Sunday provides no rest for weary football coaches
Sunday may belong to the Lord and the NFL, but no one told that to college football coaches. Ivan Maisel spent a day in their shoes and lived to tell the tale.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- College football fans may treat Sunday as a day off. The games are done. Sunday belongs to the Lord and to the NFL, and not necessarily in that order.
But for college football coaches, the hardest step is the first one. Sunday is the first day of the seven-day work week.
It is a long day.
8:30 a.m.: Bob Kesling, the voice of the Vols, drives up to a loading dock at the back of the College of Communication. At 9 a.m. on the day after a game, Kesling hosts The Phillip Fulmer Show, an hour-long show that runs live in Knoxville and is televised at other times on six other stations in Tennessee as well as on several cable networks.
"Did you see Coach?" Kesling asks. "He usually gets here at 8 a.m. He's in that Lexus right over there. He sits there and reads the paper and listens to the 8 a.m. talk show with John Wilkerson and Jimmy Hyams."
10:15 a.m.: Fulmer drives to the parking lot behind the Neyland-Thompson building, parks and comes in the back door by the weight room. He stops to pick up a stray straw wrapper on the floor. He takes the elevator up one floor to the coaches' offices. He spies another small piece of white trash on the floor and picks it up. You know the old rhyme: Cleanliness is next to top-10liness.
10:20 a.m.: The coaches' meetings don't begin until 1:30 p.m. Fulmer likes to give his staff Sunday morning to be with their families, either in church or at home.
He is in neither place. Fulmer sits down in the back room of his two-room office with a yellow legal pad and a cup of coffee. He has his chin and a pen in his right hand and he begins watching the cutups of the Vols' kicking game.
"I'm not grading it," Fulmer says. "Well, I am grading it. I'm just going through it making notes. Then I will watch the [video] with one side or the other."
Fulmer fumes at the first kickoff return. Alabama pooched it. The ball hit the ground near the 20 and bounced upfield. Return man LaMarcus Coker got to it a couple of yards before the Tide did.
"He needs to get up there and get the ball," Fulmer says. "It's a dead spot in our return area. It's a good kick. But it's plenty high enough that we need to get over there and field it. He's a young guy and learning. He's pretty talented."
Coker left the field with a knee injury on a return late in the game. He underwent an MRI Saturday night, but no one has heard anything yet.
11 a.m.: Fulmer stops reviewing the video to meet with a recruit, a junior college defensive end, on his official visit. He is the only recruit who made an official visit this weekend. Fulmer spends 50 minutes with him, his parents and their spouses in his office.
"Not to be rude," Cutcliffe says as he interrupts to respond. "This is the way it is all the time. Every day."
12:30 p.m.: Fulmer, tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Matt Luke, and defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell leave for lunch at The Copper Cellar with the recruit and his family.
12:50 p.m.: Offensive line coach Greg Adkins, in a warm-up suit, sits behind his desk. It looks as if he has applied a big half-moon of mascara under each eye. The black circles are as much a badge of coaching as membership in the American Football Coaches Association.
"I slept about six hours last night," he says, sounding proud. "People around here know I don't sleep much."
He awoke early Sunday and spent time hanging out with sons Nicholas, 10, Nathan, 7, and daughter Natalie, 3.
"I don't get to see their baseball games," Adkins says, "so that's when I hear about them and my daughter's dance lessons."
1:20 p.m.: The offensive coaches gather to dissect and grade the Alabama video. The offensive staff room is a long, narrow space dominated by a long, narrow table. On three walls are grease boards, and in front of the fourth wall is an enormous video screen. Cutcliffe sits at the opposite end, at the head of the table. To his left is running backs coach Kurt Roper. To his right are Adkins, Luke, graduate assistant Rick Clausen (the former Tennessee quarterback) and volunteer (lowercase "v") coach Tony Code. Luke and Roper both served on Cutcliffe's staff when he was head coach at Ole Miss.
A few minutes later, wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor comes in, Tennessee hat on backward; he flips the light switch off and flops into a chair. The recessed fluorescent lighting is dimmed almost to darkness.
Before each play, Code, sitting at a laptop off to the side, announces the play call. The coaches mark their grading sheets as they go along. The room is largely quiet. Cutcliffe makes his assessments, and the position coaches occasionally respond. Everyone is focused on the video and on their sheets. Just their necks turn toward the screen.
"Is this unbelievable?" Cutcliffe asked. "A zone blitz on the first play. They had done no zone blitzing going in. I think he [Ainge] hurries because of the pressure."
The game plan of Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines includes a lot of zone blitzes and a lot of four-man fronts, neither of which the Tide had shown in the first half of the season. The plan knocked Ainge off his game. The first possession ends in a missed 43-yard field goal by the normally reliable James Wilhoit. It is a harbinger of the offensive struggles to come.
Into the second quarter: Tennessee drives toward its first field goal. On first-and-goal from the 9, Meachem lines up at tailback, then goes in motion to the left. He runs a slant toward the middle of the field. Ainge doesn't notice that Alabama defensive end Keith Saunders has dropped into the passing lane.
If Saunders had hands, he would have intercepted the ball. Of course, if Saunders had hands, he would be a tight end. The ball bounces off his left hand and falls incomplete.
Cutcliffe is not pleased with his quarterback.
"If he would have slowed down and let him get into the lane he's throwing in, it's a damn touchdown," Cutcliffe says. "I'm going to give him a triple damn minus here."
2:18 p.m.: The first-half video ends. Tennessee has crossed midfield on five of six possessions. The Vols have three interceptions, one missed field goal and three points. It has been a long hour.
Ainge, having calmed down at the half, completes 17 of 25 after the break. The Vols score 10 points in the fourth quarter and pull out the victory.
3:11 p.m.: The video of the game ends. A couple of the coaches leave. The intensity lessens for the next half-hour.
3:16 p.m.: Trainer Jason McVeigh walks in with great news.
"No ACL on Coker," he announces, referring to the knee injury that Coker suffered on a kick return in the second half. "Three to six weeks on an MCL."
"Y'all found a good MRI machine," Cutcliffe teases. "It's about time."
"We're going to put them in that machine every time," McVeigh says.
4:25 p.m.: The entire staff meets at 4:30 p.m. every Sunday. With Fulmer, as with most football coaches, five minutes early is right on time.
Fulmer congratulates the staff on the victory. McVeigh gives an injury report. The defensive coaches' reports are generally upbeat. The offensive coaches' reports are not. Taylor, the wide receivers coach, is concerned that Meachem, his best player, is wearing down.
"Meachem played too many snaps: 69," Taylor said. "He's spent. I didn't want to take him out. He's your best player. He didn't have his best day. He wasn't separating. He limped. [Wide receiver Jayson] Swain tried to play. I screwed up. I should have taken him out. It's a proven fact that if you don't practice well, you don't play well."
"We got a Catch-22," Fulmer says. "We're banged up. We want to practice to get better. So what's best?"
5:45 p.m.: The coaches' meeting room has turned into a cafeteria. A different restaurant caters dinner every Sunday. Today there is roast beef, chicken, vegetables, fresh rolls, salad and pumpkin cheesecake.
Fulmer has opened a jar of homemade pickles sent to him. They're good and spicy. He sits down with a full plate of food, looks across the table at Luke and says, "I swore after that lunch at the Copper Cellar that I wasn't going to eat dinner tonight."
"Yeah," Luke says, his plate just as full. "I was going to spend an hour on the treadmill."
As Fulmer gets up to leave, Cutcliffe brings up a topic important to every father of a 6-year-old.
"Hey, Coach," Cutcliffe says to Fulmer. "Next Tuesday is Halloween. We'll leave for two hours, come back and watch practice tape. I'd rather do that than hurry through watching practice to get home."
Fulmer quickly nods his assent.
6 p.m.: Taylor, the assistant head coach, convenes his weekly meeting with the Volunteers' freshmen on the second floor of the Neyland-Thompson building. Taylor encourages them to open up, to let him and their classmates know how they're feeling about class, family, homesickness, not playing, girlfriends or anything else.
"The biggest thing I try to teach them is decision-making," Taylor said. "Next week is Halloween. I don't want any water balloons. Any egg-throwing. One of them said, 'Other teenagers do that.' I said, 'Other teenagers don't play for the University of Tennessee.' What happens to you now, the whole football team is held responsible."
6:30 p.m.: The coaches spend the next hour calling high school seniors. The players know that they will hear from the Tennessee coaches this hour. They are waiting. Phones are passed from the recruiter of that geographical area, to the player's position coach, to Fulmer.
Variations on the same themes emanate from every assistant's office.
"Three flags on one play? What'd you do?"
"We're counting on you for Dec. 10."
"Twelve sacks? How many games? That's big-time right there!"
"You know we got one of the best weight staffs in the country."
"You found the right sport, buddy, trust me."
7:35 p.m.: The offensive and defensive staffs begin breaking down South Carolina tape.
The offense watches South Carolina against Auburn (a team the Gamecocks nearly upset), Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Code puts up a poster-sized computer printout with the pictures and basic information on the Gamecocks' defense.
"Six freshmen on the two-deep," Cutcliffe announces.
9:08 p.m.: Taylor informs Cutcliffe that Tampa Bay won with a 62-yard field goal. One of Cutcliffe's assistants at Ole Miss, Ron Middleton, is on the Bucs' staff. Cutcliffe puts down the video remote and texts Middleton.
10:02 p.m.: Cutcliffe announces, "Two more plays and let's go home and get some sleep." The meeting breaks up. Adkins and Fulmer walk out together. Fulmer's tie is still at the top of his still-buttoned collar. Cutcliffe says goodbye and walks to his office. Someone told him that Peyton Manning, whom Cutcliffe coached at Tennessee a decade ago, took a couple of hard shots in the Colts' victory Sunday.
"I think I'll call Peyton and see how he's doing," Cutcliffe said.
He says he'll be back in the office by 5 a.m. Monday.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com.
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