Big finish or big funeral?

Reflecting on the gloom surrounding the forced resignation of head coach Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee safety Eric Berry noted that "Nobody has died but that's what it feels like to me right now."

Given this sense of loss, you wonder if the Vols' three remaining games will be nothing more than a long funeral procession.

"We've all gone through a whole range of emotions," defensive coordinator John Chavis said today. "To be honest with you, I'm not sure I have things sorted out myself, in terms of where I am."

Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson admits that watching Fulmer tell the players in a Monday afternoon team meeting that he will not be back for 2009 was "one of the saddest things I've seen in 20 years of coaching. You could see how attached he is to the team and how attached the team is to him. That was hard to watch."

Still, Clawson believes the Vols will bounce back emotionally in time for Saturday's 1 o'clock kickoff vs. Wyoming.

"Our players have been resilient all year," he said. "And the players here love playing for Coach Fulmer. That's one thing that became very apparent my first month on the job."

Almost the entire Vol roster showed up for Monday's news conference. The sadness and frustration they exhibited underscored their respect for the outgoing head man.

"What you saw yesterday with all the players up here was not a scheme, not an act," Clawson said. "It was genuine. The players here love Coach Fulmer. For most of them, he's the reason they chose Tennessee. For a lot of them, it's the reason they stayed at Tennessee.

"He was emotional talking to the team and a lot players were very emotional when he talked to them. I think that's a huge testament to the type of coach and person he is."

Senior offensive tackle Ramon Foster all but guaranteed Monday afternoon that this team will not merely go through the motions the rest of the way.

"It's fighting," he said, adding that in spite of a 3-6 overall record and a 1-5 SEC mark, "You're not going to see any sad faces around here, any hanging heads. We're going to hold our heads up high.

"You don't hold your head down at Tennessee. That's not something we do here. We're going to continue to practice, work hard, study film and win games. That's what we do."

Chavis, who has been Fulmer's top defensive aide the past 14 years, agreed, vowing that "We're going to finish the course and we're going to keep the faith."

Fulmer is convinced his players will be just as motivated in the season's final month as they were prior to his resignation.

"I would expect that they will be," he said. "They care very much about this staff and they care very much about trying to fix the problems that we have and finish this season up on as positive a note as it can be.

"I don't expect to see any drop-off in effort and, hopefully, (he will see) a real solid improvement from an execution standpoint offensively."

The head man bases this optimism on the toughness the Vols have shown in bouncing back throughout a season filled with disappointments.

"You worry about guys being lackadaisical or thinking about other things, saving themselves for pro football – things that come from immaturity or human nature – but you don't see that," Fulmer said. "You don't see that in our play in games. You don't see that in how we come back to practice."

Still, he may not get a true read on the emotional state of his players until later this week. Many are still numb from Monday's news.

"It was a shock," Foster said. "It was one of those things where your body drops. That's how it was. It was one of those deals where we didn't see it coming. You hear talk ... but you just don't expect this to come out now. It's unreal."

Even so, Foster is so certain Tennessee will win its three remaining games that he's already counting on extending his college career into December.

"We've got three games left in regulation and, including a bowl game after that, four," he said. "That (giving up) is just something you wouldn't expect from a Tennessee program."

Like many of his teammates, Foster was somewhat belligerent at Monday's news conference. If the Vols could channel that anger they might be able to finish the season with a flourish.

"I hope they would anyway, with all they've been through," Fulmer said. "Sometimes it takes an event of some sort to shake you a little bit. But our emotion and our effort hasn't really been a problem. It really hasn't."

Whereas an abundance of emotion might help the Vol defense, it could prove counterproductive to the Vol offense this weekend.

"You've got to go out and execute," Clawson said. "I think playing offensive football's always a little bit different than defensive. Sometimes on defense, with emotion, hustle and pursuit, you can cover up some mistakes. Offensively, you can't. You've got to be able to execute."

Even as a lame-duck coach, Fulmer insists he will be focused solely on the three remaining regular-season games in the weeks to come.

"I'm pretty good at that, actually," he said. "We all have to be. Any kind of distraction, you have to go back and focus on the task at hand – the team you're getting ready to play. I don't think our success rate would've been nearly as good as it has been if we weren't able to do that."


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