Tide-Vols feud may be nation's biggest
How do they feel about Phillip Fulmer and Tennessee in the state of Alabama these days?
In its rawest form, the answer can be found in the feral environs of the Crimson Tide fan message boards. Never a haven of dispassionate discourse, the Internet opinions are all the more outré this week:
Alabama fan's response: "Yep, too bad your fringe element wears 130 feet of orange polyester and stands on the UcheaT sidelines."
Response from the thread starter: "I'm trying to be civil here. Get a grip."
There is no getting a grip this week in Alabama -- unless the object being gripped is a Tennessee fan's throat. Not with the schools' traditional third-Saturday-in-October meeting (actually the fourth this year, darn the calendar) juiced by a transfusion of bad blood. Not with the grievously wronged, 5-2 Tide traveling into the valley of sin to face the irredeemably villainous (and solidly favored) 5-1 Vols.
SEC football fans are the most passionate in the land, but this is something different. This is passion without the restrictor plates of perspective. This is poisoned passion.
Put it this way: Alabama-Tennessee is so vicious this year that it has temporarily demoted the nation's most all-consuming football rivalry (Alabama-Auburn) to second-string status.
"Auburn is a football game," said Alabama radio personality, newspaper columnist and all-around provocateur Paul Finebaum. "This is a cause. This is about principle and right and wrong -- in (the fans') minds."
Thus every other 2004 feud game in college football must queue up behind this one when it comes to sheer nastiness. Emotions are so raw that fans with tickets on both sides have voiced concerns about possible violence in the stands at Neyland Stadium, and in surrounding tailgate areas. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton took out ads in the Knoxville News-Sentinel and the UT student paper to encourage sportsmanship from the home fans.
How did it get this way? How did we get to the point where a caller to a Birmingham radio station a few weeks ago said that, if it came down to Tennessee vs. the Taliban, he couldn't find a side to root for? How did we get to the point where Finebaum can assert, after listening to the venom percolate on the airwaves, "I can't believe I'm saying this, but there are kinder feelings toward Saddam Hussein right now than Phillip Fulmer"?
Alabama-Tennessee has always been one hellacious rivalry, full of oversized import and dramatic swings of fortune in the series. New York Times writer Warren St. John, an Alabama native who wrote a fascinating new book called "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer," about Crimson Tide football in specific and fan mania in general, mentions in the book the 1901 game -- a 6-6 tie that ended with thousands of fans fighting on the field.
"Alabama fans and Tennessee fans have a heck of a lot in common," St. John said. "I think the more alike you and your adversary are, the more intense the rivalry."
But now it has wound up to a new pitch. It all goes back to Alabama's most crushing football moment since the day the Bear died: when the NCAA Committee on Infractions hammered the Crimson Tide with severe sanctions in 2001 for egregious rules violations on the watch of former coach Mike DuBose. Bama was banned from bowl participation for two years, and scholarships were slashed -- a manpower loss still being acutely felt today.
Simply put, one of the nation's premier programs has been a wreck since then -- shuffling through coaches, and losing games and prestige at an alarming rate. The result has been a finger-pointing orgy by the fans, and these days they're all pointing at Fulmer. (Who, not coincidentally, owns an 8-2-1 record against the Tide in this strangely streaky series.)
"I think there is a well-reasoned belief among Alabama fans that Phil Fulmer is not one of college football's good guys," St. John said. "... Fulmer represents the darker, win-at-all-costs attitude college football has come to be tainted by. I don't think people feel that way about Mark Richt, or about Tommy Tuberville.
"It makes a team rivalry personal. And that's always when it gets nastier -- when you're not focusing on just the guys in orange. It allows a fan base to focus its collective rage on one person."
The Tennessee coach was one of the whistle blowers to the NCAA during its investigation of Alabama's recruiting misdeeds in Memphis. But nuance is not in play here, and "one of" has been lost in the partisan charge to make Fulmer The Fink who caused this mess. They've blamed him for everything but Brodie Croyle's knee injury.
They believe Fulmer threw Bama under the NCAA enforcement bus to save his own school from scrutiny. With the help of a blown confidentiality agreement from the NCAA, transcripts of his discussions with enforcement representatives were leaked, and some portrayed Fulmer as firing a fusillade of accusations about the Tide. Some of those led to a defamation lawsuit by a former Alabama player and his mother against Fulmer.
While St. John doesn't believe Fulmer acted with the purest intentions, he does believe that teams that cheat deserve to be punished. That sets him apart from some of the message-board mafia, who simply want to blame somebody else for Alabama's crimes and punishment.
Now, it takes a fair amount of denial for Alabama fans to call Tennessee "UcheaT" when a booster of its own agreed to pay six figures to a defensive tackle recruit out of Memphis. But the main thing Tide backers see in Fulmer is a coach they already held in low regard throwing mud.
And then Fulmer pulled the SEC Media Days boycott stunt in late July, refusing to appear at the annual event in Birmingham. Apprised that he was going to be subpoenaed by Alabama fan-lawyer Tommy Gallion to testify in a civil suit by former Alabama coaches, Fulmer stayed in Knoxville and fired back -- basically telling the state of Alabama to get over it.
"He made it sound like this was all about doing the right thing," Finebaum said. "Alabama fans see through that. They think he's one of the biggest hypocrites on the face of the Earth. This is one time I happen to agree with the fans."
Fulmer's go-to-hell-Alabama stance played very well in Big Orange country but further infuriated the populace in Crimson Tide territory.
In fact, the vilification of Fulmer is markedly similar to Kentucky basketball fans' feelings toward Rick Pitino since he became the coach at arch-rival Louisville. In both cases, feelings of betrayal have sparked an astonishingly visceral backlash.
But that's college sports in the South, where in many states there are no pro franchises or much of anything else to dilute fans' attention and passion.
"There's a bit of Southern machismo culture, and college football plays to that cultural trait," St. John said. "There's a raw kind of quality to Southeastern Conference football that finds its expression in unmoderated language and gestures."
And it's being expressed the Internet, where apparently no comparison of a football coach to vile creatures of history and film is too extreme. This is Alabama-Tennessee. It gets no nastier than that in 2004.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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