sports (2006-30)

Will UT’s football program get up again?

Knocked Down

by Tony Basilio

With Tennessee’s football season on the precipice and Head Coach Phillip Fulmer on the cusp, the historical revisionists are out in full force. 

Recently I was told on my radio show that Fulmer had the unfortunate distinction of sharing the stage with a truly “special” coach in Steve Spurrier back in the ’90s. It’s become fashionable to kick UT from all angles as it’s fallen from college football’s elite. Another caller inexplicably described UT’s rivalry with Florida in the ’90s as a little dog nipping at a big dog’s heels. Perhaps the finest illustration was offered by my co-host Beano, who offered that UT was Joe Frazier to Florida’s Muhammad Ali. It calls to mind the special Howard Cosell call, “Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier!” Frazier got up that night in 1974, but he was never quite the same fighter. So with ’06 on the horizon, the question is, can UT ever get off the canvas?

The revisionists and Fulmer haters like to pretend that UT was a character actor in Spurrier’s Revenge back in the ’90s. Some say Spurrier is the finest coach the league has seen since Bear Bryant. Six straight seasons of 10 or more wins from ’93 through ’98 will bring those kinds of plaudits. The conventional wisdom from the revisionists goes that while Spurrier dominated the league with his “special” coaching ability, Fulmer and the Vols played a lowly second fiddle. Actual history tells another tale altogether.

From ’93 through ’98, Florida had a string of six consecutive seasons in the Final AP Top 5. That, as they say in these parts, is stronger than frozen rope. The Gators of that era put the E in elite!  Tennessee on the other hand had a respectable two Top 5 finishes. From ’95 through ’99 Tennessee finished in the AP’s Final Top 10.

While Spurrier had the microburst from ’93-98, Fulmer proved to be the more consistent of the two, having won two of the last four in the series. How’s that for torturing numbers? Just as it would be disingenuous to make this claim, so would it be faulty to diminish UT’s place in the conference back then. From ’95 through ’99, Tennessee qualified for what today would be considered three BCS bowl games. From ’93 through ’00, Spurrier led Florida to four bowls of such stature. So, while Florida was No. 1, it could be argued that Tennessee was No. 1a.

Hard to believe that it’s been eight years since UT’s last appearance in a BCS game. Guess you could say that Fulmer’s in the corner being administered a standing eight count. It seems that since winning it all close to a decade ago, the program has been trying to shake off the cobwebs and get its bearings back. You can almost hear the referee’s count of “one” with Linda Bensel-Meyers as she delivered a shot to the kidneys with the academic scandal. “Two” could be represented by Georgia’s hiring of Mark Richt, who has helped reshape the competitive balance in the East. “Three” was the de-commitment of Chris Simms, who robbed UT of its quarterback of the future after Martin. “Four”: the decision to hire Randy Sanders after David Cutcliffe’s departure to Ole Miss. “Five”: the Juicy’s, Locke and Leak, who both impugned Phillip Fulmer’s veracity. “Six”: In recent years, it’s been a barrage of off-field incidents that have sullied the program’s reputation. “Seven”: the sham quarterback derby, which helped last season devolve into disillusion. “Eight”: a home loss to Vandy .

Can’t you just hear the encouraging cheers cascading from the patrons surrounding the ring? “Come on Phillip!” “Get Up!” “Get Up!” “Fight Phillip, fight!” Still others in the arena can be seen uttering “Stay down!” “You’re finished!” “Forget about it!”

To the naysayers, I offer this: A half decade of bumps, bruises and crushing losses have had a cumulative effect on UT, yet the program retains great relevance. Who says? The suits. And in college football, it’s not your father who knows best, but the TV execs. Despite lean years that have plagued Florida and Tennessee, the game remains the SEC’s top draw.

On the heels of a forgettable 5-6 season and a paltry recruiting haul, some are wondering if the champ is finished. While other conference members are filling their coffers with highly ranked prospects from around the region, Tennessee has been reduced to nibbling around the edges. This is where programs like Kentucky and Ole Miss are used to dining in the recruiting mess hall. Therefore, Fulmer must rise again. And quickly. Offensive juggernaut California will bring a dangerous and highly ranked team to Knoxville in a little over a month. Don’t ask why, but I believe UT will bounce back with a strong season in ’06. Perhaps it’s the eternal optimist in me. Maybe it’s the fighter I’ve seen in Fulmer through the years.

A loss to Cal in week one may mean it’s time for the ref to start counting. That would be “nine.” It doesn’t take a genius to know what would come next.

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit for more information.