Champs cautious heading to Swamp

Tennessee: Phillip Fulmer's squad parlayed an OT victory over Florida into a national title in January. Tonight, his Vols try to top rival Steve Spurrier and the Gators in Gainesville for the first time since 1971.

September 18, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

He has gone from relative obscurity to national acclaim in the course of six years, from being thought of as the guy who was fortunate to have coached Peyton Manning to the coach who led Tennessee to last season's national championship.

Phillip Fulmer has spent a career coming out of the shadows cast by others: first as the assistant coach who replaced the legendary Johnny Majors, then as the fellow who coached the Vols to a 13-0 season the year after Manning graduated.

Tonight, Fulmer can add to his own legacy, not to mention his glittering 68-11 record, when second-ranked Tennessee plays fourth-ranked Florida at "The Swamp" in Gainesville, Fla.

As happened to Manning, as well as to Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, there is now a street on the campus named after Fulmer. It runs by venerable Neyland Stadium.

"That's a great honor," Fulmer said over the summer. "That's about as good as it gets. But they might take it down if we don't win."

Tennessee fans judge Fulmer on two things: his overall record, which represents the highest winning percentage among active Division I-A coaches; also his record against Spurrier, which is now 2-5 after last year's 20-17 overtime victory in Knoxville.

"It's hard to compare Phillip to Johnny Majors or to Steve Spurrier," Vicky Fulmer said yesterday from Knoxville. "But I know they would like to have his record."

Fulmer is the antithesis of Spurrier. Their careers, not to mention their personalities, couldn't be more different: Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy while playing quarterback at Florida. Fulmer was an offensive lineman at Tennessee.

Spurrier spent four years as an assistant coach before starting his head coaching career with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League in 1983. Fulmer labored as a college assistant for 20 years, including the last 12 at Tennessee, before taking over for Majors.

Last season's run, culminating with a 23-16 win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, gave the school its first consensus national championship since 1951 and Fulmer the widespread respect that had long eluded him.

"I enjoyed it," Fulmer, 49, said during the summer. "From a professional standpoint, it's the pinnacle. But it's not like you have won the lottery and can retire or go into the stands and put your feet up."

Still, Vicky Fulmer has noticed a difference in her husband of 18 years since his victory in Tempe.

"He's not as preoccupied as he used to be," she said. "There used to be years that would go when I would say things to him and he wouldn't notice. He gets home a lot more than he used to. He got home at 8 o'clock last night, which was unheard of before. If anything, the pressure is off him a little because he delivered what he had promised -- bringing Tennessee football to another level."

Not that Fulmer has eased up totally, especially when it comes to recruiting. Without the natural home-grown recruiting base that exists for such schools as Florida and Florida State, or the tradition of other programs such as Penn State and Notre Dame, Fulmer has to take a different approach.

"He sells us on how much fun it is to play for Tennessee -- and for him," said senior quarterback Tee Martin, who passed up a chance to play at nearby Auburn to be Manning's backup for two years. "I think winning the national championship has made him even more relaxed."

Those who don't quite see it that way include former longtime assistant coach David Cutcliffe.

"I don't think Phillip is ever relaxed," said Cutcliffe, now in his first season as head coach at Mississippi. "Even when I talk with him on the phone, he's intense. I don't know what Tee's talking about."

Vicky Fulmer agrees in that assessment.

"I can't imagine him joking around in the staff meetings," she said.

Those familiar with the program say that Fulmer's coaching personality was shaped by the circumstances under which he got the job. Some believed -- and Fulmer vehemently denied -- that he quietly campaigned for it while serving as interim coach while Majors recovering from bypass surgery, causing friction among a large number of Majors' supporters.

Then there was the fact that while compiling an impressive record, Fulmer was often out-coached in big games. Most galling were the five straight defeats to Spurrier after beating him during his four-game stretch as interim head coach at the start of the 1992 season. There also was the 42-17 loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl two years ago, which Fulmer wound up using as the motivation for last season with his players.

"I tell our people [fans] that we're not going to win all our games all the time," Fulmer said. "I think we did have some good football teams along the way. If we had been a little luckier in 1995 [when the Vols finished 11-1] and 1997 [11-2], this would have been our third national championship."

If they can beat the hated Gators in Gainesville tonight for the first time since 1971, the Vols will certainly be in position to repeat. Their toughest game remaining will most likely be at Arkansas in mid-November, playing a team looking to avenge last year's fluke last-minute fumble and subsequent Tennessee touchdown in a 28-24 loss.

But first Tennessee will try to silence "The Swamp" and the big-mouthed coach who has carved his own legend there. Despite winning four SEC titles and a national championship while putting together a 115-31-2 record in 12 seasons -- a mark that ranks behind only Fulmer and Penn State's Joe Paterno among active coaches -- there is no street named in Spurrier's honor on campus.

Told that the Gators' coach wouldn't mind driving his car down Spurrier Pass every morning, Fulmer smiled.

"That's good," he said.

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