Phil's darkest hour revisited

Just as each coaching career features a signature win, each coaching career features a signature loss -- a setback so discouraging that the afflicted party wears it like a facial wart for the rest of his life.

For Bowden Wyatt, it was a 14-6 loss to Chattanooga in 1958. For Doug Dickey, it was a 38-0 loss to Ole Miss in 1969. For Bill Battle, it was a 21-14 loss to North Texas State in 1975. For Johnny Majors, it was a 13-7 loss to Rutgers in 1979. For Phillip Fulmer, it was a 21-17 loss to Memphis in 1996.

Fulmer was in his fourth year at the Tennessee helm and still enormously popular when he showed up at Liberty Bowl Stadium on the evening of Nov. 9, 1996. He had a career record of 39-8. He had won 22 of his previous 24 games. He had a team, led by Peyton Manning, that was 6-1 and ranked No. 6 in America. He had the world on a string.

That string was about to break, however.

Memphis, 0-15 in the all-time series with Tennessee, throttled the Vols' running game and bothered Manning enough to post a four-point victory that will never be forgotten by fans on either side of the rivalry. Later, asked what he learned from that game, Fulmer flashed a pained grin and deadpanned, "Don't lose to people you're supposed to beat."

This weekend the Vols' head man returns to the site of his darkest hour, Liberty Bowl Stadium, to face the team that shattered his air of invincibility, the Memphis Tigers. You wonder: Have his memories of that fateful evening 10 years ago faded?

"No," he said this week. "It was a tough loss and obviously one of the big moments in their football hsitory. That's not one of your most pleasant memories, certainly."

Asked what he remembers about that evening, Fulmer replied: "I can probably give you most of the plays in the game."

After a long pause, the Vol coach added: "They played well and we didn't play well. How's that?"

For what it's worth, Fulmer has beaten Memphis four times in a row since then, although only one win (49-28 in 2001) was decisive. The others were nail-biters -- 17-16 at Knoxville in 1999, 19-17 at Memphis in 2000 and 20-16 at Knoxville in 2005.

Tennessee and Memphis historically meet in November, when attrition is a problem for the depth-shy Tigers. This year's meeting is in September, which should be an advantage for Memphis.

"I'll tell you after the game," Fulmer quipped. "Memphis is a good team, an-state rival, always tough. Right now I'm really trying to make sure our team is focused on being the best it can be."

The Vols took a step in that direction with last weekend's 33-7 Homecoming defeat of Marshall. Fulmer hopes the progress continues this weekend.

"I think we're still working at overcoming some of our youth in spots," he said. "I think our older guys have stepped up and played pretty well. Following the lead of those guys is going to be really important to us.

"How well we can consistently play - not give up the plays that beat you on offense and defense - is going to be critical for us."

The Vols gave up those kinds of plays in 1996, and the result was the darkest hour of Phillip Fulmer's coaching career.

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