ATLANTA - Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer figures he can look at the Volunteers' 2002 season in one of two ways.
He can moan and groan about how injuries decimated a team with national championship aspirations, or he can swallow those frustrations and hope that the adversity Tennessee dealt with this year will help build a foundation for the future.
For now, he'll focus on the future, considering the alternative would mean banging his head against a wall to dull the pain. "When I took this job, there was no guarantee it was going to be easy all the time, and it certainly hasn't been this year," said Fulmer, whose team plays Maryland Tuesday in the Peach Bowl.
After just missing the national championship game last season, most arm-chair experts figured Tennessee would be among the leading contenders for the crown. After all, the Volunteers returned quarterback Casey Clausen, a preseason Heisman candidate, and wide receiver Kelley Washington, considered by some to be the best receiver in college football.
But once this season started, Fulmer saw his lineup implode in slow motion. Half his defense missed games with injuries, as did three members of the offensive line. Washington played in only four games and was eventually lost for the season with a neck injury, and Clausen separated his non-throwing shoulder and sprained an ankle, forcing him to miss two full games and half of one.
Even leading rusher Cedric Houston missed four games with a thumb injury. It was enough to make Fulmer want to yank out what's left of his thinning silver hair.
"It was tough," Fulmer said. "We kind of had one hand tied behind our back the entire season."
Tennessee, which at one point was ranked No. 4 in the nation, lost to Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Miami and fell out of the Top 25. Fortunately for Fulmer, his best attribute is patience. He took over in 1992 when Johnny Major was fired, and the former Volunteers offensive lineman (1968-71) helped elevate the program to an elite level. In 1994, Tennessee had a similar season to 2002, as injuries and poor play contributed to a disappointing 8-4 year. But Fulmer believes those players laid the groundwork for a 4-year run in which Tennessee went 45-5, culminating in the 1998 season when the Volunteers went 13-0 and won the national title.
"Obviously, each team has to stand on its own," Fulmer said. "But in 1994, those players helped get things going in the right direction. ... I feel the same way about this team. At any time they could have rolled over and played dead and said wait until next season, but there wasn't any of that."
Though his winning percentage at Tennessee (.811) is second among active Division I coaches, Fulmer has learned over the years it's not easy to please the team's passionate fan base. Though he has mellowed some, he is still an old-school coach who believes in running a tight ship, even if it alienates some. At a news conference yesterday, when a reporter asked lineman Will Ofenheusle what he thought of Clausen being openly critical this year of Tennessee's young receivers, Fulmer quickly interjected.
"I think you've asked me that question a few times already, and you've gotten my answer," he said with a steely glare. "You don't need to put him in that position."
In all, Fulmer is a happy man. While the recent trend for some college coaches has been to follow the money, even if it means sacrificing loyalty, Fulmer says he is firmly planted in the state in which he was born and raised and has now raised a son and three daughters with his wife, Vicky. It also isn't lost on him this week that both he and Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen are coaching kids who wear the same uniforms they once did.
"I can't really speak for Ralph, but I've seen some of his comments and I think he feels the same," Fulmer said. "It's really special to coach at your alma mater. You can sell the program with sincerity because you've been through it. ... Every day when you wake up, you know you're going to be there tomorrow so you work really hard today to make it a better place."