Divided loyalties

I've been following University of Tennessee football for 44 years – covering the program for half of those – and I'm not sure I've seen the Volunteer Nation more divided than it is at the present time.

Last year was different. After Phillip Fulmer's Vols went 5-6 in 2005 it seemed that roughly 25 percent of the fan base was pro-Fulmer and roughly 25 percent was anti-Fulmer. The remaining 50 percent – the silent majority, so to speak – seemed to be taking a wait-and-see attitude.

One year later it appears that most of those uncommitted delegates have taken sides. Pointing to a four-game improvement in the win column between 2005 and 2006, many fans have thrown their support behind Fulmer. Discouraged by a lackluster effort in the Outback Bowl, many others are clamoring for a change.

Clearly, the majority is no longer silent. The keep-Fulmer forces are pretty vocal these days ... and so are the dump-Fulmer forces.

I've been through this drill before. In 1976 I was in my third year at The Knoxville Journal and Bill Battle was in his final year at Tennessee. Unable to maintain the momentum built by predecessor Doug Dickey, Battle saw his support gradually erode as his victory totals did.

After records of 7-3-2 in '74 and 7-5 in '75, Tennessee's fan base was strongly divided as the '76 season arrived. Many supporters embraced Battle's clean-cut good looks and his boyish charm. Many others were distressed that the coach had slipped from 11 wins in his debut season to 10 (twice) to 8 to 7 (twice).

One disgruntled fan sent a moving van to Battle's home during the course of UT's 6-5 season in '76. Clearly, the natives were restless ... some of them anyway. By November, even his die-hard supporters seemed resigned to the idea that Battle would be relieved of his duties at season's end ... which he was.

Battle's doom was sealed by the fact Vol fans already had a fair-haired boy in mind to replace him. That was Johnny Majors, a former UT All-American who was well on his way to winning the 1976 national title as head man at Pittsburgh.

Sure enough, UT hired Majors, who came in riding a tidal wave of popularity. Even when his first four Vol teams went 4-7, 5-5-1, 7-5 and 5-6, he retained the support of the vast majority of fans.

Majors showed improvement over the next four years – going 8-4, 6-5-1, 9-3 and 7-4-1 – then zoomed to hero status in 1985 by winning Tennessee's first SEC title in 16 years, trouncing a heavily favored Miami team 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl, finishing with a 9-1-2 record and a No. 4 national ranking.

After going 7-5 in '86 and 10-2-1 in '87, Majors saw his popularity plummet when his '88 team went 5-6. He was at a crossroads ... much as Fulmer is now. When Majors bounced back to go 11-1 in '89, 9-2-2 in '90 and 9-3 in '91, however, many of his critics jumped back on the bandwagon.

That support was about to splinter, however, as Tennessee fans discovered a new fair-haired boy. With Majors recovering from open-heart surgery, interim coach Fulmer guided UT past Southwestern Louisiana, Georgia and Florida to open the 1992 season.

Majors returned in time to lead the Vols past Cincinnati (40-0) and LSU (20-0), giving Tennessee a 5-0 record and a No. 4 national ranking. Then the bottom fell out. When he lost consecutive games to Arkansas (25-24), Alabama (17-10) and South Carolina (24-23), Majors went from the driver's seat to the hot seat in no time flat. The UT fan base was divided but the UT administration was not. After some heated discussions with school officials, Majors announced his resignation before Game 9 at Memphis, effective at season's end.

By then, elevating Fulmer to the top job was a mere formality. After all, he already had proved himself capable of handling the post. A 38-23 trouncing of Boston College in the Hall of Fame Bowl, coupled with his three early-season wins as interim coach, gave him a 4-0 record heading into his first full season at the helm.

Following records of 10-2 and 8-4 in '93 and '94, Fulmer watched his approval rating soar as he went 45-5 with two SEC titles and a national title between 1995 and 1998.

After winning 90 percent of his games from 1995 to '98, however, Fulmer has won just 70 percent from 1999 to present. As a result, the fan base has split. Many boosters remain vocal in their support. Many are vocal in their criticism.

Which group is bigger? That depends on whom you ask.

This much is for sure, though: The silent majority isn't silent anymore.

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