Tennessee football’s original sign was not hiring Brian Kelly after Phillip Fulmer

Sep 10, 2022; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA; LSU Tigers head coach Brian Kelly reacts during the second half against the Southern Jaguars at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Clause-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2022; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA; LSU Tigers head coach Brian Kelly reacts during the second half against the Southern Jaguars at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Clause-USA TODAY Sports /

When Tennessee football and the LSU Tigers kick off Saturday at Death Valley in Baton Rouge, La., one head coach will be on the opposite side of where he should have been. Brian Kelly should be entering his 14th year as head coach of the Vols. Instead, he’s in his first year with LSU.

Outsiders spent a decade and a half ridiculing the Vols for firing Phillip Fulmer in 2008 because of how much the program has struggled since then, and the results are hard to argue. They have only finished two of the past 13 seasons in the top 25. However, they finished seven of the past 13 seasons with a losing record.

However, the mistake wasn’t firing Fulmer, as the program was getting stale under him. The mistake was Mike Hamilton trying to make a splash hire with no basis in resume whatsoever because of the flare Urban Meyer had in the SEC at the time. We’re talking about Lane Kiffin.

At the time, Tennessee football had a perfectly good candidate who would have been willing to take the job: Kelly. Hindsight makes passing on him even worse. Kelly went to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and became the winningest coach in the school’s history.

Despite all the academic requirements and the recruiting issues that now put Notre Dame at a permanent disadvantage, Kelly got them to a national title game and a College Football Playoff. He maximized what you can do at that school given its current stipulations.

A good athletic director, which Hamilton was not, would’ve seen that then. In his second full year as head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats, Kelly led the program to a Big East Championship, its first conference title in general since 2002, and its first 11-win season in history.

Kelly’s resume at the time included a 13-year career with the Grand Valley State Lakers, where he won back to back Division II national championships in 2002 and 2003. Then he had a three-year career with the Central Michigan Chippewas, whom he led to their first MAC Championship in 12 years in 2006.

As Cincy’s head coach, Kelly oversaw back to back seasons of 10-plus wins. Simply put, he was the better hire on paper all the way around, and he had shown an ability to adapt. Instead, Hamilton went for the young, brash head coach with no real resume to speak of.

Remember, Kiffin had just been fired by the Oakland Raiders, where he was 5-15. Before that, he was offensive coordinator of the USC Trojans, who had the most talented offense in history and went against soft Pac-10 defenses. He choked away a national title twice.

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Hamilton was sold by the staff Kiffin could bring, though, including Monte Kiffin, Jim Chaney and Ed Orgeron. He got Tennessee football to shell out money for those guys, and the goal was to try to be at the very least the loudest team in the SEC.

We all know what happened. After one 7-6 season littered with NCAA investigations, a bust of a recruiting class and a ton of attrition, Kiffin created a mess and then bolted for USC, magnifying that mess. Kelly, meanwhile, went undefeated in the regular season with Cincy.

Unfortunately for the Vols, they couldn’t hire Kelly by the time Kiffin left, as the Notre Dame had already snatched him up. As a result, they were forced to settle on Derek Dooley after a barrage of rejections. In 2012, when Dooley was fired, UT had to watch Kelly lead Notre Dame to the national title game.

That resulted in the Vols hiring the guy who benefitted from what Kelly built, Butch Jones. At the time, Jones’ resume was three-year stints at CMU and Cincinnati, where he directly followed Kelly both times. Five years later, it was clear that Kelly was the builder of those programs.

Hiring Josh Heupel may eventually make Tennessee football fans forget about Kelly, but the fact of the matter is they could have had a much better 13 years had they brought Kelly in back in 2008. A national championship would’ve been certain, maybe even two.

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It’s hard to see any future success Heupel brings to the table outweighing the 13 years of failure that came due to UT not hiring Kelly. Although the Vols have the advantage Saturday with Kelly in his first year at LSU, they would’ve had the advantage no matter what had they made the right move when they fired Fulmer.