Three years ago, Randy Sanders said, “Enough.”
He’d had enough of Tennessee fans, blasting him and his play-calling. He came into the media room at Neyland Stadium after another disappointing defeat and saw his two daughters in tears.
Sanders had born the brunt of the vicious criticism of the UT program from Volunteer Nation, which wasn’t particularly thrilled with head coach Phil Fulmer, either.
So Vol fans got what they wanted. And so, in effect, did Kentucky fans.
On Monday the same Big Orange stuff that rolled downhill in 2005 and slammed into Sanders found its mark on the head coach. Fulmer announced his “retirement,” three days after Tennessee fell to 1-5 in the Southeastern Conference – the same SEC that saw UT in its championship game in 2007.
The complaints in and around Knoxville include a stagnant offense with a lack of development at the quarterback spot. And while it’s true UK’s offense has not done much rolling this season, Wildcat fans have recognized the job Sanders has done with the players under his tutelage in Lexington, where he landed after leaving Knoxville behind.
It couldn’t have been an easy decision. Sanders is a native of Morristown, Tennessee (the same proud burg that produced BBSN announcer Neil Price); he played quarterback for the Vols and as soon as his playing career was over, joined the coaching staff.
Sanders eventually became the QBs coach and offensive coordinator, an apparent head coach in waiting. But when the UT season went sour in ‘05, he took the heat and before Fulmer had to make a move on him (assuming he would have), Sanders took one more look at the tears streaming down the cheeks of his daughters and resigned. It wasn’t worth it, he reasoned. He didn’t want them to have to hear their daddy being ripped anymore.
Rich Brooks provided a soft place to land, just three hours north. And Sanders went right to work on his prized pupil, Andre’ Woodson. He helped jump-start Woodson’s career, turning a former Elite 11 camp performer who appeared to be a chronic under-achiever, into a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Thanks to Sanders’ work on and off the field with him, Woodson led Kentucky to back-to-back Music City Bowl victories (played in Sanders’ home state, no less). During his senior season Woodson earned all-conference honors by leading the SEC in passing yardage, total offense and touchdown passes (he threw an SEC record 40 scoring strikes as a senior).
Sanders began to prime Curtis Pulley for a run at Woodson’s starting position, but Pulley’s lack of personal discipline sabotaged whatever strides he made on the practice field. Mike Hartline won the starting job by default, and Sanders helped develop the third-year sophomore. Playing behind a makeshift offensive line, getting little help from the ground game, Sanders helped mold Hartline into a quarterback who led his team to five wins in its first eight games.
Now Randall Cobb, another native Tennessean, is running first-team, and he’s 1-0 as a starter, following the Cats’ victory Saturday at Mississippi State. Sanders’ lessons have found their mark
Meanwhile, UT is looking for a new head coach. To borrow a phrase, Volunteer fans have loved their team to death. Fulmer, the same man who took the Vols to the national championship in 1998, to five conference titles, to an SEC Eastern Division championship as late as last year, is out – pressured into an early retirement by the same voices that made Kelly and Kari Sanders cry three years ago.
Their dad’s coaching story is not over so it’s not necessarily a happy “ending” for him, just some delightful chapters.
Fulmer? Here’s his story: He’ll bank six million smackers of Big Orange money over the next four years. And his assistants will split up another million.
Sanders won’t get any of that money, but, it says here, he’s happy with the way things are right now: He’s doing what he loves in the league he knows best.
It’s possible that Sanders will return one day to his alma mater. Perhaps he’ll be asked to come back and serve as an assistant again, or maybe even the head coach some day. It’s not likely that will come anytime soon, as UT no doubt will turn 180 degrees from the Fulmer coaching tree.
But Sanders WILL be a head coach, somewhere. Big Blue fans are hoping they can keep right on reaping the benefits until he leaves – this time, of his own accord. Not like that bitter afternoon in Knoxville, when he realized “Rocky Top” would no longer be home, sweet home to him.
Phil Fulmer just learned the same painful lesson.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)