Phil Fulmer Returns to College Football…Sorta


Southern Conference media day marks an unofficial kickoff to the league’s 2015 campaign, a season in which Tennessee Volunteers legend and the first BCS championship-winning head coach, Phil Fulmer, makes his return to college football.

Well, Phil Fulmer’s back in college football kinda-sorta.

See, the coming season marks the relaunch of East Tennessee State’s football program, which went dormant after 2003. In resurrecting football from a 12-year layoff, ETSU tabbed Phil Fulmer as a special assistant to the athletic director. It’s not a head coaching gig, nor is it even a full-fledged administrative position. It is, however, the closest the 2012 College Football Hall of Fame inductee’s been to the game since he was fired from Tennessee after the 2008 season.

Having Phil Fulmer around may cast a shadow over the actual head coach of the relaunched ETSU Buccaneers: Carl Torbush, who was in attendance at SoCon media day. Torbush coached opposite Fulmer in the SEC, landing at Alabama as part of Dennis Franchione’s staff after Torbush parted ways with North Carolina.

UNC was Torbush’s last head coaching duty, which ended 15 years ago. College football is barely recognizable now compared to when Torbush was last in charge, with more frequent coaching changes, conference realignment and the atmosphere that has facilitated the reintroducing of several new programs.

Nowhere have the shakeups of college football been more evident than in the SoCon, which lost powerhouses Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the Sun Belt Conference. The two former SoCon stalwarts, who combined to give the conference nine national championships, went after a slice of the FBS revenue pie.

In their place, ETSU and Mercer stepped in with programs that sat dormant for varying lengths of time. While the Buccaneers had to wait just 12 years to get back in action, Mercer was out of commission for more than 70 when it kicked off the 2013 campaign. Talk about a lot changing in the sport.

The foundation for Mercer’s return was laid by a coaching veteran, much like ETSU. Bobby Lamb is well-versed in the Southern Conference, having previously been head coach at Furman. Evaluating how these newbie programs fared in their formative years 5-to-10 years will be interesting. Is it better to build around someone with head coaching experience, or give a newcomer an opportunity to spread his wings?

When ETSU returns to the gridiron in September, Phil Fulmer will watch Torbush and the Buccaneers up against fellow upstart program Kennesaw State.

KSU brass opted to build the fledgling football program with longtime Paul Johnson assistant Brian Bohannon. The Owls are following a blueprint similar to Old Dominion, South Alabama, Charlotte and Lamar, which hired Bobby Wilder, Joey Jones, Brad Lambert and Ray Woodward, respectively, to their first head coaching gigs.

The ETSU model aligns with UTSA, which tabbed former Miami head coach Larry Coker when its program launched, and Georgia State, which hired Bill Curry. Curry was at Kentucky for the early years of Phil Fulmer’s run at Tennessee, and he didn’t fare well against the Vols. Barring a 34-31 decision in 1995, the Curry-led Wildcats lost by a combined 121 points over four games against Phil Fulmer’s Vols.

Curry’s tenure at Georgia State went equally poorly, and came to an abrupt end in favor of Trent Miles after the 2012 season. Curry’s failure there is the first concrete example of a program-building roadmap. UTSA’s 2014 season going off the rails after a promising start, with a win over Houston and near-miss against Arizona, has Coker in a difficult position in his fourth season of gameplay with the Roadrunners.

Meanwhile, first-time head coaches are faring better comparatively when starting new programs. Old Dominion was an FCS Playoffs team in 2012, and went 6-6 in its first year of full FBS membership under Wilder; Jones led South Alabama to a bowl game last year; and Woodward has Lamar seeking a Southland Conference championship, coming off an 8-win 2014.

For Phil Fulmer and everyone else in the ETSU athletic department, the hope is Torbush bucks the trend. The Bucs start slow, integrating with an independent schedule in 2015 that features a number of Div. II programs, other Div. I startups, and a partial-scholarship FCS opponent. By 2016, ETSU will join the Southern Conference full-time.

If Torbush and Co. can have the Bucs sailing at full-mast by 2018, that would ideal: That’s when East Tennessee State plays the Tennessee Vols in Knoxville.