One is a legendary head football coach who led the Vols to their only modern-day national championship, was named the national coach of the year in college football, has a street named after him on UT’s campus and won approximately 75 percent of his games at UT.
The other is a rising start in sports administration – a longtime associate AD at Tennessee who moved on to Chattanooga and has overseen one of the most successful periods in school history for the Mocs, excelling in every area an FCS-level AD could.
Virtually all the buzz in Tennessee’s search for a new AD to replace Dave Hart has centered on these two men: Phillip Fulmer and David Blackburn.
And as is common in the days of internet debate and social media reaction, Tennessee fans are taking sides.
The pro-Blackburn contingent – which seems to be the louder of the two factions – points to the impressive work he did at Tennessee, his local ties and the work that the Mocs have done under his watch. Those are all solid arguments. Blackburn, after all, seemed to be the man with a level head when insanity broke loose at UT in late 2009 and early 2010. He recognized the potential coming NCAA danger that Lane Kiffin was bringing to Knoxville and did all he could to minimize that. He also wisely tried to pump the breaks on the rash decision to hire Derek Dooley to replace Kiffin once he bolted.
It’s been more of the same strong decision-making at Chattanooga. Ticket sales are up, fundraising is on the rise, facilities are improving and the top programs are thriving for the Mocs. The Loudon County native could be a 20+ year solution at AD for Tennessee is all goes well. It’s an understandable argument.
But the emergence of Fulmer as a leading candidate has driven a wedge into the conversation. Arguably nobody alive today knows and understands Tennessee football the way that Fulmer does. At Tennessee, when the football program thrives, that tide can lift all the other ships around it. He managed one of the largest football programs in the nation for over 16 years. He’s been involved with the athletic department at ETSU and he has business/financial experience as well. The UTAD shouldn’t be something that’s too big for him.
While the debate will continue to rage, there’s some good news for Tennessee fans: Both are solid choices.
You can nitpick both of them. Fulmer might only have five, maybe 10 years max, to hold the position. Maybe he doesn’t bring the long-term potential that Blackburn could, but with Tennessee in desperate need of some leadership, wouldn’t bringing in one of the most iconic names in school history go a long way towards stabilizing the department? If Fulmer could serve 5-7 solid years and get Tennessee heading in the right direction in some areas where it’s slipped, that’s certainly a win.
Blackburn’s been effective in the positions he’s been in, tough he’s never managed something the size of Tennessee before. But he’s been sought after by numerous other Power 5 programs, and his experience and success at lower levels and positions make him a more-than-qualified candidate.
So while neither is perfect, Tennessee finds itself in a position that might feel a little rare – a win-win.
Tennessee has two qualified candidates at the top of the list and the opportunity, either way, to hire somebody that Tennessee fans should largely be able to rally behind. Of course it’s fine to prefer one over the other, but there’s also no pressing need to take a side in the debate between the two.
Going outside these two and hiring somebody without their qualifications very well might be the only way to completely mess this process up, because, for once, Tennessee has a couple great options and likely won’t be wrong with either.