The Sweep

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Even Phillip Fulmer's job isn't all that safe in these times.
Robert Beck/SI

As another sell-off sent the Dow Jones tumbling Friday, a question came to mind. Would Tony Franklin and Tommy Bowden have stayed employed longer in better economic times?

Think about it. The former Auburn offensive coordinator and former Clemson head coach got canned within days of each other, just after the nation's economy began slipping into the abyss. Both were separated from their jobs at odd times, and it can be argued that Franklin's firing -- on a Wednesday with Arkansas coming into town that Saturday -- cost Auburn a victory against the weakest team in the SEC west. What does any of that have to do with the economy? Everything.

Athletic directors don't fire coaches. Neither do school presidents. Who does? Rich people. Boosters who have paid for the right to govern the program have plenty of influence over who gets hired and fired. And who has been more panicky and hare-triggered than usual this past month? That's right. Rich people.

Bowden was going to get fired anyway, but the timing of his dismissal -- semantics alert: officially, he resigned under duress -- smacks of the same desperation as calling a broker and saying, "Sell it all right now. Just get me out of the market." The Tigers lost to Wake Forest on Thursday, Oct. 16. Yet athletic director Terry Don Baker didn't walk into Bowden's office until Monday to let him know he'd be fired the moment Clemson was mathematically eliminated from the race for a division title. Plus, the Tigers had Georgia Tech coming to Death Valley that Saturday, followed by an off week. It would have been more prudent to fire Bowden going into the off week, but the check-writers didn't see it that way.

Franklin broke his silence this week, giving interviews for the first time since he was fired Oct. 8. One quote Franklin gave to Ray Melick of The Birmingham (Ala.) News seems especially telling.

"The biggest thing is, I don't think it's all Tommy's fault," Franklin told Melick. "The pressure at Auburn is incredible. The standards are such that you don't just win, you have to win every game."

Had Franklin not been fired on Oct. 8, the Tigers probably would have beaten Arkansas on Oct. 11, giving them some momentum heading into a bye week. With a few days to re-evaluate the offense, who knows? SEC fans should remember that after Florida's loss at LSU in 2005, Gators fans did everything but march on The Swamp with torches and pitchforks, demanding the entire offensive staff be fired. Two weeks -- including a bye -- later, Florida beat Georgia, and all was forgiven.  At Auburn, somebody with a fat wallet panicked, and Franklin got the ax.

When the boosters' portfolios are melting before their eyes Monday through Friday, coaches had better give them a reason to smile on Saturday. Bobby Lowder, Auburn's most influential booster and a member of the school's board of trustees, is the CEO of a bank, so you can imagine how much fun he's having at work these days. Lowder already tried to oust Tommy Tuberville in 2003, but Tuberville survived and stuck it to Lowder by going 13-0 in 2004. After the Tigers dropped to 4-4 following Thursday's loss at West Virginia, Tuberville is at his most vulnerable since Lowder flew to Louisville to woo Bobby Petrino.

In any other year, the thought of Tuberville -- winner of the past six Iron Bowls -- getting fired would border on lunacy, but the wealthy are jumpy right now, and if they're willing to take losses to stop spilling blood on Wall Street, they're willing to raise a $6 million buyout.

This doesn't apply to Syracuse's Greg Robinson or Washington's Tyrone Willingham, who would have been on the firing line anyway, but other coaches should be concerned. Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer (lifetime achievement), Texas A&M's Mike Sherman (first year) and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema (first bad year) normally would be at least marginally safe, but in this climate, who knows?

Fulmer is the perfect example. While Tennessee's program clearly has slipped, it seems preposterous that some are saying Fulmer is coaching for his job this week against Alabama. Since when is losing to the No. 2 team in the country a fireable offense? Since the rich guys started sweating, that's when. In 16 years as head coach, Fulmer has built up plenty of equity, but equity only exists on paper. These days, paper is worthless. During a time when a Maxwell House can is the safest investment strategy, you'd better have some cold, hard, recent championship rings to prove your worth.

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