Everybody love Phil -- now
Haywood Harris knows his Rocky Top. Heck, he predates the song that has been endlessly tattooed into the consciousness of Tennessee football fans for decades. He's known Rocky Top since it was a mole hill.
Harris was appointed sports information director at Tennessee in 1961 by General Robert Neyland himself -- kind of the Southern football version of a direct lineage to the folks on the Mayflower. "Rocky Top" was written in 1967. So, yeah, you could call him an expert on all things orange.
When Haywood says beating Miami 10-6 in the Orange Bowl last Saturday was "huge," write it down. No, spray paint it in bright orange letters. It was huge.
"Up to that point, the Vols hadn't done anything that had people feeling particularly good about this team," said Harris, who retired from sports information in 2000 and is now a special assistant to the athletic director. "They had everyone believing this could be a very good team, but they hadn't proved it yet. Now I think they've got everyone back on the track and thinking they can finish the season in big style.
"It was a huge victory as far as getting the masses back to feeling good."
Huge for the masses. Huge for the players. Huge for the program. Huge for the head coach.
Phillip Fulmer should be the coach of the Volunteers as long as he damn well pleases. Provided nothing goes seriously wrong off the field, he should be able to Tennessee waltz into retirement at a time of his choosing. His record is 110-27, and his .804 winning percentage is the best of any active coach with a minimum of 10 seasons on the job. He's won a national championship. He's a recruiting force. He's outlasted Steve Spurrier. If he can ever figure out a way to beat Mark Richt, he'll have it licked.
But Tennessee's maturation into an annual national power has produced powerful annual expectations. When you win at least 10 games in five of your first six seasons, Big Orange backers think it's automatic. When you win double-figure games just once in the next four seasons, Big Orange backers think you've lost it. Especially when the solid-platinum recruiting classes keep rolling in.
Tee Martin and Peerless Price fade further into the distance when you're being clobbered by Auburn and Georgia on back-to-back weeks. Wheezing past Fresno State, Marshall, Duke and South Carolina generates more complaints than compliments. After the Georgia debacle, a 41-14 punking that wasn't even that close, Fulmer's record against ranked opponents over the last two years sank to 1-6 -- a stat repeated until it became a mutinous mantra.
Combine that with last year's ugly 8-5, in which the Vols appeared to hate each other's guts, and insecurity raged in the Smokies. Big questions -- Direction of The Program Questions -- hung in the air. The lead-up to the big win in Miami was tumultuous.
"I don't think anybody really questioned coach Fulmer's ability as a coach," Harris said. "Look at what he's done. But after last year, everyone thought they needed to get things turned around again."
At 4-2, it didn't much look like it was turning around. You could tell times were testy when Vicky Fulmer, the coach's wife, went Bob Huggins-ballistic on Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Gary Lundy in the middle of the Neyland Stadium press box before the Tennessee-Georgia game. Lundy had ripped quarterback Casey Clausen that week for denying he'd disparaged the Bulldogs the year before after missing the game with an injury -- comments reporters had on tape. Vicky Fulmer ripped Lundy. Then the 'Dogs ripped the Vols, and the critics were screaming for mass firings (starting with offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, a favorite whipping boy of the fans, and extending to Fulmer).
After needing five overtimes to beat a pretty bad Alabama team, it still didn't look like it was turning around. Five days after that game, in one of the oddest non-stories of the season, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton put out a release stating that, contrary to rumor, Phillip Fulmer was not announcing his resignation that afternoon.
"Craziest thing I've ever heard," Harris grumbled about the wildfire rumor-mongering. "People like to pass things on, whether it's true or not. I can't imagine it. But those sort of things seem to gain currency when things aren't going well."
Hamilton's statement added to the currency, arriving as a bolt out of the blue to media inboxes nationwide. That caused wonderment about what in tarnation was going on in Knoxville -- and whether things could really be that bad for a coach who should be fairly close to bulletproof.
Finally, taking more than three quarters to dispatch Duke on Nov. 1 did even less to convince anyone that Fulmer was turning the thing around. Especially with Miami looming.
But on a warm day in South Florida, the 13-point underdog Vols got the kind of cornerstone win the program had been missing the last couple years. Tennessee was dramatically outgained by Miami, but not outfought.
Fulmer described it as "probably the prettiest ugliest win I've ever seen."
The defense hung tough, and the offense put up the only touchdown it needed on one of the guttiest calls of Fulmer's career. Facing a fourth down at the Miami 2 in the final minute of the first half, a coach who was always the too-conservative foil to risk-taking Steve Spurrier actually gambled. He went for it, on an end-around to Derrick Tinsley, and it resulted in the winning touchdown.
Suddenly, the Volunteer State had stopped whispering about a resignation, bashing the play-calling or howling about not winning the big ones. Suddenly, the Volunteer State was telling Phillip Fulmer how great he was.
"I've got 100 messages here of people calling to say congratulations," Fulmer said Wednesday. "But I've been in this a long time, so you kind of need to take 'em one at a time. I know it can be hero today, goat the next.
"It's kind of the Burger King mentality: You want it your way, and right now. That's not real, but that's how it is. I understand that."
Understand this: with a cushy schedule of Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky remaining, Tennessee is in excellent shape to again win 10 games and tie for the SEC East title. Depending on the whims of the computer chips, the Vols might also advance to the SEC title game and perhaps wind up in a BCS bowl.
If all that comes to pass, it's because the season -- and perhaps the direction of the program -- turned with a huge win in Miami.
Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
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