Ward Gossett: Phillip Fulmer's induction a recollection of glory

Ward Gossett: Phillip Fulmer's induction a recollection of glory

December 5th, 2012 by Ward Gossett in Sports - Columns

Former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer is part of tonight's induction class in the College Football Hall of Fame. He says he's "graciously accepting" but at 62 is "too dang young" to be out of coaching.

Former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer is part...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

At last, a rose in the University of Tennessee's garden of thorns.

Phillip Fulmer's College Football Hall of Fame induction Tuesday brought back memories of better times, allowing a ray of sunshine to offset a bleak and disheartening series of events that is Volunteers football today.

It was a refreshing whiff so unlike the barnyard fragrance that has pervaded Neyland Stadium for the past five or so years.

OK, so it was the not-so-favorite son the UT family cast adrift following an unusual but still dismal 2008.

Given the results of the last four years -- head coaches Lane Kiffin and Derrick Dooley coughing up one winning season, a 22-28 record and one bowl game, and that a loss -- one has to wonder if Fulmer's armor really had lost its luster.

Yet it's likely that Tuesday was the final gift he had for Vols fans, at whom he easily could have thumbed his nose. To do so, though, would have been out of character for the boy from farm-country Winchester who learned early the value of manners while discovering how much hard work could enhance mediocre talent.

As a young UT player his lack of speed quickly diverted him from the gaggle of future linebackers and tight ends to the offensive line, and his trademark work ethic drove him to the weight room, where he packed 30 pounds on a 190-pound frame and became an all-conference guard.

And while the national gurus often said Phillip was one of the best recruiting head coaches in the business, there was a time when he stumbled and bumbled before hard work and study led him to becoming a polished and prolific salesman for Vols football.

That drive to succeed and the fact that he never forgot how to work carried him to Tuesday night's New York visit and hall induction.

That's the Fulmer people remembered Tuesday night and the one they should've remembered in 2008, the guy whose loyalty to the university could never be doubted nor his conduct questioned.

He certainly brought them a whole lot more good times than bad as an assistant, as an offensive coordinator and as a head coach.

Like one of my first seasons as a young beat writer who never really envisioned the Vols topping their amazing beatdown of highly favored Miami in the '86 Sugar Bowl. How wrong could one be? And many of those highlights were the result of Fulmer's hard work.

In his initial year as UT's offensive coordinator, 1989, the Vols took the first of back-to-back SEC titles thanks to a wild Saturday night win in Baton Rouge. There was in '91 a miraculous 35-34 comeback win at Notre Dame smack dab square in front of "Touchdown Jesus" -- Phillip's third OC season.

Yes, it was still Johnny Majors' show, but even then Fulmer was having a decided impact. Then in '92 with heart surgery having sidelined his boss, Fulmer got UT off to a 3-0 start in his head coaching debut. Two of the wins came at Georgia and at home against Florida and Steve Spurrier.

However, in his official coming-out party, Tampa's Hall of Fame Bowl against Tom Coughlin's eighth-ranked Boston College, Fulmer let fans know with UT's first offensive play what they could expect. It was a bomb from Heath Shuler to Corey Fleming that led to Shuler's 1-yard TD run. The Vols never looked back, building a 31-7 third-quarter lead.

It was a positive beginning to end a negative situation, and despite those with the poison pens in Knoxville and elsewhere who chided, faulted or snickered at his every move, Fulmer eventually moved the Vols so close to football Camelot. UT enjoyed a phenomenal four-year stretch from 1995 to '98 with a 45-4 record.

And of course '98 was the best -- for UT fans, at least. It was the year of the synergy stick, a walking cane about which no one inside the program would talk that symbolized his team/family approach. It was a fitting focal point for Phillip's team of destiny: the luck of right-time penalties at Syracuse; an overtime win against Florida; Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner's near inexplicable fumble that led to a miracle comeback in the Vols' first week as the nation's top-ranked team; the SEC title-game victory over Mississippi State in Atlanta with two second-half Tee Martin TD passes in less than a minute's time.

The stage was set for Florida State, the Fiesta Bowl and the first BCS national championship game. The Vols won going away, and it was the last time UT was atop the national polls.

There may be room for only one general in UT's storied football history, but if Robert Neyland had four stars then Phillip Fulmer surely had three, and if Neyland built UT's football house, Fulmer certainly remodeled it.

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfreepress.com or 423-886-4765.