Vols count on Cutcliffe to cure offensive woes

Coming off their worst season in decades, the Vols are relying on a familiar face to get their offense back in gear, writes Ivan Maisel.

Updated: May 11, 2006, 5:02 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- What I Did On Winter Vacation, by Phillip Fulmer.

Don't ask.

The End.

David Cutcliffe and Phil Fulmer
AP PhotoThe last time David Cutcliffe (left) ran the Vols' offense, they won a national title.
It's more what Tennessee didn't do. After the Volunteers went 5-6, their first losing record in Fulmer's 13 seasons as head coach, they didn't go to a bowl game. You don't have to be Dr. Phil to figure out how coach Phil felt.

"I didn't like being home for Christmas," Fulmer said. "My wife [Vicky] said, 'You've got to do something. You're driving me nuts.' I was making her miserable. We went away with my daughters for a couple of days. We went over to Asheville. Just made her miserable over there. Watching some [bowl] games, when you knew you were better than 90 percent of the teams you're watching. Disappointment. Just terrible."

Fulmer really believes the Vols were that good. Four of their six losses came to teams that finished in the top 12. Fulmer will tell you that the Vols finished 17 points away from being 9-2, the kind of comment that is the last respite of those who reside in Woulda-Coulda World. But Fulmer doesn't live there. He fired three offensive coaches, two of whom had been with him for more than a decade. The reality of the scoreboard demanded it. Tennessee scored 205 points in 12 games, less than half the 441 they scored in that national championship season.

It is no coincidence that 1998 is the last year that David Cutcliffe ran Fulmer's offense.

When Fulmer drove Tennessee to the forefront of college football in the 1990s, Cutcliffe rode shotgun. They had been offensive assistants under Johnny Majors since 1982. They had been best friends. Cutcliffe picked Fulmer to be in his wedding party. Fulmer, when he took over from Majors in 1993, picked Cutcliffe to be his offensive coordinator. After Cutcliffe left Tennessee to become head coach at Ole Miss, they still spoke at least once a week.

Ole Miss and Cutcliffe parted ways after 2004, his first losing season in his six years in Oxford, when Cutcliffe refused to make staff changes demanded of him by the administration. After last season, Fulmer asked his old friend for help.

"David always spoke his piece as far as what he felt was the right way to do things," Fulmer said. "There's just a tremendous amount of loyalty and confidence there in David. He's a cross-the-t, dot-the-i guy. We had a lot of communication before he decided to come back, before we settled on him coming back. ... It was like it was meant to be, the way it worked out. He was here in town and had such a good history with us."

Cutcliffe is back in his old job, although it took him a few days to realize he was not in his old office.

"I kept walking into the wrong office. I had a different locker. That drove me nuts," Cutcliffe said. "I kept seeing [strength coach] Johnny Long's name on 'my locker.'"

Cutcliffe's job is to put his name back on the Tennessee offense, to teach Erik Ainge the way he taught Peyton Manning at Tennessee and Peyton's brother Eli at Ole Miss.

Cutcliffe spent last season out of football after a brief tenure as Charlie Weis' quarterback coach at Notre Dame. Cutcliffe took the job with Weis, but gave it back when his recovery from triple bypass surgery proved more difficult than he expected.

Cutcliffe and his family moved back to Knoxville, where he came to watch Tennessee practice on a regular basis. He noticed what he didn't see.

"The energy in practice," Cutcliffe said. "Football is like any sport. There's an energy that's critical. You didn't sense it. I'm not pointing fingers at anybody. I want that to be perfectly clear. You just didn't sense it."

There's just a tremendous amount of loyalty and confidence there in David. He's a cross-the-t, dot-the-i guy. We had a lot of communication before he decided to come back, before we settled on him coming back. ... It was like it was meant to be, the way it worked out.
Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer

Cutcliffe called it energy. Fulmer called it chemistry. The head coach blamed himself for the way he handled the quarterback position between senior Rick Clausen and Ainge, a sophomore who had played well as a freshman in 2004.

"Rick had played really well in the bowl game. We'll let them battle it out in the spring and summer," Fulmer recalled. "Rick actually played better, to a little bit of a degree, in two-a-days. Yet I had the decision to make with Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame and LSU, in some order. I had to decide, could Rick beat those guys? Could we win as a team? I thought the way Erik had played the year before, if he got reps early, he'd take off. As it turned out, I probably screwed both of them. Erik felt the heat. Probably made a mistake. Young guy."

Clausen started six games, Ainge five. They combined to throw only 11 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. Their efficiency rating barely made it into triple digits (106.53). Ainge completed only 66 of 145 passes. He fumbled five times, more than anyone else on the team.

Fulmer didn't blame the quarterbacks for everything. He had receivers with short arms. He had running backs who fumbled at the goal line three times in consecutive games. He had a freshman punter who didn't understand the fake-punt signal and threw an incomplete pass deep in his own territory.

A defense that worked heroically could do only so much. Tennessee held Alabama to six points -- and lost. Tennessee held Florida and South Carolina to 16 points -- and lost.

Cutcliffe has watched it all on video. He has watched practices from last year. He has watched practices from two years ago. He spent weeks waking up at 4:45 a.m. to get to the office. He describes the problems he inherited as "wasted plays."

"A run for nothing. Throw a couple of passes that never had a chance to be completed," Cutcliffe said. "If you were a computer, you would be deleting them as fast as you could. Those things are demoralizing, like a turnover is. It's not that [the right things] weren't being coached. It just wasn't getting done."

Clausen is now a graduate assistant. Long before spring practice began Thursday, Ainge became the focus of Cutcliffe's coaching attention. The root of Ainge's problems last season, Cutcliffe said, is that he held the ball too long. If you get rid of it, you can't fumble it.

"He got hit hard," Cutcliffe said. "The ball came out. It's holding the ball, pocket awareness. That's something he has got to improve on quickly. Being up in the pocket. Most of the pressure that got him was outside pressure. You've got to be up in there. We want the ball gone in 2.75 seconds, and he's missing the mark too often."

Cutcliffe knows what Ainge must learn. But the first test of Ainge's knowledge won't come until Sept. 2, when Tennessee will open at home against what will surely be a ranked California team.

The standard that Tennessee must match sits in a trophy case in the lobby outside Fulmer's office. It is a framed page from the Jan. 5, 1999 edition of The Arizona Republic.

The headline, above the story of Tennessee's 23-16 defeat of Florida State to win the Fiesta Bowl and the BCS title, said, "A Perfect Tenn."

The page has yellowed almost to the point of being, well, orange.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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