Fulmer: Title key to 'elite' status

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer won a lot of games before capturing the national championship in 1998.

Texas coach Mack Brown won even more games before hoisting the No. 1 trophy in 2005.

Brown was criticized by many for years because he couldn't win the so-called big one. He couldn't beat Oklahoma. He failed to win the Big 12 Conference Championship game. But now, his career has been validated with a huge victory over Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl.

Is too much emphasis placed on winning a national championship?

``It sure may be, but that's the way it is,'' Fulmer said. ``You can choose to accept it and understand it, or you can fight it. And I learned a long time ago, there's no reason to fight it with all the dollars that are out there -- the exposure, the scrutiny that you're under. Not just coaches, but the kids, the programs, the athletic directors, the presidents -- everything that goes with it.

``If you run a clean program, if you feel like your kids are coming in and they're being educated, and they're better men when they leave the program than when they come in -- which I think we've done a great job with that -- and you win a lot of football games, that's going to keep you around.

``But to be recognized as one of the greats of the game, you almost have to put yourself in that national championship picture and win it. And that's what we're trying to do here. We've been close a couple of other times, and we look forward, hopefully, to being back in one of those games soon.''

Tennessee was never farther away under Fulmer than last year. The Vols suffered through a miserable 5-6 season.

Fulmer will tell you that the Vols were 17 points from winning nine games.

But in 2004, the year the Vols won the East Division and played for the SEC Championship, they were 20 points from winning just five games.

So, you can run those numbers both ways.

Truth is, Fulmer has been used to capturing close games. Winning in that fashion is considered the mark of a well-coached team. In Fulmer's case, many have said the close games shouldn't have been close, such was the Tennessee edge in talent. So, Fulmer's detractors don't give him credit for pulling games out of the fire.

Instead, some say fire him. Fire him because he hasn't won a national title since 1998. Fire him because he hasn't won an SEC Championship since 1998.

Fulmer has come close to winning two more SEC titles. The Vols blew a game to underdog LSU in 2001, a loss that cost Tennessee a chance to play Miami for the national title in the Rose Bowl.

That, to me, is the biggest loss in the Fulmer Era. If UT beats LSU and heads to Pasadena, that buys him more time with some of the disgruntled fans, even if Miami wins the game. It would have given Fulmer a third SEC title. It would have given Fulmer an SEC title in the 2000s.

It was thought when Steve Spurrier resigned at Florida, Tennessee would not just dominate the East, it would dominate the SEC.

Instead, Georgia has been the dominant East team. Georgia has won the East Division three times since Spurrier left Florida. Mark Richt has won two SEC titles. His Bulldogs have been in the top 10 five consecutive seasons.

Since 2001, UT has one East title, no SEC title and one finish in the top 10.

That's put Fulmer on the hot seat, in the minds of some UT fans. It has caused them to question whether Fulmer has lost his touch, lost his passion, lost his desire.

Fulmer's staff underwent a major shakeup after the season. Two assistants were fired, a third resigned. Every offensive position is now being coached by different person.

Often times, change is good. Often time, change takes time to succeed.

Auburn went from 8-5 to 13-0 and SEC championships under first-year offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Tennessee is hoping to experience a spike in success, although going 13-0 is unrealistic. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe needs to produce an average of 10 more points per game, hiking the average from 18 to 28 points.

If Tennessee does that, the Vols could double their win total from 2005.

And then you won't hear Fulmer say his team is 17 points from a 10-win season.


Don't look for a major shuffling in personnel as the Vols begin spring practice March 2.

Cutcliffe said the tight ends and fullbacks will be interchangeable with the H-Back. He also said the Vols will move some of the offensive linemen around, trying to find the best five and the best combination.

Defensive coordinator John Chavis said Turk McBride will start out at defensive tackle. McBride would have been at end if tackle Tony McDaniel had not made himself eligible for the NFL.

Jared Hosteter will likely play defensive end, Chavis said.

Chavis is hoping Demonte Bolden and walk-on Matt McGlothlin make enough strides to provide depth at tackle. McGlothlin is UT's third defensive tackle at this point, Chavis said.

Chavis said Jonathan Hefney and Antwan Stewart are flexible enough to play corner and safety. The goal, as usual, is to get the best four defensive backs on the field.

Raymond Henderson and Walter Fisher will be at defensive end. Vladimir Richard will be at tackle.

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