Closing The Door On The Vols

Defining a rivalry game in the crazy zany world of NCAA Div I college football, particularly in the SEC, is usually a cut and dry proposition. Your basic ingredients are longevity of the series, a balance of wins and losses between both programs, and a reasonably close geographical proximity - magnified for those programs within the same borders. And then there are the unseen ingredients that when blended with emotions and polarized perceptions can make even the most lopsided ...

... of series a rivalry of ominous potential.

Take the Tennessee Volunteers verses South Carolina Gamecocks game this Saturday for example. SC has not beaten UT since the 1992 season ... "The Stop" by walk-on linebacker Hank Campbell of Little Man Stewart on the Vol's two point conversion try. Gamecock fans are still talking about it. Vol fans forgot about it long ago. And rightfully so. The only noteworthy side bar to the game was that it caused such an uproar among the UT faithful, that favorite son Johnny Majors was immediately ousted and replaced by his ambitious assistant Phil Fulmer. A move deemed opportunistic by many at the very least. And the rest is history.

Fulmer has since dominated not only USC, but the great majority of the remainder of the SEC (excluding Florida) and all of his non conference opponents along the way. And he has done so with average coaching, phenomenal fan support, perhaps a helping hand from the SEC home office at times (or so many claim), and without a doubt through superior recruiting.

A helping hand from the SEC home office you say? Yes - at least that is the perception among many SEC fans. First of all no one in the country has had a more favorable schedule over the years. A schedule, that while consistently the most difficult non-conference slate in the conference, also included yearly off-weeks inserted liberally throughout on key dates. Tennessee has had more strategically placed off dates scheduled early in the season during Fulmer's tenure, than any other program in the SEC bar none. UT's ability to manipulate the schedule makers in Birmingham into giving them off weeks usually before and/or after their Florida game, and either before or after their Alabama game, is legendary. Nine of eleven times since SEC expansion, the Vols have had two off weeks coming into the SC game before the Gamecocks were allowed their first. Twice the Vols have had the week off immediately prior to their game verses the Gamecocks. Not good for the Cocks.

More helping hands? It is interesting following the continuing saga of Tee Martin and that "non-UT booster lady" and her friend the ex-newspaper reporter. On the same note it is said that the parking lot of the UT athletic dorm resembles an upscale SUV sales lot during a Labor Day no intrest sale. You might find any sort of Escalade or Tahoe or Expedition? Hmmm. Yet nothing has come of it so far? Nothing. Because as UT admin states, they checked and double-check and cleared everything with Krammer. Right?

And then when you talk "helping hands" you have to talk officiating. Bama fans could help us with this one but keeping it close to home ... real or not Gamecock fans will tell you there should have been at least two more wins against the Vols, one notched in Columbia in '96 and the other in Knoxville last season.

The 1996 game was one of the worst called games ever witnessed in the Cock Pit. The sack and subsequent fumble by Manning that was overruled and called an incomplete pass stands out. The fumble had been returned for a touchdown by the Gamecocks and would have given them a two touchdown lead midway through the third quarter. The refs took the game out of the Gamecocks' hands at that point by calling four defensive holding penalties against the USC secondary (two consecutive) and then three related personal fouls (among other minor penalties) when the Gamecock players became so enraged at the obviously poor officiating that they begin to yell and scream at the officials. The Gamecock secondary was forced to back off of their coverage and Manning and his receivers capitalized for the cake walk in the fourth quarter.

It was a questionable day of officiating in the hearts and minds of Gamecock fans. But later, it was fancied that perhaps a mysterious mandate had been handed down to the officials that Tennessee was not to be allowed to lose that game? It was so obvious. A second BCS berth was on the line for the conference and a loss to SC would have knocked the Vols down to the Citrus. It ended up happening anyway of course because the next week in Memphis, without the protection of the SEC officials, Manning and Fulmer went down hard at the hands of the struggling MSU Tigers. (Note: Tennessee fans have always conjured the best conspiracy theories, so they should understand this premise well.)

In a strange twist that same season, the Gamecocks' hopes for a bowl were trounced by the Vols' loss in Memphis. A Duce Staley led, bowl eligible Gamecocks football team would be forced to sit at home after being bumped from the SEC's post season list thanks to the Vols loss to Memphis State.

Conjecture or fact?

USC has had some noteworthy and significant impact on UT's hopes and dreams of grandeur in recent seasons. Many Vol fans, and certainly Phil Fulmer, blame the Gamecocks for Peyton Manning not winning the Heisman. SC held Manning to his career low passing day (187 yards)in Knoxville during Manning's senior season. Fulmer was livid after the game and claimed the Gamecocks had "played the game not to lose rather than to win," thus costing Manning his Heisman necessary numbers. Fulmer was saying the Gamecocks were playing like losers and he was screaming it on the airwaves! Manning agreed, although his tone was one more of frustration and realization of what that day meant. And that same day Charles Woodson had a huge game on both sides of the ball ... and the Heisman race was basically over. Tennessee was once again the Bride's Maid in the Heisman race - thanks to the Gamecocks.

But I digress. Back to two years ago in Columbia. Ohhh that game was SO close. Tennessee won, taking a long drive in for the winning score with seven seconds remaining on the ticker. But they were successful in that long scoring drive thanks to the loss of USC's star defensive tackle Cleveland Pinckney. Remember? There was the insidiously dangerous cheap-shot taken by UT offensive lineman Will Ofenheusle in that same game, on Pinckney's legs ... from behind. Blatant? No, far worse. For those that have seen the film it was outrageous. Criminal to some. Ofenheusle came in low from behind as Pinckney was removing his helmet. Fulmer defended Ofenheusle vehemently in the post game aftermath and the following week in front of the press. The refs missed the call because it was long after the whistle and to their backs, and far off the field of play as Pinckney was walking to the sidelines. Holtz was infuriated - as angry as we have ever seen him. Georgia coaches, who had witnessed a similar attack in their game from Ofenheusle, caught wind of what had happened and joined in the call for action against the UT offensive lineman. A warning was issued from Bobby Gaston's office (it is said Gaston made the call personally) after watching the tape. But Fulmer was clearly much more offended that one of his players had been reprimanded than he was worried about the seriousness of the injury to Big Sexy. That led some to speculate that Fulmer may have declared Pinckney a bounty hit and was therefore forced to protect his hit-man player in the court of public opinion. Pinckney meanwhile, had to be held out of the Florida game two weeks later and was still hobbled when the Clemson game finally rolled around thanks to Ofenheusle's bad deed against good sportsmanship.

Ofenheusle is a senior starter on the Tennessee offensive line coming into The Cock Pit this Saturday.

And last season in Knoxville - Gamecock fans need not be reminded of the calls. Holtz will tell you it was his offense's failure to convert on a 3rd and 2, or his defense failure to stop the 3rd and 21 by Clausen and Washington. But Gamecock fans will tell you the pass interference calls on the SC secondary, or the out-of-bounds call on the Matthew Thomas catch, that had a more lasting and permanent impact on the game. And a taped replay of the game would lend itself in support of the Gamecock fans' claims.

From such are mini rivalries born.

But it is the recruiting aspects of Fulmer's tenure which, combined with the above, turns all of these ingredients into a boiling cauldron of rivalry brew. Phil Fulmer has seemed to take great delight in rubbing into the wounds of Gamecock fans and coaches alike, his past ability to pull talent out of SC's own backyard.

That close game won in the final seconds in The Cock Pit two years ago? Immediately following the contest Fulmer allowed the nefarious Albert Haynesworth (a South Carolina native) to aggressively parade and thrust the UT flag around the outer rim of the field and into the faces of the shocked Gamecock faithful sitting in the lower seats of their own home venue. Classless.

And last year in Knoxville? Another heartstoppingly close win for the Vols and yet another display of classlessness perpetrated in plain view of Fulmer. This time Haynesworth was joined by another South Carolina native, Dominique Stevenson, in taunting the post game Gamecock traveling faithful in the lower level seats of Neyland. Again waving the UT flag in the road crowd's faces ... but adding a new insult. Both Haynesworth and Stevenson grabbed their groin areas while thrusting their hips forward at the once again shocked USC following.

And all the while Fulmer looked on and appeared to be laughing.

From such are major rivalries born. Ugly nasty rivalries. Bitter feuds. Ill will and bad feelings on both sides.

This season it is the Gamecocks who have had the week off to heal before this game. And as far as South Carolina born and bred natives on the UT roster goes ... they are now almost nonexistent. Only freshmen O-linemen Richie Gandy and Heath Benedict, and long ago SC traitor OL Terriea Smalls, are South Carolinians. None of any consequence.

Except ... remember how Smalls claimed he was fired from his job in South Carolina for signing with the Vols and what a rise that got out of the Tennessee fans? How miraculously the story was leaked to the Knoxville Press two nights before signing day? How an unsigned prospect, Smalls, ended up being interview on Brent Hubb's local radio show telling his now infamous story? A story which has since been proven to be completely inaccurate. False. A lie according to sources close to the situation including Small's former employer.

Everyone knows that Fulmer is the master negative-recruiter when facing opponent coaches of equal stature ... don't they?

Which brings me to my point.

Since Fulmer's power-move and hostile takeover at UT in 1992, the Vols have lived and died to a great extent with talent from the Palmetto State. Darwin Walker, Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, Terriea Smalls and Dominque Stevenson to name a few. All but two contributed in major ways to the Vols' mythical National Championship season. Clearly UT needs South Carolina talent in order to maintain their yearly lofty goals.

And then came Lou.

As unfortunate as it is in its final outcome, the signing of Derek Watson was a major thorn in the sides of most UT fans. And no opponents' fans have been as vocal and outspoken, not even close, as the Volunteer fans were of DW's irresponsible escapades. You see, the rule is that if you snub the Vols on signing day, you pay big time on the message boards thereafter. After all, in the minds of many UT fans there is absolutely no reasonable explanation for any big time athlete to ever attend another school other than UT Knoxville. And UT fans are the world's best at sweeping around other conference sister programs' backdoors before they are willing to clean their own.

Speaking of Derek Watson. There is speculation afloat, and has been among insiders for sometime, that UT "people" were the real rumormongers/culprits behind the recently trumped up charges that led to the NCAA investigation, an investigation that has now been closed. As the story goes, they (UT people) were close to the Watson recruitment and fed gullible Clemson fans half-truth information. Clemson afterall, was never in play for Watson and never considered a threat by either Tennessee or South Carolina during that time frame. But make no mistake about it - most of what we heard during the fruitless investigation, were echos of what many UT fans had screamed since the day Watson snubbed them. That distraction earlier this season, just prior to the Virginia game? Most probably started by Tennessee fans out of some twisted need for vengeance. Ask around. They are always after one of their sister programs in the SEC.

At any rate, Watson and Cleveland Pinckney were the beginning. They helped Holtz slam the door in Fulmer's face in South Carolina. Fulmer has obviously resented it since. No other student athlete of major consequence has, from that point forward, departed the friendly borders of the Palmetto State for the foothills of Tennessee .... and it shows on UT's recent teams does it not?

Imagine for a moment, as ghastly a thought as it may be, a Tennessee team this season with DE George Gause, WR Troy Williamson, OL Travelle Wharton, SS Rodriguez Wilson, SS Jamacia Jackson, DL Langston Moore, TE Hart Turner, OL Cedric Wilson, DE Moe Thompson and DE Jason Capers on their roster? Would that be a bitter pill to swallow or what? All of them South Carolina natives courted and offered by the Tennessee coaching staff. All of them South Carolina natives that decided to stay home and play for Gamecock fans, and Lou Holtz & staff. Five years ago most of these student athletes would have signed with Tennessee.

The door from South Carolina to Tennessee has most definitely been closed.

Now here is why this game being played Saturday in The Cock Pit is suddenly so very important in so many ways. Because in addition to the damage that Lou Holtz has done to Phil Fulmer's recruiting efforts in the state of South Carolina - there is a similar phenomenon happening in all of Fulmer's formerly prime and fertile recruiting grounds in the southeast.

In Virginia, Al Groh and Frank Beamer have combined to all but eliminate Fulmer's domination in their backyard. In Alabama Tommy Tuberville and Dennis Francione have stemmed the tide of Alabama home grown talent that had previously been lured into Fulmer's charge. Memphis is now dangerous ground and considered bad luck for all. In Mississippi, Tennessee still does some damage. But not as much lately thanks to the efforts of former Fulmer assistant David Cutcliff at Ole Miss. In Georgia, Rodney "The Bag Man" Garner and Mark Richt have put the clamps on Fulmer's raids into the Peach State for the most part. Garner, a former UT assistant, was instrumental in bringing the Georgia talent to Tennessee that also helped them to establish their recent dominance. And in Texas, long a hotbed of future Tennessee stars, Mac Brown has put a fence around the Lone Star state and dared Fulmer to even try to turn a Texan into a hillbilly. And the state of Kentucky is now being manned by two worthy Fulmer adversaries in Kentucky's Guy Morriss and Louisville's John L. Smith. Only North Carolina and its weak ACC football base continues to allow Fulmer his yearly romp during recruiting season. But even that is beginning to show signs of drying up as Chuck Amato and John Bunting cultivate relationships and out duel Fulmer's agents in the Tarheel state.

It is becoming more and more difficult for Fulmer to work his charm on unsuspecting prospects, especially those with quality character, in the southeast. Tutorgate. Tee Martin's denial ... then his confession. Linda Bensel-Meyers. 8% Graduation Rates! Kelly Washington.

It is all catching up with Fulmer. It was only a matter of time. A win by the Gamecocks Saturday would speed things along nicely.

How ironic would it be for the Gamecocks to once again be the team to send the Volunteer faithful into full panic mode this weekend? Eleven seasons ago it was the Gamecocks in Columbia that helped to unseat Fulmer's mentor, and allowed Phil his easy access into the lofty position he now holds. That was also the last time the Volunteers lost three in a row in the same season ... with the SC loss being their third straight. Deja Vous all over again?

It couldn't have come at a better time. Lou and crew will welcome scores of blue chip prospects into The Cock Pit this weekend (one or two from the state of Tennessee) to witness the game from the garnet and black's sidelines - a chance to illustrate just how far the South Carolina program has advanced under Holtz's guidance. These sort of planned showcase weekends have proved lucrative for the Gamecocks in recent years and seem to be well planned and chosen for maximum effect. Holtz and company appear to know which big games will be won. Two years ago it was the Georgia and Tennessee games in Williams-Brice that were chosen, and subsequently most productive even considering the last-second loss to the Vols. Last year it was the Alabama game in Williams-Brice. Another signature win - another productive recruiting weekend. This year the plan is to beat Tennessee in front of the blue chippers and reap the recruiting rewards come signing day. Let's hope things go as planned. The stadium will be loud and crazy. And while other Tennessee border-state programs are doing their fair share ... few others have the incentive or motivation that the Gamecocks do ... to finally return the favor to the "wicked Vols and their arrogantly plump, slick-tongued head man in charge."

This game is a chance for redemption in the minds of the senior Gamecocks. A chance to make things right in the world. Not just for Gamecock fans but for other fans from around the league who also despise the Volunteer program with equal conviction and for comparable reasons. It is the CBS Game of the Week. Jill and Verne and others will be there, cameras in tow for a national viewing audience. And Craig Kilborne is showcasing the game and the Gamecocks on his Late Late Show on CBS Wednesday night before the game.

Just 250 miles separate Columbia from Knoxville. Two major highways ... I-40 and I-26, that's all. Roughly four hours of scenic mountain driving time when the leaves are changing color and the temperature is falling. The perfect season for SEC football. Only Lexington, KY, instate rival Vandy, and Athens, Georgia are slightly closer for the Vol fans geographically.

Of all the Gamecocks' SEC East opponents, only Athens, Georgia is closer.

The rivalry will continue to grow. The first game was played between the two programs 100 years ago today (10/29/03) with USC winning in Columbia 24-0. Tennessee fans may not appreciate it as a rivalry, or even admit it just yet ... but they will. They will. After this weekend they will. Or at least Gamecock fans are hoping to give the Vols a reason or two or three to consider this game a yearly rivalry showdown. "The Pumpkin Bowl" between the Black of the Gamecocks and the Orange of UT on Halloween weekend every year. Traditional Spooky Day colors indeed. And a Gamecock victory this weekend might be the final ingredient needed to turn this into something tasty each season.

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