fulmer may have been undone by one decision dating back to Martin’s arrival on campus back in 1996. While he had disappointing years in 2005 and 2008, ultimately losing his job because of that, he could have had a different result.

Back in 1996, Martin was a young Quarterback from Mobile, Ala. who had the potential to be a star in the making. While Tennessee already had an elite quarterback in their possession in Peyton Manning, Martin could do one of two things: either be eligible for his freshman season and sit behind Manning or add an extra year of eligibility by redshirting.

Martin committed to the Vols specifically to learn from Manning. He said in a story back in 2016 on ESPN that studying behind Manning was a major factor in him going to UT instead of his home state schools. And in many ways, he did learn from Manning, even acknowledging that Manning’s decision to return for his senior year allowed him to develop more as a quarterback.

However, instead of redshirting, Martin lost a year of eligibility in 1996. And he gained no valauble experience as a backup that year. You can’t claim that when he only threw four passes. Fast forward two years later, Martin obviously went on to win the national title, proving himself to be a leader with a great team around him.

With Martin winning a BCS National Championship, Fulmer’s legacy began to grow even more. He was considered one of the best Head Coaches in College Football at that time. But what if Tee Martin had actually taken the redshirt in 1996?

First, Martin would have even been a better Quarterback than he was in college and the NFL with an extra year of eligibility. He then would have played in 2000, and a young quarterback named Casey Clausen could have had the option to redshirt and learn under Martin. If Clausen did that, then it also could have impacted his future.

Clausen was the best quarterback Tennessee football had in the 2000s. By redshirting his freshman year, he would have been the starting quarterback for the Vols from 2001 to 2004 rather than finish up his career in 2003. He may have won a national championship as well by sitting an extra year and learning from a veteran, as Martin did from Manning.

Also in 2004, Tennessee football could have had redshirted Erik Ainge and Brent Schaefer, the two young guns who arrived on campus that year. Had they redshirted and Ainge won the job in 2005, as he did in 2004, he would have certainly upped his game by learning from Clausen.

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Then, in 2005, the Vols would not have had the disaster situation they had at quarterback with Ainge and Clausen’s brother, Rick. Ainge likely would have simply emerged as the starter, and UT would have made a bowl game. And who knows? There’s a chance Ainge would beat some teams he failed to beat in closing drives.

Not having a disastrous 2005 season would have meant a much better recruiting class in 2006 and likely 2008. Ainge would have then lasted from 2005 to 2008 as well. So in 2008, Tennessee football would have had Ainge at quarterback and a much better collection of recruits.

Oh, and Randy Sanders may have stayed on. Sure, David Cutcliffe was a better coordinator, but Sanders wasn’t bad. And Sanders in 2008 would have been a much better situation than Dave Clawson, whose offense just wasn’t a fit. As a result, things would have gone much better, and Fulmer likely would not have been fired.

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Heck, Fulmer may even still be head coach, and he may have won another national title or two. Who knows what the state of the Vols would have been at this moment? But not redshirting Martin in 1996 ultimately caused a series of unfortunate events that led to Fulmer losing his job and the start of a train wreck for the Vols.