>Back in the day, when I started matriculating at UT, the coach of the Volunteers was Johnny Majors. Now some of you may not recall this, but once upon a time, we didn’t have seventeen ESPNs and a zillion and one nationally televised SEC games a week. Which growing up moving around in different regions of our country meant I didn’t have the opportunity to see Tennessee play every week. (Tragic, I know…)
But I knew who our coach was. I recall vividly my dad taking me to the old Blue/Grey game one year when we lived in Alabama (a fact I refuse to acknowledge each third weekend in October) and that Majors was there on the sidelines, coaching the southern all-stars in the game. I don’t recall who won, but I remember being proud that the coach of the college I wanted to attend was the guy leading this all-star team.
One thing I always counted on was seeing UT in bowl games–and I’m fairly certain I saw UT upset Miami in one of the biggest (to that point) games in our history. I also knew that my wearing orange to school really annoyed my senior AP English teacher, who was from Kentucky. I heard about it every time I wore my orange sweat shirt.
When I stepped onto campus, our coach was Johnny Majors.
That lasted one year. In my sophomore years, Majors had some health problems and had to turn the reigns over to his assistant coach, Phillip Fulmer. I know there was some concern in Vol nation about what this might mean, but those were quickly put to rest when we promptly went out and demolished Florida. We them put together a nice little win streak, climbed in the polls and looked set to be ready to go out and cast off the ugly burden of losing far too many in a row to Alabama. And then, Majors got better, came back and lost to Alabama, Arkansas and then South Carolina. I recall being in Neyland the day we lost to Arkansas and realizing that the dream I had of playing Alabama again in the SEC title game probably wasn’t going to happen. Then came the nightmare game the next week in South Carolina that I think most Vols fan still wake up at night screaming when it haunts our dream.
And that’s when things got ugly. Being in school, I recall letters in the Beacon demanding that the school do something right now about our problem. Johnny Majors had to go. I remember a famous bit of graphiti on The Rock in Fraternity Row that said, “We have a Majors problem.” That made the front page of the Beacon.
I wasn’t immersed in sports talk at the time, but I can bet it was pretty brutal. If it was around. I can’t recall the time line for how and when SportsTalk started, but I have a feeling this little incident could have helped it get on the map or maybe led to it coming about.
Anyway, just like that Majors was shown the door and Fulmer was going to be our head coach. There was much rejoicing around Vol nation–or at least the bits of Vol nation I talked to on a regular basis. Forget losing to Alabama that year, we’d get them next year and boy howdy, would we own them.
Well, it took some time to beat Bama and a certain quarterback you might have heard of named Peyton Manning. I was there for that away game and I still recall that opening play when we scored quickly and never looked back.
Phillip Fulmer came in and took the program to the next level. We got a winning streak against Bama, we continued to own Georgia and we struggled against Florida. Tennessee got a hot QB prospct named Peyton Manning who transformed our program and is still one of the greatest ambassadors of UT out there. We went all the way in ’98, winning it all.
And in all of that, we had Fulmer at the helm. In a lot of ways, I really grew into my obsession with UT with Fulmer at the helm and for that reason, among others, I kind of think of him as “my coach.” He was there for the majority of the time I was in school and he made us better. He made us a national powerhouse for a while. He loved UT. And the thing was, he seemed like this really nice, humble guy who probably had trouble believing that he had this really awesome job. I often have this image of him at night, pinching himself, as if he can’t believe that–wow, I really am the coach at UT.
Which is why today finds me kind of sad. It’s Phil Fulmer’s last game as coach of the Vols. And while I agree that something needed to happen, I’m still sad to see him go. We’ve had a lot of success at UT under Fulmer. He’s been a great ambassador for not only UT football, but also UT as a whole. I just like the guy and while I may not always agree with every call he’s made, he’s still won a whole lot of football games in his time and given me some fond memories. We’ve spent a lot of Saturday afternoons together, though I imagine his were more stressful than mine (though at times it’d hard to tell since I tend to get into the games just a tiny bit….).
In a few hours, Fulmer will head out into Neyland Stadium one last time as our coach. He’ll finish up a great career as my coach at UT.
So thank you Phil Fulmer for your years as our head coach. And for the time as a Volunteer before that. Thank you for some fun Saturdays and I take back all of those things I said when we didn’t do well. Thank you for the fond memories, for one hell of a run on 1998 and for helping our team go to the next level. You will be missed, at least by this fan. I hope the next guy has half the character you do. I doubt we’ll ever find a guy again who loves being the head football coach at UT as much as you do. I’m sorry to see you go, but I wish you all the best. Thank you for what you’ve given all of the fans of the University of Tennesee.
Go Big Orange! Win this last one for Phil!