Extending mediocrity

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 11, 2008

The buzz on southern sports talk stations this week is the contract extension head football coach Phillip Fulmer recently received from the University of Tennessee. The extension, at its base, is set to keep Fulmer in Volunteer Land through the 2014 while paying him an average of $3 million per year. But the agreement is riddled with clauses and bonuses that could not only boost his salary, but make him a permanent fixture in Knoxville.

Fulmer, who was rumored to be on the hot seat after a 1-2 start to the 2007 season, is guaranteed to receive annual raises of $150,000 in addition to incentive bonuses. An SEC Eastern Division title will pad Fulmer’s bank account by $100,000. An SEC championship would garner him $150,000 while a national crown would land him $850,000.

No one seems to be batting an eye at those numbers. In the context of sports, no one should. The contract makes Heavy P the fourth highest paid coach in the conference, essentially keeping him in the middle of the pack in terms of salary. The deal is also just another indicator that the spend-to-win philosophy of sport permeates college football.

Besides, the landscape of coaching in college football dictates that no contract is ever necessarily worth what it “guarantees.” Between yearly re-negotiations, buyout clauses and the mutual prerogative of schools and coaches to explore other options, the modern university-coach relationship has the average shelf life of celebrity marriages.

So whatever covenantal words were uttered and signed off on by Fulmer and UT men’s AD Mike Hamilton will be to little effect when the Vols have to squeak out wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky just to make the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl right?

Maybe not. See, the Fulmer pact carries with it an unusual clause that not only has hoards of fans and commentators irate, but could set an undesirable and dangerous precedent.

Fulmer’s contract is automatically extended by one year every time the coach wins eight games in a season. Such a clause would go largely unnoticed if Fulmer were coaching Duke, Louisiana Monroe, Vanderbilt or even Mississippi State. But he’s not. He’s the big dog at Tennessee, a program whose very name is accompanied by lofty expectations.

Guaranteeing Fulmer an extra year for an eight-win season seems to be a concession on the part of Tennessee administrators that the national perception of the Volunteer program is unwarranted. It seems to be a white flag in the battle to achieve, an announcement to fans and potential future players that “We can’t do any better.”

While Hamilton and school officials surely intended the clause as a show of faith or vote of confidence in Fulmer, its inclusion in the deal shows a lack of wisdom. While their expectations for the Volunteer program must certainly be higher than eight wins, the team could easily go 8-5 for the next five years and still have Fulmer at its helm.

In fact, according to the language of this contract, Fulmer could louse his way through a 7-5 season, pick up an unimpressive victory in said Music City Bowl to capture his eighth win and then be rewarded with the promise of another season with which to achieve mediocrity.

At its heart, the Phil Clause, is likely a well-intended gesture extended from the administration to its long-time coach as a way of saying “Hey. You’re our guy.” But its presence could easily open the program and fan base up to a series of sub-par seasons and unpleasant off-seasons.

As far as the University of Alabama’s football program fell from grace with its years of probation, almost annual unsightly losses to lesser teams, losing streak to its arch rival and long line of failed coaching experiments, the university’s administration never accepted the mediocrity in which the program was mired. Instead, it broke the bank in order to meet its goal of finding a man who could restore the program’s legacy.

That same resolve was not displayed in UT’s willingness to bend over backwards to retain a coach that no one else is trying to take away. In essence, the eight-win guarantee does little but guarantee the program is now vulnerable to mediocrity, one thing for which no one expected Tennessee to volunteer.

Jeremy D. Smith is the sports editor of The Demopolis Times, a sister newspaper to the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. You can reach him at 334-289-4017 or sports@demopolistimes.com.