(Note: One day after Ghost of Neyland at Third Saturday wrote the definitive piece on potential Fulmer replacements, lawvol at Gate 21 has written a post of equal worth on keeping the balance between feeling like we should move in another direction while still being an honorable and true UT fan about it. Go read both of those posts.)
What we can all agree on, besides that one idiot who called SportsTalk the week we won the National Championship to complain about Randy Sanders' playcalling, is that we Tennessee fans were a happy lot from the day Fulmer took the sidelines as an interim head coach in 1992 through the end of the 2001 season. He led stunning upsets of first Georgia and then Florida with Johnny Majors on bed rest. He blew out Boston College in his first real day on the job.
From 1993-1997, with one Jerry Colquitt knee injury aside, Fulmer did everything right, except he kept losing to Florida like everyone else in the country. Again, my personal favorite underused stat in all of Tennessee Football: from the Alabama loss in 1994 to the Arkansas loss in 1999, the Vols were 1-4 against Florida and 37-0 against the rest of the SEC.
And how quickly we forget that Phillip Fulmer turned our greatest frustration - Alabama - into seven blissful unprecedented years of joy.
When he finally did beat Florida, we turned it into the 1998 National Championship. That season was bookended by another SEC Championship from 1997, and a return to the BCS in 1999. And after an obvious rebuilding year in 2000, the Vols again ascended the ranks of the elite, upset Florida in Gainesville to win the SEC East, and were on the precipice of playing for another National Championship.
While it's still true that the 2001 SEC Championship Game is the most heartbreaking loss in Vol history for me, what I've started to wonder now, in 2008 with things the way they are, is if the Vols hadn't fumbled it away in the Georgia Dome, would it have made any difference?
At this point, I don't think anything short of Tennessee beating LSU and then going on to beat Miami to win another National Championship - which is too great a leap in logic for me, especially considering I believe that Miami team to be the best this decade has seen - would make a tangible difference in Fulmer's current state now from seven years ago.
The Vols did respond to that loss with a satisfying beatdown of Michigan, and as stated, we were all pretty happy.
The last seven years, things have changed. And the history major and Vol aficionado in me would like to track the ebb and flow of what Fulmer has done in those seven years, to show how we went from ten years of joy and love from 1992-2001, to a state of affairs in 2008 where even the most positive and supportive Vol fans are using words like "exit strategy" and already discussing who the next head coach will be.
With everything right in the world in 2001, the Vols began preparations for the 2002 season with...
Preseason 2002: High Expectations
The Vols were ranked in the top five in both polls, Steve Spurrier was gone, and there was no other dominant SEC team thought to be in the same league as the Vols (though Georgia would later prove otherwise in '02). Even without Travis Stephens, Donte' Stallworth and the most dominant defensive line in modern Vol history (Overstreet/Henderson/Haynesworth), it was believed that Tennessee would become the Florida of this decade, and assert its will on the rest of the conference.
September 21, 2002: The Worst Five Minutes of My Life
All that went straight in the toilet with 4:55 to play in the second quarter of the Florida game. After watching the Gators get dismantled by Miami, optimism soared even higher. On a rainy day in a defensive struggle, Florida scored on 4th and goal at the 1 to take a 7-0 lead with 4:55 to play in the half. From there, Casey Clausen, Scott Wells and Derrick Tinsley combined to put the ball on the ground four times in four minutes, which the Gators converted into 17 points and an insurmountable, surreal 24-0 halftime lead. Tennessee never recovered.
2002: Injuries & Losses
Really, what do we remember fondly from 2002? The six overtime game against Arkansas was exciting, but not an important win. In that game, Casey Clausen suffered the injury that would keep him out of the Georgia game. In Athens, Kelley Washington suffered the injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season. Defensive players were dropping like flies. All this helped Alabama end Tennessee's seven year winning streak, an unfriendly date with #1 Miami tacked on another loss, and 2002 just seemed like everything had gone wrong at the wrong time. But the real kicker was...
December 31, 2002: Maryland 30 - Tennessee 3
The Vols were fumble-happy against Florida, banged up but game in losses to Georgia and Alabama, and purely outmatched against Miami. But against Maryland - Maryland - the Vols were outplayed, outcoached, out-efforted, out-everythinged. This was, at the time, the most disturbing loss in the Fulmer Era, because you just hadn't seen a Tennessee team take a beating like that from a lesser opponent. A bad end to a bad year.
September 20, 2003: Hail Mary in The Swamp
Early solid efforts against Fresno State and Marshall helped get the taste out of our mouths, and Casey Clausen's prayer to James Banks was the start of the good things on this day that would put everybody back on track. The Vols won for the second straight time in The Swamp 24-10, and all was right with Fulmer and the world again.
October 11, 2003: The Game-Changing Fumble
The Vols got too far behind at Jordan-Hare in a game they eventually lost 28-21. But still, the SEC East was theirs for the taking when Georgia came to Neyland Stadium. In a dogfight, UGA led 13-7 but the Vols were driving to close the first half. That's when a fumbled exchange led to a 97 yard Georgia touchdown, and instead of going in with a 14-13 lead, the Vols trailed 20-7. That opened the floodgates for more turnovers in the second half of a 41-14 Georgia win, and suddenly the win over Florida was far behind us, the Vols had lost back to back SEC games and four straight to Georgia, and the seat started getting warm again.
October 25, 2003: Five Overtimes
Showing us the value of one play and one game, because if this one had gone the other way and the Vols had lost three straight, I'm convinced Randy Sanders doesn't survive 2003. But Tennessee used five overtimes to turn a lifeless game into an emotional win over Alabama, which spearheaded them forward towards...
November 8, 2003: Taking Down Miami
On a national stage in an environment where the Canes hadn't lost in forever, Tennessee used defense and old school football, timely turnovers and gutsy play from their senior quarterback to steal a 10-6 win. And suddenly a season that looked lost now found the Vols back in national prominence. You forget that the Vols rose to #6 in the polls at the close of the 2003 season. And the reason you forget is...
January 2, 2004: Another Peach Bowl Loss
Those who are looking for "good years" from the Tennessee program would've had one in 2003, but the Vols went to Atlanta and acted like Florida State or Miami, getting in a pregame fight and then trying to set a school record for personal fouls in one game. Along the way, they lost to another second-tier ACC school for the second year in a row, 27-14 to Clemson, and what should've been a top five finish turned into an average #15 ranking and a 10-3 season.
September 18, 2004: James Wilhoit & Two Freshmen QBs
Again, say what you will about Fulmer and Randy Sanders, but the work they did in 2004 with Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer was tremendous. Against the Gators, Tennessee stood toe to toe despite playing two freshmen, and what James Wilhoit gave away on an extra point, he made up for from 50 yards in an epic 30-28 win. This is the last time Tennessee has beaten Florida.
October 2, 2004: The Auburn Buzzsaw
Those who always think we're going to play for the National Championship if we beat Florida (including me) got the reality check that the Vols were playing with freshmen quarterbacks after all when Auburn came into Neyland Stadium and scored 31 points in the first half off multiple Tennessee turnovers. This loss, no matter how bad, actually ended up helping the next item on the list, because when Auburn blasted Tennessee and Georgia destroyed LSU on the same day, most Vol fans thought there was no way...
October 9, 2004: Stealing Georgia's Christmas Tree
Double-digit underdogs and playing with the same freshmen quarterbacks, the Vols went to Athens and bested #2 Georgia 19-14 in one of the best wins of Phillip Fulmer's career. Suddenly, Tennessee had beaten Florida and Georgia, and were sitting pretty atop the SEC East standings. (The line here is from Georgia's postgame radio show, which we were happily listening to on our way out of Athens, where Happ Hines opened the show by saying "You know, I woke up today and it was like Christmas morning. Everything was going to be great. And Tennessee came in here, and not only did they steal our presents, but they stole the %#$! tree.")
November 6, 2004: A Stupid Playcall, Randy Sanders Edition
At 7-1 and ranked #9, the Vols met a Notre Dame team that was vastly overmatched but game in the first half. With time winding down and Tennessee some seventy yards from the end zone, the Vols ran a draw on first down and didn't call time out, clearly not trying to advance the ball or score any points before the half. But then on second down, the Vols decided to throw after all. A botched snap led to Erik Ainge injuring his shoulder and being lost for the season. With Rick Clausen at the helm, the Vols lost to Notre Dame 17-13. The Vols still probably don't beat Auburn in the SEC Championship Game if Ainge is playing, but they do play in a bigger bowl game. That one, however, also worked out well.
January 1, 2005: Cotton Bowl Beatdown
After a game effort in the SEC Championship, Rick Clausen led Tennessee to a stunning demolition of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, 38-7. The Vols finished 2004 at #13, 10-3 with two losses to undefeated Auburn, and SEC East Champions in what I would unquestionably call a good year. Which of course, set the table for...
Preseason 2005: High Expectations & Two Quarterbacks
Like 2002, the Vols entered the season as a top five selection and the clear cut favorite in the SEC East race. Rick Clausen's "productivity" in the absence of Erik Ainge led to Fulmer and Sanders opening themselves up to the idea of both playing. And everything from there...
Between special teams disasters and untimely turnovers, it took Tennessee two full months to realize they simply weren't a very good football team. The parallels to 2008 are alarming already. These Vols lost 16-7 at Florida thanks to special teams, tried to save the season in The Rally at Death Valley, which was beautiful at the time but only muddied the QB situation further and allowed Erik Ainge to regress...meanwhile, another punt return sealed Tennessee's fate against Georgia, then fumbles by Corey Anderson and Arian Foster at the one yard line on consecutive weeks doomed us against Alabama and South Carolina. It wasn't until Notre Dame blasted us (and then Vanderbilt finished the job) that the Vols realized "Hey...maybe we just aren't very good.") At this point, all the Vol angst fell on Randy Sanders, and he left the program. The remaining venom was directed toward Fulmer, but he continued to make a habit of turning those moments into his greatest triumphs by...
September 2, 2006: Unleash the Fury!
California came to Knoxville as a National Championship contender. In two and a half quarters, the Vols buried them in a 35-0 hole that could've been oh so much worse. And in one breath, we exhaled 2005 and inhaled the hope of things to come.
October 28, 2006: A Stupid Playcall, David Cutcliffe Edition
At South Carolina, the Vols were 6-1 and stood at #8 in the polls. Though they lost a 21-20 heartbreaker to Florida, the Vols had trashed Georgia and beaten Alabama, and were on their way to beating South Carolina when Cutcliffe inexplicably called a running play for Erik Ainge deep in South Carolina territory. The swift Ainge couldn't escape pressure, got his ankle rolled and was subsequently lost for three weeks. Though the Vols would beat Carolina and were game with Jonathan Crompton against LSU, they lost there and subsequently were blown out by Arkansas. I'm not saying the Vols win both of those games with Ainge in there. I am saying we don't lose to LSU. Every play carries significance - if Cutcliffe doesn't call that play and Ainge doesn't get his ankle rolled, are we having these conversations about Fulmer today? Maybe the Vols wouldn't wound up in a better bowl game, because instead...
January 1, 2007: Penn State Has Our Number
This one too may seem largely insignificant, but bowl games are the aftertaste of the season, and in this case the Vols started 7-1 with renewed hopes of national prominence, and ended 9-4 and average again. This too is a game Tennessee could have and should have won.
September 2007: Defense Takes an Absolute Beating
The Vols lost the season opener for the first time since 1994 to what was at the time a good Cal team, 45-31. Later that month, Florida hangs the worst Vol defeat since 1981 on the program, 59-20 in Gainesville, and Tennessee appears to have fully regressed. At this point, there's not much good to be said about the team or the program, and with Randy Sanders gone Fulmer appears to be hanging alone by a thread...
October 6, 2007: Fulmer Saves the Day Again
Against a Georgia team that would finish #2 in the nation, the Vols came out angry and efficient, and absolutely bested Georgia in every facet in a sweet, sweet 35-14 win. On the morning of October 6, Fulmer's seat had never been hotter and there was nothing tangible for Vol fans to believe in. On the morning of October 7, the Vols were in first place in the SEC East.
October 20, 2007: Alabama
The 41-17 beatdown in Tuscaloosa was bad for the moment, because it took the Vols' SEC destiny and placed it back in Florida's hands. But in the larger picture, after seven straight wins over the Tide from 1995-2001, Alabama had pulled even in the last six years at 3-3. Another low, low day.
Late October-November 2007: Close Wins & Good Fortune
Florida immediately gave the Vols hope again by losing to Georgia and placing our fate back in our own hands. Tennessee responded with the ugliest of ugly wins against South Carolina, a stunning shutdown blowout of Arkansas, then went to the wire with Vanderbilt and way past there with Kentucky...but won them all. And when the dust had settled...the Vols were SEC East Champions.
December 1, 2007: Erik Ainge's 4th Quarter to Forget
Again, the value of one play or one game: if Erik Ainge doesn't throw two ginormous interceptions in the 4th quarter of the SEC Championship Game against the eventual National Champions, are we having these conversations about Fulmer? If Ainge doesn't make those mistakes and the Vols steal a win in Atlanta, they're SEC Champions. They go to New Orleans, back to the BCS, and beat Hawaii (an assumption I feel safe in making). They finish 11-3 and in the Top 10. Would that be enough to buy a reprieve from...
September 2008: An Exercise in Frustration
These facts, we all know. A Clawfense that's averaging 12 offensive points per game against UCLA and Florida. A loss to the former that's indefensible, especially considering how other teams have treated the Bruins. A loss to the latter that's laced in ineptitude, with two trips to the three yard line, no points, and another special teams disaster. A program in turmoil and a coach who may be too far gone.
It wasn't one of these things...it was all of them. And to his credit, Phillip Fulmer has saved the day on more than one occasion as you can see: in 2003 against Florida, Alabama and Miami, in 2004 at Georgia, in 2006 against Cal and last season against Georgia. Every time the program has been shaky and the whispers got loud, Fulmer quieted them with a huge win.
And there are points along the way that again, seemed so insignificant at the time...but if the Vols had beaten Clemson in 2003, or not called the plays that got Erik Ainge hurt in 2004 and 2006, or had Ainge himself not thrown those interceptions in Atlanta last year...maybe these are different conversations.
But this is reality.
As lawvol points out in his piece, there is a percentage of the fan base where the voices are too loud...that has crossed the line to a degree that it won't matter now if the Vols finish this season 10-2. I think those people are ridiculous, and I don't ever think you go after a coach in the middle of a season. For the people like me who prefer to discuss exit strategies that play out over several years in the best interest of the program and all involved, and for all of us...we want to see this thing go forward in the right direction. And right now, that's with Fulmer because right now he's our head coach.
More than anything, looking at the progression/regression over these last few years teaches us the value of every play and every Saturday. There will always be what-ifs, fumbles, upsets and questionable play calls. The head coach at Tennessee is responsible for making the best of all of those, living in the reality of the present moment and doing what's best to get a win this week. Right now it's Fulmer. And Fulmer's done this before. So even in the midst of what may be an inevitable exit strategy, with all the green and red in his past...Fulmer and the Vols must do what they must do to get a win this week, like every week.
And it's our job to get - and stay - behind them. No matter who's wearing the headset.
Now...who wants to talk about Auburn?