For nearly two decades Phillip Fulmer was the dominant image of the University of Tennessee football program.
He was the face, the voice, the philosophy and the final word on all things orange during the fall. His tenure was marked by many more victories than defeats, including a national championship, as well as some questionable decisions on staff responsibilities and player discipline.
Lane Kiffin — Fulmer’s replacement — has a long way to go before he achieves that sort of iconic status.
In the short term, therefore, the personification of the Volunteers likely exists in two players who figure to have a profound impact on the team’s fortunes in the first season of the post-Fulmer era — junior safety Eric Berry and freshman wide receiver Nu’Keese Richardson.
Berry is an established presence regionally and nationally, a player who helped keep UT competitive through Fulmer’s final seasons. He already holds school, conference and national records and has earned unanimous All-America recognition.
Kiffin and his staff want to make him better, or at least use him in ways that allow him to be more productive. Their confidence in their ability to do exactly that is apparent in the Heisman Trophy campaign that was launched on Berry’s behalf more than a month before the first game.
Most importantly, though, Berry has bought into whatever new ideas the current staff has developed for him and the defense. That makes it reasonable to assume that most, if not all, of the other returning players have done the same.
“Coach Kiffin is all I know right now,” Berry said. “Phillip Fulmer and coach Kiffin — those two guys. I mean …coach Kiffin has got our back, no matter what, as you can see. That's all we want out of a coach. That's what we respect. That's what we play for.”
Richardson, a highly regarded freshman out of Florida, is indicative of the no-holds-barred approach Kiffin and his staff intend to take in recruiting.
A Florida native who had declared his intention to sign with the University of Florida, Richardson made headlines on national signing day when he put his name to a letter with the Volunteers.
Not long after, three veterans at that position sustained injuries – one season-ending – which all but guaranteed Richrdson (a high school quarterback) was going to play a significant role on offense this season.
“He was going to get a great opportunity to play anyway,” Kiffin said. “This gives him more of a chance to play. … We look for big things from Nu'Keese. Even if those guys were healthy, we were looking for that. This is more of an opportunity for him stepping up.”
For his part, Kiffin who has no prior ties to UT or the SEC, has not set out to establish himself as an individual institution similar to what Fulmer was.
He painstakingly compiled a high-priced and renowned coaching staff, which includes his father Monte Kiffin, a longtime NFL assistant, and one former SEC head coach, Ed Orgeron. As such, his success or failure will be connected to those who work for him much more so than Fulmer’s ever was.
According to Kiffin, each assistant was chosen with players like Berry and Richardson in mind.
“We did not hire anybody who was a great recruiter, but couldn't coach, or anybody who was a great coach, and couldn't recruit,” Kiffin said. “…Now that we've had a chance to work together, see them recruit, see them coach on offense and defense, and do everything they have, it's even better than what I could have imagined. I love what they're doing.”
History shows that coaching changes have not produced any immediate reversals of fortune at UT.
Fulmer, for example, took over in 1993 and went 10-2 in his first season, which was just one game better than the previous year. Bill Battle took over in 1970 after Doug Dickey’s final team went 9-2 and won the conference title. Battle’s first team was 11-1.
Johnny Majors, on the other hand, came on after the Vols went 6-5 in 1976, and it was five seasons before they won at least eight games. Dickey went 4-5-1 in his first campaign after the team had gone 5-5 the previous year.
Perhaps if Kiffin can craft an immediate turnaround from the 5-7 disappointment of 2008 he can distinguish himself immediately in a way no other UT coach in recent memory did.
“I feel like we're the class, the new era of coach Kiffin,” Berry said. “This is the first impression, or whatever, that he has on the nation. We've been working really hard to make him look good to everyone else, you know. He's been working hard, just been in the office grinding, doing all types of work, long hours and everything. We're just trying to make that impression on everyone in the nation, just do it for ourselves, too, to get back to the SEC championship.”