Will Fulmer Lead Vols Back to Lead Pack? (Part 2)

While Fulmer pointed to the next level as his objective at Tennessee, he didn't say it would be a one way trip. He knew that historically it's almost impossible to remain among the nation's very best teams every year. There will inevitably be drop off in the best of coaching careers and the finest of football programs.

Tennessee's biggest fall occurred in Fulmer's 11th season on the job after going 95-20 in the first 10 years. Similarly, Bear Bryant went 96-17-8 in his first 11 seasons at Alabama, before suffering through 6-5 and 6-5-1 seasons in 1969 and 1970. Many Bama fans questioned whether the Bear had lost his roar and wondered if his glory days were a thing of the past.

Over the next 11 seasons, Bryant coached the Crimson Tide to a 116-15-1 mark, winning eight SEC championships. However in 1982, Alabama fell to 8-4 and Bryant retired with more wins than any coach in NCAA history. The Tide's decline continued after his departure.

Neyland compiled a 77-7-5 record in his first nine years at Tennessee, but fell off to a combined 12-5-3 in his 10th and 11th years, creating concern among the fan base over how the school could continue to fill its recently expanded 19,360 seat stadium.

Over the next three seasons, the General's troops went 11-0, 10-1 and 10-1, winning three SEC titles and two national championships. At the end of that memorable run — which included college football's last undefeated season in which no points were allowed — the stadium was again expanded to 31,960.

Neyland was summoned to military service for the next five seasons as World War II raged, but he returned to win an SEC title and post a 9-2 record in 1946. However, Tennessee went an uncharacteristic 16-11-3 over the next three seasons, prompting many Vol fans to wonder if the General's methods were obsolete and his philosophy outmoded. Once again Neyland answered his critics with back-to-back national titles and a combined 21-2 mark in 1950 and 1951. He retired after the 1952 campaign in which Tennessee posted an 8-2-1 record.

Majors transformation at Tennessee came in his 11th year on the job when the Vols opened 0-6 in 1988 but closed with five straight wins and went to capture consecutive SEC Championships in 1989 and 1990.

There's really nothing unusual about Tennessee's current slide. In fact, only one team ranked in the AP's final top 10 in 1998 was still in the top 10 at the end of the 2002 season and that was Ohio State. (Footnote: In 1999, the Buckeyes fell out of the top 25.)

Of the six teams that reigned as national champions from 1992 to 1999 — Alabama, Florida State (twice), Nebraska (twice), Florida, Michigan and Tennessee — only Michigan at No. 9 managed to crack the final AP top 10 in 2002. Nebraska, Florida and Tennessee failed to make the top 25, while Alabama ranked No. 11 and FSU finished No. 21. During that same eight-year span, Miami made the AP final top 10 only once in 1993.

Ironically, once you attain perfection in a season you essentially establish a ceiling to success that can't be surpassed and a standard that is nearly impossible to duplicate. It takes a ton of talent and a load of luck to win multiple championships in any four-year span. For example: Miami lost only two games over the last three years, highlighted by a 36-game winning streak, and still captured just one national crown.

Getting to the top is hard enough, staying there harder. Once you reach that plateau of pigskin prominence you become a prime target for every team on your schedule. During the season, you can expect every opponent to save their best game for you. Recruiting talent to maintain your competitive buoyancy becomes more problematical because every top recruit is being told by rival schools that they will have to wait three years to break into your starting lineup.

Furthermore, the landscape of college football is constantly changing. The reduction of scholarships has in many respects leveled the playing field. Improved strength training and nutrition has made it possible for teams to turn lesser talent into quality troops in the trenches, while skill players tend to gravitate to the best early opportunity, giving virtually every program offensive weapons to work with and a competent line to play behind. The proliferation of college games on television has opened more avenues for players to showcase their skills without waiting in line at higher profile programs.

As it has become increasingly difficult to overwhelm opponents with sheer talent and depth, a greater emphasis is placed on game plans, sideline strategy, personnel packages and in-game adjustments. Additionally, preparing a team emotionally for the short term while developing chemistry for the long haul has become essential to sustaining any semblance of success.

As Bear Bryant put it: "Football changes and so do people. The successful coach is the one who sets the trend, not the one who follows it."

At this point it should be obvious that downtrends are as much a part of college football as they are the stock market. Surviving lean times takes resourcefulness, resiliency and a high regard for sound fundamentals which never go out of style.

What's still murky to me is why any Tennessee fan would favor firing Fulmer. That's why my standard response after hearing a typical tirade following a Vol defeat is: "Who would you get to replace him? Who are you going to find that is more accomplished, more loyal to UT or more willing to work hard for the football program's success?

I also point out that of the top t0 college football coaches with the best all-time winning percentage (minimum 10 years experience), Fulmer is the only one still active and one of three, along with Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer, who is still alive. By the way, Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier and Joe Paterno are the other three from the list of top 25 coaches with the best winning percentage who are still active, and they check in at No. 18, No. 19 and No. 21, respectively.

A great football coach can have a bad season like a great football player can have a bad game. The true measure of each is how they respond to the challenge of coming back, to the criticism of outside observers, to the unrealistic expectations fostered by fantastic success and to the temptation of taking shortcuts to get back on top.

The Vols will bounce back and Phillip Fulmer will lead the way. He has the experience, the fire and the resources to make Tennessee a fearsome football force again. He also faithfully follows Bear Bryant's first rule of coaching which states: "Surround yourself with people who can't live without football."

That sounds like a perfect description of a packed and impassioned Neyland Stadium crowd.

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