sports (2007-03)

Tubby and Phillip struggle with expectations

One Pod, Two Peas

by Tony Basilio

Both guys are considered Hall of Fame coaches. Both boast terrific winning percentages to go along with delivering national titles at their respective schools, and both are highly regarded in their profession. Yet both are hearing the footsteps of disgruntled boosters and administrators.

Smith and Fulmer are both coaches unappreciated for their non-sexy approach to their respective games. Unlike his predecessor, Rick Pitino, Smith prefers to play it close to the vest. Pitino liked to press and run while Smith is a slug-it-out-with-fundamentals hoops advocate. A former offensive lineman and offensive line coach, Fulmer has an affinity for “Tennessee football” (i.e. slopping it up and “pounding the rock”). So, both guys like to slow it down, much to the consternation of their fan bases.

Smith and Fulmer also share the distinction of having served as assistants at their current schools before ultimately landing the top job. That both guys followed beloved figures hasn’t helped either guy. Some in the Tennessee fan base loyal to Johnny Majors have been waiting for the opportunity to pounce on Fulmer, while UK’s fan base has never embraced Smith to the degree it did Little Ricky.

Neither Smith nor Fulmer is a great quote. Both prefer to let their body of work do their talking. Up until recently, both had a lot to crow about but the new millennium has been unkind to both Kentucky basketball and Tennessee football. 

Smith’s Wildcats haven’t been to a Final Four since they cut the nets down with a 78-69 win over Utah in March of 1998. That Pitino is now at Louisville (with one Final Four appearance this decade) hasn’t helped things for Smith. Like Tennessee, Smith and the Cats followed up their monumental achievement with disappointing seasons. Kentucky went into March Madness in ’99 as the No. 3 seed in the tourney after posting a 25-8 record. This was comparable to UT’s 10-2 season in ’99, which ended with a blowout loss to Nebraska. While the Vols got to the Orange Bowl versus the Huskers, Michigan State handed UK a decisive 73-66 loss in the regional final.

In 2000 the slippage continued at both Tennessee and Kentucky. The football Vols broke in a new quarterback in a season that saw them fall hard in the Cotton Bowl to Kansas State. Kentucky went down to a No. 5 seed, eventually losing to Syracuse in round 32.

Like Fulmer, who went after a former head coach in the SEC (David Cutcliffe) to help solidify his staff, Smith took the same route in hiring former ’Bama head coach David Hobbs in the fall of 2000.

The 2001 season served as a jump-back year for both programs. The Cats went into the postseason with 22 wins and the No. 2 seed. The Vols, behind an explosive offense, were one half in the SEC Title game away from playing Miami in the Rose Bowl. Kentucky’s season ended in disappointment at the hands of Southern California while the Vols collected a consolation prize with a Citrus Bowl win over Michigan.

While the programs have continued to enjoy success, both fan bases started to howl as success became a relative term. For Smith, a loss to Maryland in the Sweet 16 in ’02 was akin to UT losing in the Peach Bowl to Maryland.

In ’03, Kentucky’s once-promising season went up in flames in the Final Eight as the No. 1-seeded Cats were beaten by Marquette! What could be more painful than that? How about losing for the second consecutive season in the Peach Bowl at the hand of an ACC Team? This time it was Clemson’s turn to get some Vol love.

Then, ’04 saw both the Cats and Vols enjoy championship regular seasons. The Vols used a cadre of quarterbacks to land an Eastern Division Championship while Kentucky was a No. 1 seed for the second consecutive season. Like the Vols, postseason was a mixed bag for the Cats. Tennessee lost to Auburn and scored a huge win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl while Kentucky won the SEC tournament before dropping a second round NCAA Tournament game to Alabama Birmingham.

The ’05 year was the lone deviation, as Tennessee’s struggles didn’t translate to UK. The Vols sleepwalked to 5-6 while Kentucky landed a No. 2 seed, only to succumb to Michigan State in the Final Eight.

For ’06, Kentucky turned in an average regular season befitting a No. 8 seed while the Vols enjoyed a nondescript 9-3 season. Postseason was a bummer for both as Tennessee yawned its way to a loss in the Outback Bowl while the Cats were put out back by Connecticut in the NCAA’s second round.

Smith and Fulmer are both a couple years away from celebrating ominous 10-year anniversaries. Both have failed to accomplish their said mission at each institution. For Kentucky, it’s all about getting to the Final Four while the annual goal at UT is a conference championship. Some national people are picking Tennessee football to have a breakout ’07. Will it happen? Just watch what Kentucky basketball does this March.

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.