Athens is special to Fulmer

When Phillip Fulmer took Tennessee's 1992 football team to Athens to face Georgia, he was an interim head coach looking to prove himself. When he takes Tennessee's 2006 football team to Athens this Saturday, it will be as an established head coach looking to prove himself again.

John Majors underwent bypass surgery a week before the 1992 season opener, so Fulmer was elevated from offensive coordinator to acting head coach. He guided the Vols to a 38-3 drubbing of Southwest Louisiana in Game 1, then faced his first road game – and his first real test – against the 14th-ranked Bulldogs in Game 2.

The Vols trailed 31-27 with six minutes left but sophomore quarterback Heath Shuler led an 80-yard drive – hitting Ronald Davis with a 22-yard pass on fourth-and-14 – as Tennessee posted a dramatic 34-31 upset. That win kick-started Phillip Fulmer's career, and he'll never forget that fateful day at Sanford Stadium.

"I think we had five takeaways," he recalls. "Georgia was a really good team but Heath had one of those career days (152 passing yards and one TD, 81 rushing yards and 2 TDs). There was a fourth-and-14 where we hit the crossing route and went on to score the winning touchdown. It was a monumental day for our football team."

It was a monumental day for Fulmer, as well. He beat Florida 31-14 a week later, succeeded Majors at season's end and has posted a 132-38 record to date.

"I was just trying to do everything I could to help the team be successful," he recalls. "I think everybody rallied around the whole (interim coach) scenario. We had three or four nice wins that year, and that Georgia win kind of got it started."

Interestingly enough, Athens has been the site of several signature wins for Fulmer. After losing senior quarterback Jerry Colquitt to a Game 1 knee injury, Fulmer beat Georgia 41-23 in 1994 with baseball star Todd Helton under center. In 1996 Fulmer won 29-17 at Athens en route to a 10-win season. In 1998 he beat seventh-ranked Georgia 22-3 "Between the Hedges" en route to the national title. Fulmer's 2004 team, led by freshman QB Erik Ainge, won 19-14 in Athens on its way to the SEC East championship.

All told, Fulmer has a 5-2 record in games played at Sanford Stadium. His teams seem to step it up a notch when they enter the Athens city limits.

"Every year the games stand on their own," he says. "We've taken some good teams down there and done well at times."

Tennessee has not done well against Georgia at any venue lately, however. Fulmer is 1-5 in his last six meetings with the Bulldogs, who have emerged as the SEC's dominant program. Thus, he will be looking to prove himself again when his 13th-ranked Vols visit the 10th-ranked Bulldogs Saturday night (7:45 kickoff on ESPN).

"This should be a heck of a football game," he says.

Although Tennessee won 41-7 last weekend in Memphis, the upcoming trip to Athens represents the first real road test for the 2006 Vols.

"It was good to go on the road, even though it was a very friendly environment," Fulmer concedes. "It'll be much different this week in Athens."

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