Fulmer packs up trophies, then bags

Tennessee coach cuts celebration short to get back on recruiting trail

January 06, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The hardware sat neatly in front of the podium yesterday morning, the three trophies that were to be presented to Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer for his team's national championship.

Each acceptance speech Fulmer made was a little different.

"It was an incredible ride by an incredible football team that wouldn't say die," Fulmer said after receiving the trophy from the College Football Writers of America.

"When this trophy was in Knoxville a few weeks ago, I refused to go look at it. I didn't want to put my hands on it," Fulmer said after getting the Sears Trophy from his fellow coaches.

"It's an honor to win the first BCS championship game -- that's part of history," Fulmer said after getting the trophy from the Associated Press.

His top-ranked team's 23-16 victory Monday over second-ranked Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium was still a happy memory. But Fulmer was already getting ready for next season.

After a few hours sleep, Fulmer had been to a couple of meetings before a 9 a.m. news conference. He was expected to arrive back in Knoxville by 5: 30 p.m., and then was scheduled to be on a private plane for a recruiting trip at 6.

Asked about the expectations that will be heaped on a team that returns many of its key players, Fulmer said: "I know the expectations are going to be high. They always are at Tennessee. Somebody was asking me right after the game, `How are you going to use your redshirt players?' I said, `Give me 10 minutes to enjoy this.' "

The Volunteers won a long, sloppy game with the Seminoles, who committed a dozen penalties for 110 yards and wound up watching a frustrated Peter Warrick yelling at sophomore quarterback Marcus Outzen on the sideline for not getting him the ball. Warrick finished with one catch for 7 yards.

Tennessee won because of the big fourth-quarter plays it was able to make, notably the 79-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tee Martin to wide receiver Peerless Price and defensive end Shaun Ellis' forcing Outzen to fumble on Florida State's next possession. The recovered fumble led to a 23-yard field goal by Jeff Hall that stretched Tennessee's lead to 23-9.

"Our discipline wasn't very good," said Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden. "I thought we were a very sloppy football team tonight."

Both coaches said the layoff from the end of the regular season -- a month for the Volunteers and more than six weeks for the Seminoles -- contributed to a game with seven fumbles, four interceptions, 21 penalties for 165 yards and a combined 5-for-27 on third-down conversions. Price's touchdown was the only successful third-down play for the Volunteers in a dozen attempts.

It also reinforced what Fulmer and Bowden had been saying all season -- that it's time for a playoff system to be instituted.

"This is the best system that we've come up with," Fulmer said of the Bowl Championship Series. "But I'd like to see a playoff. I also like to say I don't know what the answer is."

The normally tight-lipped Fulmer also talked about what motivated his team aside from its underdog status for many big games this season. Though many back home had heard about "The Stick," Fulmer had declined to discuss the importance of a walking cane he received from a friend around the time of the Alabama game.

"I took the stick to practice, and, the next thing I knew, the kids were calling me Moses," Fulmer said with a laugh. "I brought it into a room and had them sit in a circle and told them that the stick would create energy, synergy and focus. It was another way to motivate them. Other than being called Moses, I enjoyed it."

Fulmer will have to find a new way to motivate his team next season, because the Volunteers will likely be a near-consensus No. 1 pick in the preseason polls. The quarterback pipeline that has brought Peyton Manning and Martin, a junior, to Knoxville will bring high school All-American Chris Simms -- son of former New York Giants All-Pro Phil Simms -- to campus in the fall.

The victory gave the Volunteers the school's first 13-0 season and the first championship since the 1951 team beat Maryland in the Sugar Bowl. It gave Fulmer, 47, new stature in his profession after seven years as a head coach and put him on equal footing with Florida's Steve Spurrier in winning national championships.

"I have great respect for Steve and the program at Florida," said Fulmer, who will return here next week to receive another trophy, one named in honor of Grambling coaching legend Eddie Robinson, for being this season's Coach of the Year. "It's an incredible rivalry. It's healthy for college football. It's tough to come out of the Eastern Division of the SEC."

But the Volunteers did what few expected.

They kept winning.

"We had a chip on our shoulder," said Martin. "We were 12-0, and we didn't get any respect. After winning the national championship, that's grounds for getting respect."

And taking home the hardware.

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