sports (2007-41)

â'Johnnyâ' Fulmer


The coach circles the wagons, just like his predecessor

by Tony Basilo

You have to feel for Mark Richt and the Phillip Fulmer naysayers. Versus Georgia last week in Neyland Stadium, they never had a chance. Conventional wisdom this season went not if, but when, not how, but by how much.

Then Georgia came to town versus the beleaguered Vols and did the J-O-B in the middle of the squared circle in Neyland Stadium. It wouldnâ’t have mattered if Georgia had brought their A game from Athens, they were going down. Itâ’s just the way it is. Phillip Fulmer, like his predecessor who despises him, is a survivor in every sense of the word.

Heâ’s a non-glamorous, olâ’ school coach who hasnâ’t adapted yet lives on to fight another day. Try as he might to distance himself from Johnny You-Know-Who, Fulmer learned circling the wagons from the very best. Majors rallied the Big Orange Nation in â’88 after a horrible 0-6 start with a five game flurry at seasonâ’s end that saved his job and Tennesseeâ’s program in the process. In 1989 came an 11-1 season and the first of a couple of shared SEC titles that restored Tennessee to the ranks of the national elite before Majorsâ’ departure. Donâ’t kid yourself: Fulmer and Majors are two peas in a pod.

In â’88, Majors, as great as he was, somehow found a way to redshirt both Carl Pickens and Chuck Webb. Both guys could be considered all-time greats at their positions in school history, yet both redshirted. Fulmer has the same inability to play guys early. Look at this season for more. It took an awful 2-2 start and an open week full of venom from its fan base for Tennesseeâ’s coaching staff to give young guys some meaningful minutes. Majors should be cut some slack in this area, since redshirting was a common practice as guys were assured of being in a program for at least four years. Fulmerâ’s inability to get young players who can obviously play on the field sooner is something that has to be addressed and mostly likely will. That is, after heâ’s no longer coaching Tennessee.

In 1988, Tennessee got better defensively as the year went along. The Vols couldnâ’t have gotten much worse after Defensive Coordinator Ken Donahue was fired at mid-season. Tennessee played some young guys, simplified some things in the second half of the season and represented Volunteer style on the field with a swarming approach. Sound familiar? It should if you watched the Georgia game. Tennesseeâ’s coordinators, John Chavis (defense) and David Cutcliffe (offense), are both former assistants under the Lynchburg Legend. The trio can try to deflect this fact but they are all Majors coaches teaching Johnny Majors football. And thatâ’s not a bad thing. Because Johnny Majors was at his best when the chips were down and Tennessee needed a win.

Leave it to the Vols to play with a sense of urgency with Fulmer, Cutcliffe, and Chavis fighting for their coaching lives. It never had to be that difficult. Auburn proved that Florida could be beaten with sound, solid, and dare I say Johnny Majors-style football. The spunk and spontaneity displayed by Tennessee in the Georgia game was a ridiculous indicator of what couldâ’ve been. The halfback option passes, the timely blitzes, a blocked punt on special teams. Where has this been all year? Funny how a team can look coached up when they actually are. Maybe the recruiting services were right after all, Tennessee actually has some pretty good talent.

Those of you wanting to bury Phillip Fulmer and his Vols in â’07 may have to wait before you make the funeral arrangements. With the likes of Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Kentucky on the horizon, Tennesseeâ’s not out of the woods just yet. Do yourself a favor. Donâ’t count out Phillip Fulmer being the coach here in â’08. Remember, when it comes to surviving he learned from Knoxvilleâ’s original survivor. And I ainâ’t talkinâ’ Tina Wesson.


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