Tennessee football turned down TCU Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson to replace Phillip Fulmer in 2008. That was more incompetence for the Volunteers.
When Tennessee football fired Phillip Fulmer in 2008, the reasoning behind was solid, in spite of what people may believe now. The Vols had just suffered their second losing season in four years, and two of Fulmer’s last three recruiting class were out of the top 25.
The program was clearly significantly on the decline, and a change was needed. However, what sunk the program into oblivion was a collection of horrible decisions by the administration that came after Fulmer was fired. And another one of those decisions came to light this week.
It was clear after firing Fulmer that Mike Hamilton had passed up proven names like Brian Kelly from the Cincinnati Bearcats and Mike Leach from, at that point, the Texas Tech Red Raiders. He instead went for Lane Kiffin. But an article by David Ubben in The Athletic revealed that Tennessee football turned down another name at that time as well: Gary Patterson.
We knew about Patterson being in contention a few times on Rocky Top. Apparently, in 2008, he was a serious contender, and the Vols could have lured him away. But, according to Patterson and the article, the Vols told him he was “too much of a football coach” for them. Yes, you heard that right. A football coach was too much of a football coach for a football coach opening.
How absurd does that sound at this point? Apparently, the concern was that he was too much like Fulmer, whom they had just fired. But again, while the game got away from Fulmer, that doesn’t mean that everything about him was 100 percent wrong. This was always Hamilton’s flaw. Whenever he moved on from a coach, he would go the exact opposite direction for his next hire.
A good athletic director recognizes the flaws and strengths of a coach at any point in time and applies that to his hire. At the time Patterson was a candidate, he had gone 41-10 the previous four years at TCU. So who cares if he’s too much like Fulmer? He had all the qualities needed to be a great coach.
This was among many ridiculously incompetent reasons Hamilton and the Vols administration, which at the time included John Currie, made after firing Fulmer in 2008. They always had a reason beyond success on the field for not hiring somebody.
Remember, the Vols were concerned about Leach’s odd personality and the effectiveness of his air raid in the SEC when he was a candidate. Never mind the fact that he had succeeded already in the SEC as the Kentucky Wildcats’ offensive coordinator or the fact that Urban Meyer’s spread offense was dominating the league then. Meanwhile, Kelly wasn’t enough of a splash.
Frustrated by the success of Florida and the Alabama Crimson Tide, Hamilton decided to make a hire for the headlines. He also made a hire based on assistant coaches. And that combination is what brought in Lane Kiffin, who obviously got famous making brash statements and also got the administration to shell out money for the staff.
Hamilton and Kiffin both operated under an agreement that his brashness would put Tennessee football on the map. That’s ridiculous on its face when you consider the fact that the program sells itself. We’re seeing that now 10 years later after years of futility. But again, this was Hamilton thinking about everything outside of football.
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Of course, we know what happened. Kiffin departed after one year, wrecking two recruiting classes and creating a ton of attrition while also putting it on probation. The assistant salaries wrecked the Vols’ budget. And what about the coaches the Vols passed up in 2008?
Patterson went 25-1 in 2009 and 2010, joined the Big 12 in 2012, and went 12-1 with a top 5 finish in 2014. Kelly took the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to a national title game and a College Football Playoff. After being unfairly fired by the Texas Tech Red Raiders, Leach had the Washington State Cougars in the playoff race until Thanksgiving weekend in 2019.
Kiffin, meanwhile, was fired by the USC Trojans. He is now coaching the Florida Atlantic Owls and just went 5-7. And his wrecking of the Vols set Derek Dooley back at least two years while he tried to rebuild it.
So the lesson in all of this is simple. Hire a coach based on his production. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But external factors like making a splash and incorporating the right system are irrelevant. Tennessee football should have known that in 2008 and hired Patterson.