In 2008, Phillip Fulmer said a tearful and tense good bye to Tennessee, a program he had coached for 17 seasons. Nearly four years later, he's trying to make his way back to the SEC.
According to former Tennessee assistant coach Doug Matthews, Fulmer has been in talks with Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long and is the leading outside candidate to replace Bobby Petrino.
"I know Phillip has had conversations with them," Matthews told the 3HL show on WGFX-FM 104.5 in Arkansas. "And when I say them, all that is going to take place behind the scenes."
However, Matthews, who worked with Fulmer at Tennessee, also said nothing would be done until after spring football concludes Saturday and that administration would be more comfortable promoting within, which could mean Taver Johnson, who has overseen the program since Petrino was first placed on administrative leave on April 5, or defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, who has gained player support.
Matthews didn't say whether Arkansas' hiring in-house would be a permanent gig or an interim position. But the longer Arkansas waits to hire a new coach the more limited their options become. With just three months until fall camps starts, most coaches aren't going to bail on their current team and Long shouldn't want a guy who would be willing to leave his team in the lurch like that.
Really, Long's best option is to hire one of the team's current assistants as interim coach and spend the year courting the university's top candidate. That way there's continuity on this year's team, which still has a chance to challenge for the SEC title and be one of the best teams in the country. No reason to rock the boat there.
As for hiring Fulmer, it's not a bad idea, but the guy hasn't coached since 2008 and his last season with the Vols was memorable for the wrong reason — at the time it was only the second time in school history the Vols had lost seven games. However, Fulmer did win 10-plus games on a regular basis at Tennessee and has been trying to get back into coaching.
But is he the best guy for Arkansas?
He knows the conference, but doesn't have ties to the school. There have been cries for Garrick McGee, who is the head coach at UAB, and Gus Malzahn, who's the head guy at Arkansas State. Both would be available at the end of the year and both have Arkansas ties, which might go over better with the fan base.
In short, there's no need to rush this decision. Several teams, notably Ohio State and North Carolina, have had productive seasons with interim coaches and then gone on to hire their top targets. Arkansas can do the same. If that's Fulmer, well, he's not doing anything and he's not going anywhere. He'll probably still be available at the end of the year. But if the school wants to hit a homerun with its hire and quickly forget the mess Petrino left, being patient is the best course of action.