Perhaps the truest sign of greatness is that it's surprising when the fall finally comes. No one can stay on top forever, something that Phil Fulmer painfully learned near the end of the decade as the Tennessee coach watched the empire he built in Knoxville fall apart.
At the beginning of the 2000s, things did not look bad for a coach that won despite opponents' jokes about his size and less than despotic disciplinary methods. After all, just two years earlier, he had won a national title. In 2001, he would win his third SEC East championship in five years -- though a loss in the SEC Championship Game to LSU would cost the Vols their opportunity for a second title during Fulmer's tenure.
He would never come close again. In fact, that season's No. 4 postseason ranking was the last time Tennessee appeared in the AP Top 10.
It's easy but in some ways true to point to 2008, and lingering unhappiness over the 2005 losing season, as the end of Fulmer's time in Knoxville. After all, any coach who has two losing seasons in four years isn't going to keep his job at one of the league's premiere universities. Even Fulmer's 142-39 record outside of those two seasons couldn't protect him, and many Tennessee fans would argue that it shouldn't have.
But the truth is that as far back as 2004, the Vols were playing like a .500 team in the SEC -- which is great if you're the coach of Kentucky or South Carolina or Mississippi State. Not so much at Tennessee.
Again, calculating pythagorean wins is basically a matter of figuring out how many games you should have won based on the points you scored and the points your opponents scored. Over Fulmer's last five seasons, the Vols overperformed in all the good seasons except one -- 2006, when offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe returned after the 2005 disappointment -- and underperformed a bit in the subpar years. (The half-win difference in 2005 and the 0.3 SEC difference in 2008 aren't really statistically significant.) Also note: Those of you who thought the Vols were incredibly fortunate to make the 2007 SEC Championship Game are correct; Tennessee won almost two more league games than it should have that year. (The victories against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are all good candidates.)
But fans will ignore whether they should be winning games as long as they are. It's win the team begins losing games that a coach finds himself a target -- and the fans still don't care whether you should be losing those games or not. And 2008 fits the bill of too much losing, even for a coach as accomplished as Fulmer.
|TUESDAY: What a Decade It's Been; Mike Price's Trip to Pensacola|
|WEDNESDAY: The Zook Experiment; Georgia Hires Mark Richt|
|THURSDAY: The Best Game; Auburn's Rise and Fall; Rivalry of the Decade|
|FRIDAY: The Worst Game; The Rise of the Nicktator; The Promise|
In a nod to all those accomplishments, the AP voters did Fulmer no favors by voting his team No. 18 in the preseason standings. There was no reason to believe that the Vols were going to win the national title; even the most stat-allergic football fan could sense that there was some luck involved in the SEC East championship in 2007, and Florida and Georgia were both seen as national players. There was only room for so many elite teams in one division. But Tennessee had won 10 or more games in four of the eight seasons in the 2000s to that point and had won fewer than eight just once -- the 2005 season.
Meanwhile, Fulmer was bringing in the much-hyped Clawfense (copyright Dave Clawson) to replace Cutcliffe's system when the latter moved to Duke. Clawson was a two-team FCS coach of the year and a two-time conference champion at Richmond. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, actually. Tennessee began the season with a 27-24 overtime loss at UCLA despite Kevin Craft's valiant attempt to help Fulmer's job security by throwing four interceptions in the first half. Tennessee easily won the next game, 35-3, before losing 30-6 to Florida. All of that could be more or less explained away, though the UCLA began to look worse as the Bruins lost 59-0 to BYU, among other higlights.
Then things got strange. In a game that would have won the worst game of the year hands down had it not been for the 3-2 debacle, Auburn defeated the Vols 14-12 on a botched handoff at Tennessee's goal line. The Vols defeated Northern Illinois by four, lost to Georgia and shellacked Mississippi State despite gaining just 275 yards. It was about at this point that Clawfense became a sarcastic term of derision and Tennessee fans began to wonder what would happen in the last few games of the season.
Tennessee, after all, was 3-4. Three more defeats would mean no bowl game; even a 6-6 season wasn't likely to save Fulmer's job. He needed to win out, or at least win four of the remaining five games, to have a good chance to see 2009 in orange. Getting waxed in consecutive games by Alabama and South Carolina removed any chance of that and gave Steve Spurrier new material.
"The Tennessee band was there last night, weren't they?" Spurrier said Sunday afternoon in his weekly conference call with reporters. "I'm used to hearing 'Rocky Top.' ... Maybe they only play that when they score. Usually when you play Tennessee, you hear that 'Rocky Top' so often it's ringing in your brain."
Fulmer "resigned" the next day. His players rallied to defend his reputation by losing to Wyoming in their next game and ensuring that there would be no bowl for the Vols that year. (Ironically, Tennessee figured out after that defeat that running a service academy offense was their best chance at winning; the Vols defeated Vanderbilt and Kentucky to end the season.)
No one wants or believes that Fulmer will be remembered for the 5-7 season. He won league and national titles and made Tennessee one of the two pre-eminent teams in the SEC during the late 1990s and the early 2000s. But with practically every other team in the East getting better (save Florida), it's possible that the man referred to with a kind of admiring derision as "the Great Pumpkin" never had a chance. Georgia was becoming the best team in the East by 2002; Florida would follow after Urban Meyer took over in Gainesville. South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt were all improving. Something had to give, and in the end it was Tennessee.
No, Fulmer wasn't blameless in the chain of events that preceded his exit, but he did enough to ensure that he will be remembered for more than that. And after a few weeks of listening to his successor, it's likely that many of those who took some schadenfreude at the end of Fulmer's tenure would love to have him back.