No buzz, just wins for Fulmer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Alabama fans do not need another reason to fester over Phillip Fulmer. The Tennessee football coach already has helped put the Crimson Tide on probation, has beaten Bama eight of the last nine meetings and won a national title with a quarterback from Mobile.
But just in case Tide backers require a cherry atop their bile sundae, consider this sacrilegious scenario: Sometime in 2016, Fulmer surpasses Mr. Paul Bryant's SEC record of 159 conference victories -- a mark many have labeled unassailable in today's coaching climate.
At the still-spry age of 54, Fulmer owns 75 SEC wins going into the 3-0 Volunteers' Saturday showdown in Knoxville with 4-0 Auburn. He says he'd like to coach 10 more years, and the Big Orange lifer (player, assistant, head coach) wouldn't do it anywhere other than Tennessee. If he maintains his current winning pace for another decade and stays a few extra years beyond his 10-year goal, he'll demote Bear from Ursa Major to Ursa Minor in Dixie's coaching constellation before he's through.
Here's the thing about Fulmer: he doesn't come with a houndstooth hat and a commanding rumble of a voice. He doesn't come with a visor, an offensive genius rep and a smart mouth. He doesn't come with a nickname, like Shug. He doesn't come with Program Patron Saint status, like Vaught or Dooley (that honor is reserved in Knoxville for Gen. Robert Neyland).
Even among his current SEC colleagues, Fulmer ranks low on the buzzmeter. He doesn't have Mark Richt's flair or Nick Saban's hair. When it comes to glib, he's the anti-Holtz. In a 12-coach charisma competition, he might only have two guys beaten (Rich Brooks and David Cutcliffe).
"The majority of Tennessee fans like Fulmer," said Knoxville radio personality Jimmy Hyams, who has covered the Vols in print and on the air for 20 years. "... I don't think Tennessee fans revere Fulmer."
Reverence is not mandatory, but appreciation is.
|1. Bear Bryant||Kentucky, Alabama||159||33|
|2. John Vaught||Ole Miss||106||25|
|3. Vince Dooley||Georgia||105||25|
|4. Shug Jordan||Auburn||98||25|
|5. Steve Spurrier||Florida||87||12|
|6. Phillip Fulmer||Tennessee||75||11-plus|
But still the admiration for Fulmer seems muted, at least in comparison with his accomplishments. A few reasons why:
"He fell into one of the great situations in college football history," said Knoxville News-Sentinel sports editor and columnist John Adams. "The four years before he became head coach, Tennessee had won 38 games. Everything was in place, plus he knew the system. How many coaches fall into that situation? Tom Osborne, maybe."
First it was Spurrier in the SEC Eastern Division, who found a perfect foil in Fulmer. Stevie Boy was the deprecatory, innovative, fearless, glamour-boy former quarterback with a Heisman Trophy. Fulmer was the conservative former offensive lineman who never seemed adroit enough to match Spurrier's quick wit and strategic acumen -- not even with the best quarterback in school history, Peyton Manning. Spurrier beat Fulmer seven times in 10 meetings.
No sooner does Fulmer outlast Spurrier than he runs into Richt, the league's new dashing offensive mind. Richt has won all three meetings, including a 41-14 de-pantsing of the Vols in Neyland Stadium last year, and the Bulldogs have played in the past two SEC championship games. The Vols, meanwhile, haven't won the SEC since '98 and have played in just one league title game since then -- an upset loss to LSU.
Tennessee has lost two straight bowls, four of its last five and five of its last seven. Every loss has been by double digits, and the last two were embarrassing Peach Bowl busts by heavily favored UT teams: 30-3 to Maryland and 27-14 to Clemson.
Every champion needs a little luck along the way, but the Vols might have gotten an extra helping. A shanked Florida field goal in overtime gave Tennessee a 20-17 win (a fumble into the Vols' end zone in regulation didn't hurt, either). Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner's unforced fumble enabled a miraculous 28-24 escape. And facing Florida State with scatter-armed Marcus Outzen subbing for injured Chris Weinke in the Fiesta Bowl was a break.
Fans take athletics seriously in a lot of American college towns, but Knoxville is among the most serious. The emphasis is writ large.
On the Tennessee campus there are streets named for Pat Summitt, Peyton Manning, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tee Martin, Todd Helton -- and, yes, there's Phillip Fulmer Way running right outside the football stadium. A visitor to town might pick up the News-Sentinel on a Tuesday and find the metro columnist expounding on electrical problems at the Vols' last two games in Neyland Stadium. Tennessee football is too big a topic to be confined to the sports pages.
The venues are built big enough to accommodate statewide obsession. Neyland is America's third-largest rink, seating 104,079. In a fit of vanity, Tennessee also built the SEC's largest basketball arena, making 25,000-seat Thompson-Boling Arena just bigger than Rupp Arena (and these days it's only full when Kentucky comes to town).
While it would be an undeniable rush to lead a team into Neyland as 100,000 roar, there's also the flip side: hearing all those people gripe and grumble.
"You've got to understand that," Fulmer said. "We're at a place with high expectations, and then we pushed the bar even higher in '97, '98 and '99 (when the Vols went 33-5). That bar's up there pretty good now, but that's what you want. If you don't want to cook, stay out of the kitchen."
The past two years the kitchen has been a sweatbox. An 8-5 record and a lousy team attitude had fans outraged in 2002. The blowout home loss to Georgia and the Peach Bowl comeuppance against Clemson conspired to cancel out the Vols' remarkable road upset of Miami in 2003, making 10-3 feel hollow.
"Having 10 wins, not many people will fuss at that," Fulmer said. "But we fuss at it here."
They've fussed for years at Fulmer over his buttoned-down offensive philosophy, making coordinator Randy Sanders a statewide pinata. Why, they wanted to know, are Florida and Georgia creative and free-wheeling, while we're so uptight offensively? Fulmer acknowledged feeling some pressure to remove Sanders the previous two years, but the super-loyal head coach rode it out and stood by his man.
This year, with the Vols' offense stunningly productive with two true freshmen playing quarterback, Fulmer can't help feeling vindicated. Asked whether any fans have called for him to fire Sanders this fall, he smirked.
"Not this year, no," he said. "He's a genius all of a sudden."
So is his boss. There is a sense of renewal in the air in Knoxville, an injection of fresh enthusiasm -- and it came about after Fulmer went completely counter to his own track record on two pressing issues.
First, he blew off SEC Media Days in Birmingham, basically telling the entire state of Alabama to get over itself on the probation issue. Then he had the gumption (or perhaps the desperation) to go with the freshmen QBs, Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer.
These were bold, borderline outrageous moves from a guy who's not much for risks. And Big Orange has adored Fulmer for it.
"Those two things have brought an excitement to Tennessee football that I haven't seen since the night they beat Florida in 2001 (to win the SEC East)," Hyams said. "There has been a buzz about this team.
"Last year UT did not sell out its season opener. This year tickets were being scalped for $75 after kickoff."
Fulmer started stirring it up in late July. Informed that Alabama lawyer Tommy Gallion planned to serve him with subpoena papers at Media Days to force him to testify about information he gave NCAA investigators regarding the Crimson Tide's recruiting, Fulmer said he wasn't going. Then he said a lot more. The perma-cautious rhetorician fired back at the long-simmering gossip-wire chatter that portrayed Fulmer as actively trying to bring down Alabama, while simultaneously trying to keep the gumshoes from busting his own program.
Tennessee fans ate it up.
"I think they liked it because after being silent and no-commenting for so long, he finally came out and said what a lot of Tennessee fans wished he would say," Hyams said. "They appreciated how forceful he was."
Said Adams: "It was the way he did it: he came off as aggressive, on the offensive, and Tennessee fans love that. They see this as a theatrical lawyer and cheap theatrics. I think the Alabama fans are the only ones in the world taking this seriously -- because what else do they have going for them?"
Then, all of two scrimmages into fall practice, Fulmer announced that he was moving Ainge and Schaeffer to the top of the depth chart -- ahead of sixth-year senior C.J. Leak and junior Rick Clausen. The entire state nearly fainted.
This, after all, was the coach who started forgettable upperclassman Mark Levine at tailback at Florida in 1997 instead of a freshman named Jamal Lewis, because he didn't think Lewis was ready to pick up blitzes. Lewis went for 232 yards against Georgia three weeks later -- too late to make up for a 13-point loss to the Gators.
Now he's going into a season with two freshmen quarterbacks?
"I was shocked," Hyams said. "Because that's so unlike Fulmer to roll the dice. He doesn't even like to have a young guy return kicks. He certainly doesn't like having a young guy play quarterback."
Especially young guys who weren't even the Vols' first recruiting choices at that position. Tennessee's primary quarterback targets were Brian Brohm (who chose Louisville), Chase Patton (Missouri) and Xavier Lee (Florida State).
But the Tennessee coaches loved Schaeffer's athleticism and what they saw of Ainge on tape. Once they were the guys, coordinator Sanders began telling them they'd have a real chance to start right away -- crazy as it sounded.
"I thought it was a huge risk," Sanders admitted. "I thought if it worked out, great. If not, I'm probably doing something else next year. But I don't think you're going to win 11 games being safe and conservative, despite what my reputation is."
Fulmer will admit no apprehension on his part.
"It was the best option we had to win," he said. "I was excited about it, actually, after watching them practice."
Heading into October, it's obvious why. Ainge is No. 4 in the nation in passing efficiency and being compared favorably to St. Peyton. Schaeffer's production has declined, but he's still taken the first snaps in every game. (That might change Saturday, although Fulmer isn't tipping his hand.)
So another big winner is being assembled along the banks of the Tennessee River, at least a year ahead of schedule. And with freshman QBs like these, the future that could scarcely be any brighter.
Look out, Bear. Stolid, staid, steady Phillip Fulmer is sneaking up on you.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.