Where Is The Love For UT's Phillip Fulmer?

Phillip Marshall looks at the career of Tennessee's coach, Phillip Fulmer, and takes at look at the Vols' visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Phillip Fulmer has won more than 80 percent of his games in 12 years as Tennessee head coach and has lost just 25 times. He's won a national championship and two Southeastern Conference championships. Had he not come along at the same time Steve Spurrier was at Florida, there's no telling how many championships Fulmer would have won.

Yet, in any poll of fans or even reporters rating the coaches in the SEC, Fulmer would probably fare no better than third behind LSU's Nick Saban and Georgia's Mark Richt. Lately, he might even be behind Arkansas' Houston Nutt.\

Saban has gone 8-4, 10-3 and 8-5 as LSU's head coach. He backed into an SEC championship in 2001, but even in that season he had ugly losses to UAB and Ole Miss at home. He's had nine losses by double-digit scores in the previous three seasons. He lost to Alabama and Auburn by a combined 62-7 last season.

Richt won the SEC championship last season, but is in his third season and has yet to build his own program. He had an ordinary season in 2001 and a magical season in 2002 when every bounce went his way.

In Nutt's five seasons at Arkansas, he has just four fewer losses than Fulmer has in 12 seasons at Tennessee. He has lost fewer than four games in a season once, and that was with the team he inherited from Danny Ford in his first season. Even that team went into a swoon at the end, losing three of its last four in the regular season after a 7-0 start.

Coach Phillip Fulmer

So what is it about Fulmer that people don't like? Maybe it's that he is, shall we say, heavy set. I think I'm on to something here. Maybe that's why I haven't won a Pulitzer Prize. Nah, that's probably not it.

Maybe it's because Fulmer had such a hard time beating Spurrier. If beating Spurrier consistently is a prerequisite to being an outstanding coach, there aren't many outstanding coaches. May it's that some people just don't like him. I can't figure it out. But like him or not, believe he's a great coach or not, Fulmer has done great things at Tennessee.

It's easy to look at the impressive sight that is Neyland Stadium and believe Tennessee has major advantages. The truth is that Tennessee is a huge TV draw and a recruiting power mostly because of what Fulmer has done. From the time Robert Neyland left in 1960 until Fulmer took over, Tennessee football was up and down and seldom dominant for long periods of time.

Fulmer and his Vols come to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night. Once again, they are winning, but this time they aren't looking impressive in doing it. Tennessee is 4-0 overall, 2-0 in the SEC and ranked No. 7 in the country. Yet, Auburn is a slight favorite and is the popular pick among national prognosticators. It's difficult to overstate must how important this game is for Auburn. It is a chance for the Tigers to wash away at least some of the embarrassment from losing to Southern California and Georgia Tech after starting the season No. 6 in the nation. It is a chance to take a significant step toward contending for the SEC West Division championship.

For Tennessee, it is not so crucial. Regardless of what Tennessee does against Auburn, the Vols' game against Georgia next Saturday at Neyland Stadium will identify the front-runner in the East.

Fulmer did not do his best coaching job last season when the Vols went 8-5. He allowed loudmouth wide receiver Kelley Washington to divide his football team. He vowed things would be different this season and things have been different. Fulmer has had more dominant teams at Tennessee, but this just might be one of those teams that finds a way to get it done (see Ohio State). It has been so far.

Auburn is faced with what could be a season-turning game. With trips to Arkansas and LSU dead ahead and two losses already, this season would be on the verge of unraveling with a loss to Tennessee on Saturday night. Most things seem to be in Auburn's favor. The atmosphere at Jordan-Hare Stadium will be electric. The Tigers have built some momentum by blowing out Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky.

Fulmer will have his team primed and ready to play. He has a quarterback in Casey Clausen who has never lost an SEC game on the road. It should be fun to watch.

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