Over the last decade, the Tennessee Vols’ football program has been on an upward trajectory numerous times.

And they’ve went off the rails numerous times, too.

Lane Kiffin and Butch Jones both had the program trending in the right direction at one point. But Kiffin’s abrupt departure, and Jones’ inability to get out of his own way, eventually sent Tennessee crashing back to reality.

Under Jeremy Pruitt, the Vols are once again trending up. And this time, it seems different. With Pruitt at the helm, it feels like Tennessee’s upward trajectory is actually sustainable.

Pruitt obviously deserves a ton of credit for getting the Vols heading in the right direction.

But Pruitt isn’t the only coach who could find success at Tennessee. And he’s not the main reason the Vols are trending up.

Nope, that credit goes to Phillip Fulmer.

It’s no coincidence that Tennessee football finally looks like Tennessee football again with Fulmer back in the mix.

Fulmer obviously doesn’t have much to do with what’s happening on the field on Saturdays (he’s been clear that he stays out of Pruitt’s way), but his presence as the program’s athletic director is what’s allowed Tennessee’s football program to slowly rise from the grave.

Previous athletic directors just “didn’t get it”

I’m sure Fulmer’s predecessors, Mike Hamilton, Dave Hart and John Currie, desperately wanted the football program to be successful. But despite their efforts, they were the reason for the plight of Tennessee football.

There are plenty of jokes about Hamilton and Currie’s ineptitude, or Hart’s deep Alabama ties, but the simple truth is that none of those men truly know what it takes to make a football program great.

Fulmer, on the other hand, knows. He’s been there before and found success. And he did it at Tennessee. There’s probably no one on this earth that knows better than Fulmer what it takes to field a championship level football team in Knoxville.

Things changed pretty quickly once Fulmer took over as the program’s athletic director in late 2017. He ran a quick and concise coaching search. Fulmer then hired a coach that he felt fit best at Tennessee. And then he gave that coach the resources he needed to turn the Vols from a punchline to a force.

In Jones’ final season as the program’s head coach in 2017 (Jones’ fifth season), the program committed a school record amount of money toward the coaching staff. Coaches salaries are constantly on the rise, so it’s not a big surprise that Jones’ staff earned close to $9 million in 2017 (including Butch’s salary).

Of course, $9 million still isn’t that much. It’s around what Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Alabama head coach Nick Saban make annually (with incentives and bonuses).

It took five years for Tennessee to commit that much money to the football program under Jones. In 2013, Jones’ first year as UT’s head coach, the program paid just under $7 million for Tennessee’s football coaches (including support staff).

In Pruitt’s first season, the Vols committed $10.1 million to the coaching staff. In 2019, Tennessee paid out $11.4 million for the coaching staff (UT’s assistant coach salary pool is now one of the highest in the country).

This doesn’t happen with Fulmer’s influence. He might not be signing the checks, but he certainly has a lot of input in these decisions.

Fulmer understands that a football program can’t be successful unless it has the right resources in place. Having a top notch coaching staff is at the top of that list.

It would seem silly to give Pruitt a “light” assistant coach salary pool until he “proves himself”. How is coach supposed to put a good product on the field with less-than-great resources? It might seem like common sense, but that was the approach before Fulmer.

Fortunately for the Vols, Fulmer has returned Tennessee’s focus to winning on Saturdays, regardless of the financial cost. Pruitt doesn’t have to worry about finding a way to make do. Fulmer is making sure he has what he needs. Pruitt just has to worry about coaching.

There are plenty of reasons for the Vols’ success this season, but it all starts at the top with Phillip Fulmer.

Featured image via Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

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