Why Vols had their fill of Fulmer

John Clay
John Clay

Florida always had its fun with Phil Fulmer. And then some.

One wicked Sunshine State columnist once referred to the Tennessee football coach as "the third largest free-standing structure in the state of Tennessee."

But then the opposing coach is always an easier target when the home team is having its way with him.

Alas, Kentucky has never had the pleasure.

The Phil Fulmer Era officially ends this very Saturday after 16 years, plus four games, and the Tennessee football coach is a perfect 16-0 against his final foe.

"Lasting anywhere for 17 seasons is quite an accomplishment," said Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks this week, and he's right.

But when Southeastern Conference gridologists ponder the Fulmer Era, his prolonged dominance of the Cats not withstanding, just how will his reign be remembered?

There is the national title. Select company there. Fulmer won his ring in 1998, six years after he succeeded UT legend Johnny Majors, one year after alpha quarterback Peyton Manning assumed his throne as the NFL's endorsement king.

Ironically, it was Manning's successor, Tee Martin, who led a balanced and talented UT squad to 13 straight victories, including a 23-16 Fiesta Bowl triumph over Bobby Bowden and Florida State to clinch the national championship.

Fulmer enters his final game seventh all-time among SEC coaches in overall wins (151) and 12th in win percentage (.743). He snared two conference championships (1997-98), and either won or tied for seven division titles. Six times, including a stretch of five straight years (1995-99), his Vols finished in the AP's final top 10.

Yet at least two issues will keep Fulmer from being remembered as one of the all-time greats.

One is the police blotter. Fulmer's players were known for habitually falling into some sort of legal trouble or another, from assaults to drugs to DUIs. At one point, the league joke was that pepper spray could be purchased wherever officially licensed Volunteer products were sold.

In fact, some serious UT scholars contend the beginning of the end for Fulmer came in February when the coach assessed punter Dustin Colquitt's fifth alcohol-related arrest and handed out a measly four-game suspension.

Upon the school's announcement, Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist John Adams reacted by writing, "UT's leadership problem is at the top."

And, oh yeah, Adams also mentioned last years' 39-point loss to the Gators.

Which brings us to Reason No. 1 — all that Florida fun.

Steve Spurrier was the Heath Ledger to Fulmer's Batman. Fulmer just couldn't beat the Ol' Ball Coach — not at first, not when it counted, not before a national audience formed the opinion Steve Superior was, indeed, superior.

Spurrier held a 7-3 record against Fulmer when the head Gator departed Gainesville for the NFL. The old nemeses have split four games since Spurrier took over at South Carolina.

Then, after Fulmer won two of three from Spurrier's successor, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer landed at The Swamp. Results reverted. Meyer is 4-0 against Tennessee, a perfect reason Fulmer will no longer be the coach there.

In fact, the Kentucky game, in a way, represents one reason Fulmer held on as long as he did. The SEC teams Tennessee should routinely beat, it did. There seemed always a November to remember in Knoxville, the month when the schedule grew softer and the win column fatter.

Even that couldn't last forever, however. Vandy beat the Vols two years ago. And now, after this season finale, Phil Fulmer will be gone as well, having walked through that "T" one last time, having beaten Kentucky one more time. Or so he hopes.