Commentary

Fulmer is, was and will be Tennessee to the core

Originally Published: November 3, 2008
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson once described Phillip Fulmer as "Tennessee to the core."

In an era when football coaches are oftentimes looking for that next job, the only job for Fulmer was the one he's held for the past 17 years in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

The one at the university where he's spent more than 30 years of his life as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

The same university to which he brought its first national championship in 47 years, and along the way, won 150 of his games against 51 defeats.

Fulmer is, was and always will be Tennessee to the core.

[+] EnlargePhil Fulmer
Matt A. Brown/Icon SMIPhillip Fulmer's run as the Vols' coach will end in 2008.

But on Monday, effective at the end of this season, he received the sobering news: His alma mater no longer wants him as head coach.

Fulmer, whose Vols (3-6, 1-5 SEC) are in danger of having one of the worst seasons in school history, agreed to step aside after meeting with Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton.

His exit has been brewing for the past several weeks as the Vols' losses mounted. But in reality, it's been brewing for much of this decade.

Fulmer's tenure at Tennessee is probably best viewed in two parts, two vastly different parts.

The first part culminated in a national championship. The second part culminated in his ouster. The 1990s were a glorious time for the Big Orange Nation, and the dizzying 45-5 run from 1995 to '98 -- including two SEC championships and a national championship in 1998 -- is the kind of stretch that may never be equaled again in Tennessee football history. The coaches in the SEC came and went on Fulmer's watch, in large part because they couldn't beat Fulmer.

The Tennessee fans had tasted success at the highest level. They thirsted for more -- much more.

But the landscape in the SEC started to change soon after the turn of the century.

[+] EnlargePhil Fulmer and Peyton Manning
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesPhillip Fulmer's recruiting successes included bringing Peyton Manning to Knoxville.

Fulmer had always been a fabulous recruiter, one of the best recruiting head coaches in the country. The Vols were at their best when they were able to go into neighboring states and cherry-pick great players and then go everywhere from the West Coast, to Texas, to Florida and into the Midwest to fill in the gaps.

Look at the players on their 1998 national championship team.

Jamal Lewis, Cosey Coleman and Deon Grant were from Georgia. Shaun Ellis and Darwin Walker were from South Carolina. Tee Martin was from Alabama. Shawn Bryson was from North Carolina. Travis Henry was from Florida. Billy Ratliff was from Mississippi. Peerless Price was from Ohio. Dwayne Goodrich was from Illinois. Raynoch Thompson was from Louisiana, and David Leaverton was from Texas.

But as the conference began to change, in particular as the head-coaching lineup strengthened in the SEC, it got harder and harder to go into some of those same states and pull out great players.

Mark Richt made sure of that at Georgia, Nick Saban at LSU and now Alabama, Steve Spurrier at South Carolina and Urban Meyer at Florida.

The Vols' drop-off in personnel was especially glaring in the lines of scrimmage.

One of Fulmer's priorities when he took over full time in 1993 as Tennessee's coach was to strengthen the Vols' defensive line. He did that with the likes of Leonard Little, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Walker and Ellis.

But the Vols simply weren't able to bring in as many of those guys the past five or six years.

[+] EnlargePhil Fulmer
AP Photo/Jack SmithPhillip Fulmer led the Volunteers to the national title in 1998.

And on offense, Tennessee has had just two offensive linemen taken in the NFL draft since 2003, and one of those was in the seventh round.

In many ways, the Vols began to slip offensively after longtime coordinator David Cutcliffe left to take the Ole Miss job following the 1998 season. Cutcliffe returned for the 2006 and 2007 seasons, and there was an uptick. But he left again to take the Duke head-coaching job following last season.

The result has been one of the worst seasons offensively for Tennessee in the past three decades. The Vols are ranked 114th nationally (out of 119 teams) in both scoring and total offense.

The loss that seemed to start the downward spiral for Fulmer was the 2001 SEC championship game setback to LSU. The Vols were favored and poised to play Miami in the Rose Bowl for their second national championship in four years, but were upset by the Tigers 31-20.

The program was never the same after that.

There were still some highs this decade, but far more lows. And Fulmer's record against the teams that count when you're coaching at Tennessee -- Alabama, Florida and Georgia -- gradually worsened.

From 2000 to '08, he's a combined 11-16 against those three teams and just 17-26 during that stretch against all nationally ranked teams.

The 5-6 finish in 2005, Tennessee's first losing season since 1988, stirred serious debate for the first time in Fulmer's career as to whether he might be on his way out. But he survived that season, as he did a horrid start to the 2007 season.

[+] EnlargeFulmer and Saban
AP Photo/Wade PaynePhillip Fulmer and the Vols have lost two straight to Nick Saban and the Tide.

The Vols were routed by Florida and Alabama by a combined 63 points last season, but picked themselves off the ground and managed to reach the SEC championship game.

In fact, Tennessee has been to the SEC championship game five times in the past 11 years, more than anybody else in the league during that span. But the Vols haven't won a title since 1998.

Ultimately, that drought and what is shaping up now as Tennessee's second losing season in the past four years were enough to get Fulmer.

He's one of those coaches -- the last of a dying breed in a league that chews up and spit out coaches -- who you just knew would be able to go out on his terms.

But even somebody who's done it as long as Fulmer has, as successfully as he has and with the class that he has is not above the golden rule in the realm of SEC football.

You're only as good as your last championship.

Fulmer's legacy will endure, though.

Ten years from now and 20 years from now, fans will look back on his time at Tennessee and realize what a magical run it was.

He's won 96 SEC games. Only five coaches in the history of the conference have won more.

Three of those, Bear Bryant, John Vaught and Ralph "Shug" Jordan, have stadiums named after them. A fourth, Vince Dooley, is a Hall of Famer, and the fifth, Steve Spurrier, is already a Hall of Famer as a player and a cinch to be enshrined as a coach when he retires.

It's exclusive company for sure, but the kind Fulmer will soon (and deservedly so) join.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covered Tennessee from 1997 to 2006. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.

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