sports (2006-40)

The definition of success is constantly changing for the Vols

Moving Target

by Tony Basilio

The sad thing about coaching at a place like Tennessee is that achievement is met with an ever-moving bar. It’s like trying to kick a field goal with Lucy as your holder. Just when you think it’s here, it’s actually there. Phillip Fulmer’s era on the Hill has felt like Limbo with Lucy.

When Fulmer first took the job at Tennessee, Alabama was the defining game on the schedule. Back in the day, a loss to the Cheatin’ Tide meant your season was viewed as substandard. No matter what happened along the way, the season was based on what happened versus the Tide. Three years into Fulmer’s tenure on the Hill, he finally rode the crest of the Tide. Huntsville, Ala.’s Joey Kent caught a Peyton Manning slant and the Bama series has been tipped in Tennessee’s favor ever since. Enter Lucy.

With Tennessee conquering Bama, a new nemesis was emerging in the Sunshine State. Steve Spurrier flipped Al the Elephant on his ear quicker than you could say “Roll Tide.” Spurrier was so dominant in his first five years in Gainesville that he easily supplanted the Tide as the team to beat if SEC success was to be achieved. Spurrier’s effect on the league was Bear-esque.

Following the usual course, Spurrier saw the league—and even Phillip Fulmer to some extent—begin to catch up with him in the latter part of the ’90s. When the Evil Genius decided to depart for the NFL, no cheer could’ve been louder than the one coming from UT. It was assumed that Tennessee was would finally take its rightful place in the SEC. Auburn was down. Alabama was on a respirator trying to recover from the Mike Dubose escapades. Florida turned to a fast-talking excitable lifetime assistant nicknamed Zooker. It was officially Tennessee’s league. Enter Lucy.

In October of ’01, Tennessee was hosting another young, never-been head coach, in Georgia’s Mark Richt. The handsome offensive hotshot was fresh off a term at Florida State, where the Seminoles won two national titles and played for another. Richt was regarded as a fine offensive mind, but was taking over a program that was going on a couple of decades without an SEC title. The Bulldogs were the SEC’s personification of upper-level mediocrity. That is until true freshman quarterback David Greene took the field in Neyland Stadium that afternoon and handled the hostility with precocious precision.

The point could be made that the SEC’s baton was passed that day. Or perhaps it was the following year when LSU took the Baton back to Baton Rouge. Another new coach (Nick Saban) collecting a signature win at the hands of UT. Remember Matt Mauck in the Georgia Dome? Tennessee went from being a program 30 minutes away from playing for all the marbles to one being fodder for the likes of Maryland and Clemson in the Peach Bowl. The first half of the decade was marred by Tennessee missing their window of opportunity.

If the Vols are to get off the deck, it must start in ’06 with Georgia and LSU. The opportunity to rise versus Florida has passed. Urban Meyer is now justified with his first signature road win a few weeks ago in Neyland Stadium. Time will tell if Meyer (now 2-0 vs. Fulmer) can use the Vols as a Richt-style springboard. It’s time for Tennessee to fight back. Despite Vegas installing UT as a three-point favorite at the outset of Georgia game week, history and cold, hard facts say it’s not looking too good for the Vols. Going into this year, Fulmer has only one win to four losses versus Richt. If only Jim Donnan (1-4 vs. Fulmer) could’ve stuck around a few more years. If Tennessee harbors any hopes of getting to Atlanta, it must win in Athens. Florida with games against LSU and Auburn is sure to gag a couple. This would make Florida’s late-season game with Georgia paramount. Tennessee has the path of least resistance in the league following the Georgia game.

Yes, LSU remains, but Nick Saban (3-1 vs. Fulmer) is in the NFL. Les Miles (0-1 vs. Fulmer) will need to beat Tennessee in November to stay in the national race. Otherwise Tiger fans may declare that it’s time for the second year headman to Geaux! After all, failure to beat UT would mean that Miles could fall into the coaches of non-consequence in the SEC. Upper-echelon coaches beat Fulmer with regularity; the regular guys don’t. The Vols under Fulmer are a combined 7-25 versus teams coached by Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Tommy Tuberville. Conversely, Tennessee under Fulmer is 29-3 versus teams coached by Ray Goff, Jim Donnan, Mike Shula, Mike Dubose, Lou Holtz, Brad Scott, Curley Hallman and Ron Zook.

It’s a shame Lucy continues to hold the bar for poor coach Fulmer.

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.