Head Vol makes tempting target

It's hard to get a grasp on Phillip Fulmer. And we're not just talking about his ever-more prodigious waistline.

Like him or hate him--and undeniably most of the non-orange wearing SEC world falls in the latter category--Fulmer has built a formidable program in Knoxville.

Current Tide Running Backs Coach Sparky Woods is a Tennessee native. His coaching resume' includes time at Memphis, Virginia, Mississippi State and a four-year stint as head coach at South Carolina. "I think he's done an outstanding job," Woods said of Fulmer. "His record indicates the job they've done. It's hard to be happy for him, because we're rivals. We want to beat them. But they've done an outstanding job."

Now in his 12th season leading his alma mater, Fulmer's career mark stands at 107-27. That .798 winning percentage ranks second nationally among active head coaches.

Current Tide Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines coached against Fulmer's Volunteers at both Georgia and Arkansas, where Kines served one year as the Interim Head Coach. Kines was also linebackers coach for Florida State when the Seminoles and Tennessee met in the 1998 title game.

Pictured on the coaching sidelines this season, it's easy to see the inspiration for one of Fulmer's more tame nicknames: "The Great Pumpkin." (Getty Images)

"He's a solid coach; a strong fundamental guy," Kines said of Fulmer. "He was an offensive lineman, so that part of his game is always strong. Coach Fulmer is an excellent football coach. He's been in the SEC for a long time. I've got all the respect in the world for him."

Fulmer's path to power at Tennessee was hardly bloodless. Former UT coach Johnny Majors is still smarting from the knife in the back he believes was placed there by his former assistant. And whenever given the opportunity, Majors still makes a point to sling insults Fulmer's way.

But taking over an obviously talented Volunteer team (recruited by Majors) when his former boss was pushed out, Fulmer took full advantage of his opportunity. He reached 50 and 75 victories quicker than any other coach in SEC history. His 107 current victories make him the 13th-winningest coach in league history.

"The problems you face in early years they got ironed out," Woods observed. "Now they polish, tweak and get better."

Fulmer makes an effort to maintain stability on his staff, hiring and keeping assistants--often longer than critics would prefer.

"He's kept the staff together, and that's been positive," Woods said. "There is certainly a lot of continuity there, and it shows. It doesn't guarantee you're going to win, but I think there is value in continuity, everybody understanding the plan, everybody pulling the same way."

There have been some changes along the way, but overall Fulmer isn't known to fire assistants at the drop of a hat (or even bowl game). "His staff has worked hard," Woods said. "They coach them well. They're always physical. They have a good kicking game."

A definite believer that talent will win out in the long term, Fulmer has stressed recruiting throughout his tenure at Tennessee. And he isn't afraid to use hardball tactics on the recruiting trail. Whether or not those tactics have always been within NCAA rules (much less ethics) remains to be seen, as once again charges and allegations are being aimed squarely at his biggie-sized back.

But there is no denying that under Fulmer UT has sometimes functioned as a veritable minor league team for the NFL. "They've recruited good athletes," Woods said. "And they've got good players again. They'll be back in a bowl game again this year. He's a consistent winner. You have to credit him for that."

"He's built a good base there," Kines added. "He's built his program on sound fundamentals, good people, good recruiting and hard-nosed football."

Described as a "competent blocker" during his playing days at Tennessee by the UT media guide, whether as a player or assistant or head coach, Fulmer has been associated with the Vols for more than 25 years. Despite his winning ways, Fulmer has accumulated more than his share of critics--even among the Tennessee faithful.

One thing rival fans should like about Phillip Fulmer, he makes a tempting target for their insults. (Getty Images)

They question his image (and his personality), his propensity to recruit athletes of less-than-stellar character, his clear priority of winning over academics, his willingness (even preference) to walk on the outside edge of NCAA rules... And yes, they even question his personal appearance.

But so far at least, it's hard to question his on-the-field results. "Tennessee has got great tradition, too, which is what makes this game (against Alabama) so great," Woods said. "I think he's done an outstanding job. He's a good football coach."

With the recent announcement from Starkville that Jackie Sherrill will retire following the 2003 season, Fulmer is set to assume the title of "Dean of SEC Coaches."

"When I was at South Carolina, they let Ray Goff (at Georgia) go about a month before me. So I was the dean at that time for a couple of weeks," Woods recalled with a laugh. "There's no trophy for that. It's probably a bad thing to say about you.

"But longevity is tough to come by in the SEC. Phillip's done a good job."

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