Stand by Your Man

Fulmer's a good guy, but can he win another SEC championship?

Sports

by Tony Basilo

Now that Tennessee's new baseball coach is in the barn, it's official. For the first time in his UT tenure, Phillip Fulmer (who I made the case last week in Metro Pulse could be considered underpaid) is next. No. Not for a raise. Next! As in Next to walk the plank. Next to go to the Mike Hamilton Gallows.

Entering his fourth year as the Athletics Director at UT, Hamilton has shown an itchy trigger finger. He blew Buzz Peterson out, withstanding pressure from most of the living patron saints in UT sports. Saint Peyton and Sir Todd stood for Jordan's roomie as did Doug Dickey, Pat Summitt and, for all I know, the Queen of England. None of it mattered. Because Peterson was in Hambone's scope. And with Hammy you seemingly get one shot.

Rod Delmonico knew the score coming into the '07 baseball season. He turned a pre-season No. 7 ranking into an eighth place finish in the SEC. Not good. Still, you're talking about a guy whoâ"to use a Phillip Fulmer termâ"built up some â“equityâ” in 17 years. After all, didn't Coach D take UT to three college world-series appearances? It's incredible when you consider that Delmonico owns three-fourths of Tennessee's college world-series appearances in 100 years of baseball. One shot.

Phillip Fulmer comes into a make-or-break stretch in the next 24 months. No politicking, handwringing, letter writing, weeping and gnashing is going to buy him more time if he can't produce an SEC championship. How do I know? Because Hamilton said so. And the UT Athletic Director is buoyed by the success of Bruce Pearl. In a twisted way, Hamilton (who owed a lot to Fulmer when he got his appointment as UT's AD) is now in a position where he can pay the coach back. Fulmer better hope he's kinder and more patient than he was to Buzz Peterson, who made fast friends with Hamilton during the final year of Doug Dickey's reign of terror. Peterson considered Hamilton a confidante even up to the point of being shown the door back in March '05. His advice to Fulmer would no doubt be: â“Watch your back.â”

â“Beat some teams that matterâ” would be better advice. Barring a turnaround that defies the numbers, Tennessee's chances of winning the league in either of the next two seasons seem remote. When it comes to the key coaches in the conference, Fulmer isn't getting it done. No offense to the guy. In many ways, I'm cheering for him. I've always seen Fulmer as one of us, a real nuts and bolts Tennessee guy who's made good the old fashioned way. Plus, I see him as a class act who has helped a lot of people with his weighty power as UT's head coach.

Niceties aside, Fulmer needs to beat people. Now. His record against fellow coaches in the SEC who have won a conference championship is deplorable. During his tenure, Fulmer has managed an 8-19 mark versus coaches who have a conference ring.

If only the league was what it was back in the '90s, Fulmer would have a fighting chance of making it happen in the next couple of years. Listen to this awesome record versus Georgia and Alabama: 20-8-1. Where are DuBose and Donnan when Fulmer needs them?

It sure would be nice to have a weaker Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Vandy while we're at it. Against the rest of the conference, including the aforementioned four schools grouped with Ole Miss and Mississippi Mistake, Fulmer is a whopping 55-5!

The problem is that Spurrier is now at South Carolina. Even though he's been there for two years, his record is a tremendous 15-8 versus coaches who have won a SEC title. The Ole Ball Coach is 1-1 against Fulmer during his tenure in Columbia. More incredible is the turnaround of the defense, which has some pundits including Phil Steele picking the Gamecocks to tie for the East title.

Spurrier's vacuum at Florida has been officially filled by Urban Meyer, who's 5-2 versus the league's signature coaches two seasons in. Recruiting like Tennessee back in the '90s, Meyer's Gators are stockpiling talent that should lend them favorite status in the SEC's East for years to come.

Georgia's Mark Richt is a respectable 10-10 against fellow coaches in the league who have a ring. Three of those wins have come in Neyland Stadium. Ouch.

Bama's Glory Boy Nick Saban is surprisingly only 6-7 versus active league championship coaches. Ponder what the record would look like if he had stayed in Baton Rouge the past couple of years to coach that phenomenal collection of talent including five NFL first-round picks.

For the first time in his UT career, Fulmer is next. It's not win or go home just yet, but it's getting close. Fulmer must reverse the numbers if Tennessee is to win another SEC crown. With Saban, Richt, Meyer and Spurrier fixed on the schedule the next two years, it's going to be tough. I'm pulling for you, coach. Even if I don't bet on you.

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.

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