Fulmer & Pruett: A Rare Pair

Saturday's non-conference contest against Marshall matches a pair of coaches whose football careers have followed remarkably similar scripts and parallel paths that are as improbable as they are undeniable.

Most fans are aware that Marshall head coach Bob Pruett and Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer respectively rank No. 1 and No. 2 in winning percentage among active NCAA Division I coaches, and are the only two Division I level coaches with winning percentages over .800 after a minimum of six seasons.

They are each coaching at their alma mater and in their home states. Fulmer is a native of Winchester, Tenn., while Pruett hails from Beckley, W Va., Both played on the offensive line in college. Pruett was a tight end for Marshall from 1962-64, while Fulmer was a guard from at Tennessee from 1969-71.

Neither coach had ever served as a head coach at the collegiate level until they landed the positions at their alma mater. Fulmer was elevated from the offensive coordinator position to interim head coach, to head coach in a span of four months back in 1992. Pruett returned to his alma mater in 1996 from Florida, where he was the Gators defensive coordinator in 1994-95. Pruett became a head coach after 17 years as a Division I assistant coach and Fulmer became a head coach after 17 years as a college assistant, following two seasons at UT as a graduate assistant.

Pruett and Fulmer have each won one national title. Pruett's first Marshall team captured a Division II crown in 1996 with a school record 15-0 mark. Fulmer's 1998 squad won the national title in the first year of the BCS format with a school record 13-0 mark. A year after Tennessee went 13-0, Marshall equaled that mark.

In 2000, Marshall started the season 2-4 before finishing the year 8-5 following six straight wins. That same season Tennessee started off 2-3 before going on a six-game winning streak to finish 8-4. The next season both Marshall and Tennessee went 11-2. Pruett and Fulmer have each had six 10-win seasons as head coaches.

In addition to enjoying phenomenal success in their first head coaching jobs, Fulmer and Pruett have each maintained low profiles and are known as being players' coaches. They also believe in rewarding loyal assistant coaches with promotions and have thus established uncommon stability on their staffs.

Fulmer promoted linebacker coach John Chavis to defensive coordinator and promoted quarterback coach Randy Sanders to offensive coordinator. Pruett did the same thing at Marshall, promoting offensive coordinator Mark McHale from offensive line coach, and elevating Bill Wilt from D-line coach to director of the Thundering Herd defense.

Both Fulmer and Pruett are highly active and effective recruiters. They have each signed two quarterbacks that became first round NFL Draft choices. Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning turned the trick at Tennessee while Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich duplicated that feat at Marshall. Randy Moss is a highly talented and controversial receiver who transferred to Marshall. Kelley Washington is a highly talented and controversial receiver who transferred to Tennessee. Shyrone Carey is a highly talented and academically challenged scatback who signed with Tennessee and enrolled at Marshall before finally transferring to LSU.

Some of the parallels extend to the personal lives of Pruett and Fulmer. For instance: Bob Pruett and wife Elsie have three sons — Rodney, Stephen and Kenneth. Phillip Fulmer and wife Vicky have three daughters — Brittany, Courtney and Allison.

When you look at the big picture it's easy to realize that the separation between Pruett and Fulmer really is only a matter of percentage points.

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