The Worst College Football Head Coaching Contract ... ever?

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I don't know what he's so unhappy about.

When I heard that Phil Fulmer got a contract extension, my eyebrows raised.  When I heard the details of his contract extension, I wondered if the Tennessee AD had lost his damn mind.

I am neither a Phil Fulmer lover nor a Phil Fulmer hater, but this is a very curious contract, and a very curious decision to give him a long-term deal.

Some of the details:

  • A raise to $2.4 million per season this year, escalating by $150,000 each year thereafter;
  • His contract goes through 2014.

We can all question the wisdom of giving a multi-year contract extension to a coach who was on the verge of being fired less than one year ago, and who then signed a rather mediocre recruiting class for the 2008 season.  (According to Rivals, there were almost as many 2-stars signed (3) as there were 4-stars (4).  Compare to LSU, which in a rather pedestrian signing class got zero 2-stars and thirteen 4-stars.  Not that recruiting stars mean everything, but they are a good guide to judge the strength of a class.  It's no coincidence that teams that routinely get highly ranked recruiting classes also frequently end up in the top 10 in the country on the field.)

But it doesn't stop there:

  • $1 million bonus in December 2012;
  • Financial incentives for winning the Eastern Division, the SEC, and the National Championship;
  • A bonus year added to the contract for each 8-win season.

I'm not going to knock the dollar amounts.  Frankly, $2.4-$3.3 million is a bargain for a national championship winning coach in this post-Saban world.  The problem is that this money is basically just for sitting around and doing nothing.  If Fulmer actually accomplishes anything, the money goes up considerably.  

But that last provision is the kicker.  It says that Phillip Fulmer is Tennessee's "Coach for Life" as long as he keeps getting 8 wins per season.  One would think that an 8-win season would be a major disappointment at Tennessee, but under this agreement, such a mediocre season comes with an automatic vote of confidence and an opportunity to have more mediocre seasons.

Eight wins at a place like Tennessee should put a coach on the hot seat, but Tennessee seems to be saying, "We will pay top dollar for disappointing results, and we will like it."

Tennessee can lose to Georgia, Florida, and Alabama every year and Fulmer will still have a one-game cushion to trigger his automatic contract extension.

I will be brutally honest about Tennessee.  Their program does not, at this point, appear to have really great long-term health prospects.  I will give just a few reasons for thinking this:

  1. Fulmer has never accomplished much without David Cutcliffe at his side, and now Cutcliffe has again left the program to pursue his dream of being a head coach;
  2. Fulmer has no buzz whatsoever, which affects recruiting;
  3. The State of Tennessee doesn't produce a tremendous amount of home-grown football talent, and what they have is heavily contested.  Last year, Bama got one of the biggest recruits out of Tennessee.  So far this year, Tennessee's 11 commitments contains a grand total of 2 from Tennessee, and both are 3-stars.  The State of Tennessee has exactly 4 members of the Class of 2009 who Rivals rates as 4-star or better, and two of them are currently committed to schools other than Tennessee; 
  4. Which brings us to, Tennessee's recruiting zone is shrinking.  While Tennessee formerly went into Alabama to get a good recruit or two, Bama appears to have shut them out now, and even counterattacked into Tennessee.  LSU, formerly virtually a non-entity in Georgia, appears to have overtaken Tennessee as the destination of choice for Georgians looking to leave the state.  It also faces stiff competition to its east as Clemson's recruiting is surging and Spurrier at South Carolina keeps a lot more in-state talent that used to go to Tennessee; and
  5. Now we add an albatross of a contract for its head coach.

If there is one team in the SEC that appears to be perhaps on the verge of backsliding a little and giving up ground to the Floridas and Georgias of the world (not to mention the LSUs, South Carolinas, and Bamas), it is Tennessee.  Last year's subpar recruiting class may have been the first manifestation of it.

Who knows?  Maybe Fulmer will turn around these trends that are working against Tennessee.  He had better, or there is little Tennessee can do about him.  I hope the buyout is not very steep.  

Unless and until Fulmer and Tennessee prove otherwise, I view this contract as a suicide pact.  Maybe that's not the best word, as it is certainly in Fulmer's favor.  Maybe it's a "homicide" pact.  It gives Fulmer every opportunity to kill the Tennessee program by internal rot and hopes he won't go through with it.

I'm interested to know if Tennessee fans disagree.  I imagine they agree, as many of them were ready to throw Fulmer out the window just one year ago.

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