The significance of that statement is found in a simple truth: all of Fulmer's predecessors have been judged by the success of Robert R. Neyland. Before Neyland UT football existed in name only. As the nation's No. 2 ranked active coach in winning percentage, Fulmer has surpassed every head coach in Tennessee's history for consistency and productivity and he's in position to challenge the General for longevity.
However, it's unlikely he'd ever exceed Neyland for popularity. Neyland put Tennessee football on the map and made all subsequent success possible. His presence was that of a genuine commander, and the mere fact he was an Army General whose coaching career was blown off course three times by the winds of war makes him unique in the game that is often compared to war and filled with its lexicon i.e., the trenches, blitzes, bombs, air and ground attacks.
Admittedly, there could have been far more complaints about Neyland than we could imagine, but there weren't as many ways of expressing them as in today's multiple media world instantaneously connected by the information highway. However, it's seems more likely Volunteer fans appreciated the stark difference in Tennessee football pre and post Neyland to come down too often on the head coach. Later in his career there were plenty of critics but not 11 years into the job as Fulmer is now.
Allowing for that set of dynamics, it's still surprising to read a column in a Denver Post sports column written by John Henderson in which Fulmer is No. 1 on the list of "Coaches on the 2004 Hot Seat." Henderson's synopsis states: "No. 1 Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee. Why on the hot seat for a 10-2 record? Check out the bowl. Vol fans won't brag about two consecutive Peach Bowls — particularly if it's two big Peach Bowl losses. And no Bowl Championship Series bowl since 1999."
It's difficult to tell if Henderson was taking a shot at Tennessee's head coach or it's rabid fans, but it can't be tongue and cheek given that the rest of the list includes: No. 2 Karl Dorrell of UCLA, No. 3 Mack Brown of Texas, No. 4 Bobby Petrino of Louisville and No. 5 the next Nebraska head coach. (Citing Husker AD Steve Pederson's edict that Nebraska should contend for the national title every year.)
In the total scheme of things the inclusion in this column means very little. Most Tennessee fans realize that being No. 6 in the nation and No. 5 in the SEC post season pecking order says a lot more about what's wrong with the bowl system than it does Fulmer's job performance. In fact, UT's staff did more this year than most would have ever suspected. Certainly more than preseason prognosticators ever predicted. But it does say a lot about national perception.
Knoxville News Sentinel sports writer Mike Griffin made that point on a recent radio appearance in which he opined that the problem with playing in the Peach Bowl, even in an era governed by the chaotic BCS alignment and rotating pecking order, was "perception.
I differed with Griffin at the time because I really believed the vast majority of the sports populous realized there was no rhyme or reason to this totally antiquated and inadequate means Division I football uses to determine a national champion. Heck, the whole thing started as a way for resort communities to attract tourists during the offseason. How otherwise would any sport end it's season in early December and come back in early January to play a title game? It would be like getting to the Final Four in NCAA basketball and waiting five weeks to play for the crown.
Now I must concede that there are still many sections of college football that is living in a state of denial, still believing the bowls represent tradition and that college football owes a debt to the process. Instead the bowls are driven almost exclusively by the bottom line — MONEY. Bowls come and go and so do their names, another sell out to commercialism.
Apparently there is a perception UT fans won't travel to bowls based strictly on the Vols track record since the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. Never mind there were extenuating circumstances like a return to the Fiesta Bowl which had rotated from No. 1 to No. 4 in the BCS selection order. Obviously it was a long trip to the same location that some 65,000 Vol fans had been the year before, Not to mention it meant nothing in comparison.
The 2001 Cotton Bowl was another step down and so was 8-3 Tennessee which had entered the final weeks of the two previous seasons in the BCS top two. Tennessee fans didn't turn out for the 2002 Citrus Bowl because most had reservations for the 2002 Rose Bowl where the Vols expected to play in their second BCS title tilt in four years before an upset in the SEC Championship game knocked them out of chase.
Tennessee sold more than its share of tickets for last year's Peach Bowl despite a disappointing and injury plagued 8-4 regular season campaign. UT again sold its entire Peach Bowl allotment this year despite disgust over the Vols post season designation and duplication. If Big Orange fans would go back to the Peach Bowl, I believe they would have traveled to any bowl this season. The Vols continue to draw huge at home and on the road even in the face of NFL competition for fan dollars, but bowl organizers are too shortsighted to see the 2000, 2001, 2002 low turnout was a mere aberration as opposed to an indication of Tennessee fan support.
The irony is that while bowl organizers' shortsightedness has cost UT some money and prestige this post season, it will ultimately lead to their own demise. Anybody can see this is a system that doesn't work and that bowl games have outlived their usefulness when it comes to determining a national champion.
Fulmer, who is the presiding president of the College Football Coaches Association, recently called for a playoff, essentially putting the bowl system on the hot seat. It's just a matter of time before the bowls will either be incorporated into a playoff format or face the electric chair.