sports (2006-36)

Fulmer looks to have his groove back

Turning Cutcliffe Corner

by Tony Basilio

Coaching is everything at the college level. Putting guys in the right frame of mind and in the optimal place to succeed is the essence of what coaches are paid to do. First it was Bruce Pearl who turned Tennessee on its ear last year on the hardwood. Guys like Dane Bradshaw went from ordinary to extraordinary. Diamonds in the rough just appear when a coach has his finger on the pulse. Perhaps Fulmer has rediscovered his own “Tennessee Pearl” in David Cutcliffe.

A heart condition placed Cutcliffe in Knoxville during the Vols’ season of peril. He was with Phillip Fulmer when Randy Sanders was dismissed/resigned following the embarrassing loss to South Carolina last year. Cutcliffe, who became a radio star locally during his year away from the game, was an easy choice at offensive coordinator for the embattled UT head coach. A man of principle, Cutcliffe was dismissed at Ole Miss after refusing to fire a gaggle of assistant coaches at the behest of the school’s athletics director. Cutcliffe is loyal and nobody’s yes-man. That’s character. 

It’s the kind of character that Phillip Fulmer grew to count on in Cutcliffe’s first go-around as OC at UT. From ’93 through ’98 when Fulmer dominated everything in college football this side of Steve Spurrier, his two mainstays were John Chavis and David Cutcliffe. Only this time, Cutcliffe is calling his own shots. His unquestioned level of autonomy was evident from the first press conference last year, when “Coach Cut” promised that he would/could make something of the bunch of not-so-lovable losers on the offensive side of the football. Little things became big things. Running backs needed to get stronger, linemen leaner, and Erik Ainge needed a hit . Tennessee was fat, happy, out-of-shape and devoid of playmakers.

That makes Tennessee’s week-one performance that much more remarkable. Cutcliffe saw the highly ranked Golden Bears on the schedule last year and refused to “Cal-Tow.” All off-season, he had to endure the hype about Cal’s talented defense replete with All-Americans including what some termed the best defensive line in the country.

The magnitude of Tennessee’s performance won’t be measured for several weeks. This could be the beginning of a memorable season or a random highlight. One thing it wasn’t was the harbinger of the ruin of the Fulmer era. His Vols (and his coaching staff) not only passed a major test, they aced it! In baseball terms, the win over Cal was a no-hitter. Cutcliffe and Fulmer are back together again and you can see it in the head coach’s eyes. He knows that despite the perception coming into this season that he’s on the hot seat, this ’06 team could be special. In week one, the team personified its motto “Fired-up, Focused and Prepared” for two-and-a-half quarters of perfect football on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Generally, the tone of such mottos comes from the head coach, but the Fulmer-Cutcliffe relationship transcends labels.

In an ominously cool September East Tennessee afternoon, the Vols took the field against Cal and went from zero to 260 almost immediately. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. UT made Cal starter Nate Longshore look like the Ainge of ’05.

This year’s model is obviously new and improved. Ainge’s three touchdown passes resulted in a 21-0 lead. The Vols, a two-point underdog at kickoff, were reeling from six straight losses to top-10 teams at home. The Vols were ranked 23rd and were seemingly playing out the string in the Fulmer era.

Want more numbers? In ’05, Tennessee had only 12 offensive plays that resulted in gains of at least 20 yards. Versus Cal, they had eight such plays in two-and-a-half quarters.

Funny what coaching can do. All of a sudden Robert Meachem looks every bit the Top Five receiving prospect in the country he was recruited to be. Meachem averaged 2.25 catches per game in his sophomore season and had only six touchdown catches for his career. Versus Cal, Meachem averaged over 26 yards per catch while snatching two for touchdowns. A four-touchdown performance has Erik Ainge back in time. He’s a free-flinging freshman once again. He was making wise decisions without great effort. Tennessee’s offensive line is “cut” and formidable. The Vols actually have a tight end in Chris Brown and used him. 

For perhaps the second time this century, Big Orange euphoria is back! Not since the Vols pranced across Tom Black Track after defeating Florida back in December ’01 has Knoxville felt that championship feeling. Granted, it’s way early to start thinking titles, but the goal is obviously in sight. Maybe it’s time to go to start the street-naming thing once again. I can see it now, “Cutcliffe Corner.” Seems like a great place for Phillip Fulmer Way to turn around.

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