The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era - #9: In The Downpour

I've heard younger Vol fans compare the dismissal of Phillip Fulmer to the dismissal of Johnny Majors without clearly understanding the circumstances surrounding the latter.  Fulmer wasn't retained in the 2008 season, among other reasons, because the program had been in a state of decline for several seasons.  But when Majors was relinquished of his command in the 1992 season, it came on the heels of the best of times for Tennessee under his leadership:  the Vols went 29-6-2 from 1989-91, winning two SEC Championships and finishing 5th, 7th and 14th in the final AP Poll in each season.

Majors was exponentially safer coming into the '92 season than Fulmer was last fall.  It wasn't a steady decline that got the best of him.  It was bypass surgery, which led to Phillip Fulmer being named interim head coach, who turned his first real test into a stunning upset of #14 Georgia.  But one upset alone wouldn't plant the seeds of change.  Even the most passionate Vol fans enjoyed the Georgia upset, but knew that a much bigger test was coming to Knoxville just seven days later.

1992 was the first year of divisional play in the SEC, but the old rotational schedule had matched Tennessee and Florida against each other the two previous seasons as well.  Steve Spurrier's introduction to Neyland Stadium was a 45-3 beatdown in 1990, in which the Vols led 7-3 at halftime before Dale Carter ran the second half kickoff back for a touchdown and opened the floodgates.  The Gators got revenge and nurtured the hatred the following season, when disgruntled former Vol assistant Jack Sells faxed a copy of the Tennessee playbook to a Gator assistant coach named Ron Zook. 

(Can you imagine if this happened today?) 

Florida won 35-18 in The Swamp in '91, and with the teams now set to face each other every year, a rivalry was born.  Just before the game kicked off in 1992, one of my Dad's friends made the bold statement that Tennessee-Florida would become the biggest game of the year for the Vols.  That was blasphemous in 1992.  Seventeen years later, it's been true for a long time. 

And for Phillip Fulmer, the 1992 encounter between the Vols and Gators would become the most important day of his young career.     

9. 1992:  #14 Tennessee 31 - #4 Florida 14 (Knoxville)

The Vols survived at Georgia the week before despite giving up 624 yards of total offense and 31 points, so when Shane Matthews, Errict Rhett and the high powered Gator offense came calling, all the experts and most of the fans assumed the Vol defense would be in for another long day.

Rain was in the forecast, with the Eastern US having been battered by Hurricane Andrew just a few weeks earlier (the YouTube video at the end gives Andrew credit for the rain at this game, which is inaccurate).  But partly sunny skies and a loud crowd greeted both teams as the game kicked off at 3:30.

The Vol defense bent but did not break early, allowing the Gators to drive inside the 10 but keeping them out of the end zone.  When Florida shanked the field goal attempt, Tennessee reversed field position and then forced Florida to punt deep in their own territory in a scoreless game.  The Vols blocked the punt and took over just eleven yards from the end zone.

A young sophomore named Heath Shuler was making his third start on this day.  He made the throws he had to make the previous week at Georgia, but while he was still learning how to run the offense, his main weapon was his legs.  And so from the eleven, Shuler rolled out and then turned on the jets at the corner, racing for the pylon as John Ward proclaimed:  "YES.  YES.  YES.  Heath Shuler can run.  TOUCHDOWN!"

The Vols had drawn first blood...and the crowd smelled more.  The defense would respond, and as the Vols continued to pound away with their five-headed running attack - Shuler, tailbacks James "Little Man Stewart", Aaron Hayden and Charlie Garner (all eventual starters in the NFL), and fullback Mose Phillips - the high octane Gator offense could only watch from the sidelines. 

When Little Man punched it in to make it 14-0 in the second quarter, all the preseason talk of rebuilding and suffering with Coach Majors on bedrest and the talent of the other teams in the division faded away.  The preseason #24 Vols were now up two touchdowns on the #4 team in the nation, and everyone was buying in.

The Gators fought back before halftime, scoring a touchdown as the Vols added three to make it 17-7 at the break.  It was just enough to make you nervous, with the memories from the previous week still fresh and Matthews and Rhett still standing on the other sideline.  Could the Vols continue to score points?  Were they far enough ahead?  Could Tennessee simply survive?

As Vol fans were asking themselves these questions, the skies darkened dramatically in rapid fashion.  And then they opened.  And before you could get your poncho out of that little plastic bag and over your clothes, it was over.

The game was over too.

The Citrus Bowl three years later was worse simply because it rained for hours before kickoff, then continued to downpour for the duration of the game, affecting the entire day and game.  But if you want to talk about intensity of the storm over a shorter period of time, nothing beats this.  And not just at a football game - the rain that fell in the third quarter of this game is the hardest rainstorm I've ever seen, anywhere, anytime.

A little more than a year ago, lawvol @ gate21 recapped this game as part of his own Greatest Games series.  So I can talk about what the rain looked like...but I was safely tucked away under the overhang in our season tickets in Z11.  Lawvol, not so lucky:

The rain that hit the stadium came down with such force and intensity, that the upperdeck drains simply couldn’t keep up. Within about 5 minutes after the rain hit, I was standing in water half-way up my calf and the first row had water to their knees. I am not exaggerating when I say that I could not see the west side upperdeck at all — the only sign of its continued existence was the glow from the powerful stadium lights that had been on throughout the game.

It's also important to remember that Neyland Stadium still had artificial turf in 1992...and let's just say that we've come a long way in field and drainage technology.  In a matter of minutes, there's zero visibility and standing water on the field.  And Florida's offense is - obvious joke - dead in the water.

Meanwhile, still in the third quarter, Heath Shuler completed a simple dump pass to Mose Phillips...and Phillips raced almost seventy yards ("IN THE DOWNPOUR!" - Ward) for the score.  One of the all-time best end zone celebrations in Tennessee history ensues, with beauty in simplicity:  Phillips stops in the back of the end zone and "checks his watch".  Whether he was checking his 40 time or saying "It's about time", it was still very cool...and the Vols had a 24-7 lead.  (It's in the highlights)

Moments after Phillips' touchdown, the storm got so bad that ABC lost their television feed (also shown on the highlights at the end).

It's only in moments like this when you can truly enjoy this kind of rain.  Now up three possessions with time ticking away, the Vol defense knew Florida was handcuffed and knew they had a big enough lead, and we knew it too...and so Tennessee fans spent approximately 25 minutes of gametime dancing in the rain.  You haven't lived, my friends, until you've done the Gator Chomp with 95,000 of your friends in a driving rainstorm for a quarter and a half.

And it kept getting better.

This was one of those games, like Cal in '06 or Georgia in '07, where a Tennessee team few gave a chance coming in kept inexplicably making good things happen.  Despite the rainstorm, almost no one left.  The defense kept attacking, and the volume in Neyland kept increasing.  The Gators tried to fake a punt at their own 20, and got absolutely nothing.  So again working with the short field as the game moved to the fourth quarter, again Shuler did the honors himself, tucking and running and carrying defenders into the end zone for the Vols' final score.  On the day, Tennessee ran for 250 yards.

The rain trailed off just as the game was ending, with the Vols on top 31-14 and now clearly on top of the SEC East.  In the postgame, Errict Rhett offered up one of my all-time favorite things to say after you've been beaten by 17 points:  "I could never say Tennessee is better than us.  Never." 

This game would live on in great importance for a long time. 

For one, the Gators would win the next five games in the series, making the 1998 win over Florida even more dramatic.  But for Fulmer, this was the moment his career took off.  Thrust into an interim role on short notice with a team that was supposed to be rebuilding, he'd gone on the road to #14 Georgia and won 34-31, then home to dominate #4 Florida 31-14 in consecutive weeks.  Understand that without this win, it's very possible that he never becomes the head coach at the University of Tennessee.

And so a month later, when Coach Majors returned and the now-#3 Vols lost three consecutive games by nine combined points, a difficult situation presented itself.  Fulmer was the hottest commodity on the college football block, and would certainly be hired as a head coach elsewhere at season's end.  The Vols had given away the SEC East despite having beaten Georgia and Florida.  And Johnny Majors had lost to Alabama for the seventh consecutive year.

At this point, everything you knew about Fulmer was overwhelmingly positive...and as such, a vast majority of Vol fans turned on Majors in favor of Fulmer...and then the administration would do the same.  And after this performance, there was only one man for the job.   

The 1992 Florida game is a landmark event in Tennessee Football history.  The Vols scored a big upset and beat the Gators by 17 points in a Neyland Stadium downpour/party...and Phillip Fulmer gave himself a chance to take the big job when it came calling.  

(Note on the video highlights:  this thing is almost 10 minutes long, but you should definitely watch at least from 4:20 onward to understand what we're saying about the rain and the atmosphere, because there's really and truly never been anything like it at Neyland Stadium on any other Saturday)

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