State of the Hogs: UT Ties

Former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer was the speaker at the NWA TD Club. He knows Arkansas fans want to know about the LSU game, but warns State is first.

The ties between Arkansas and Tennessee were much hyped over the last week as the two teams prepared for an SEC football matchup. They are almost too numerous to list in this space.

There's former UA assistants who have gone to Tennessee. Head coaches have made the trip from Arkansas to Knoxville. Frank Broyles once coached at UT. Of course, current UA defensive end coach Steve Caldwell spent the better part of two decades at Tennessee.

There could have been more. After former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer spoke Wednesday at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club, he told a reporter that he was almost the head Razorback 20 seasons ago.

Before Arkansas beat Tennessee in 1992 to star the death march for UT coach Johnny Majors, Fulmer was going to pick from either the head job at Arkansas or South Carolina.

"I'd been talking with Frank Broyles by phone," Fulmer said. "I think I could have had the Arkansas job."

Then, things opened up at Tennessee and Fulmer was elevated to head coach. He coached there 17 seasons, winning the 1998 national title and two SEC crowns.

Fulmer got a standing ovation at the start and end of his talk at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club, a group tradition for guest speakers. He noticed.

"That's the first time I've been cheered in Arkansas," Fulmer said. "I congratulate your group for this organization. This is good for the area and for the University of Arkansas. It is important for the community to do something like this touchdown club."

He also joked that it was probably a good week for an ex-UT coach to visit since the Hogs put it on the Vols 49-7 last week.

Fulmer made the trip Tuesday night, spending the night on the UA campus at the Inn at Carnal Hall. He took a campus walk Wednesday morning.

"It is beautiful," he said. "But I kept worrying that I was going to see Felix Jones or Darren McFadden run by."

Fulmer said it was his first time on the campus since those two Razorback backs hammered his Vols 31-14 in the 2006 season.

Tennessee ousted Fulmer after a 5-7 season in 2008. He is not looking for a coaching job, but wouldn't rule out a return to the game.

"I miss it every day," Fulmer said. "I've had some calls. I'd coach again if it was just the right situation, I might. I've interviewed with several."

Would Penn State or Ole Miss be right? Probably not for Fulmer.

"Those are both good places," he said. "They both have great histories and there would be a lot of things about those places that would be great. But what I'm saying right now is that it might be difficult for me to get back into coaching. There is life after coaching and I'm enjoying it."

Fulmer recognized former UA coach Ken Hatfield in the audience.

"Coach Hatfield was great for our profession," he said. "He accomplished a lot and did it the right way."

Hatfield was Fulmer's freshman coach at Tennessee. He learned the Arkansas way from Hatfield. He heard a lot about legendary Arkansas assistant Wilson Matthews.

"Some of the things that Coach Hatfield taught me were things I incorporated into my way of coaching," Fulmer said. "The commitment he gave to coaching and his style were things that I copied."

Fulmer beat the crowd to the most popular question in Arkansas. Can the Hogs beat LSU.

"Your butts better be worrying about Mississippi State first," Fulmer said. "That's the biggest challenge right now. I'm sure Bobby Petrino knows that State is a dangerous team."

Back to the question, Fulmer said Arkansas would have a shot at LSU. He's got close friends in the coaching business at both places. Fulmer talks regularly to LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis and Caldwell.

"They are family," Fulmer said. "I know a lot about both teams because of them."

Fulmer has talked to Caldwell about the way Petrino does business.

"Steve tells me about the structure of their practices," Fulmer said. "The environment they have here in all that they do is a lot like how we did things at Tennessee. I'm very impressed with what they've done here. I see the games. I see the adjustments they make from a coaching standpoint in games. To me, that's very good coaching when they can change things during a game.

"I see improvement. I see them run the ball better as the season goes along. I see the way they become more physical and how fast they play. Steve Caldwell tells me what they are doing and it is the right way. He compares it to what we were doing at Tennessee when we had it going.

"The key is to focus on the task at hand and be at your best each week."

Quarterback is a key ingredient in November stretch runs. With Tyler Wilson, Fulmer thinks Arkansas is in good shape.

"I liked him when he came in for (Ryan Mallett) last year," Fulmer said. "Obviously, he has ability to lead. He can pull a team together. I see him do that this year, too.

"Wilson — and this is probably not fair — reminds me of the quarterback at Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers. He can make all of the throws, from all angles and on the move. He has ability to scramble around and get to a point to deliver the ball and then he has the arm strength to do that on the move. It's not easy."

Again, back to the question, why do the Hogs have a shot at LSU?

"It's that offense and the special teams," Fulmer said. "And I don't like what they are doing at quarterback at LSU. That leaves some doubt and gives Arkansas a chance. LSU's defense is better. But Arkansas has a chance, but they have to take care of Mississippi State first."

Fulmer delighted in telling one old Arkansas story. He was an offensive lineman under Ray Trail at Tennessee. Trail played at Arkansas under Frank Broyles.

"They used the messenger system with their guards under Coach Broyles," Fulmer said. "So we did that at Tennessee. Coach Trail told us that when he did that, he'd duck into the huddle with the play and teammates would say, ‘So what's the word from the Red Rooster?' The players called Coach Broyles the Red Rooster."

Just for the record, Fulmer did not address Broyles as the Red Rooster when he phoned to check his interest in the Arkansas job.

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