Yesterday, Coach Phil Fulmer came on the radio program that I co-host to talk about his work with the Dove Men+Care Caring Coach of the Year Award and, of course, the Vols. We picked his brain about how to beat Florida and where he thinks the program is headed under Butch Jones:
The interview was generally positive. Coach Fulmer was much more upbeat than a good portion of Tennessee's fan base has been this week, including myself. At one point he said "I choose to look at it (like), hey, we're a couple of plays away from being a top 15 kind of program. And from where we were two years ago, guys, it's night and day. I think we're in a very positive place and I think Butch is doing a really good job."
This might surprise some people considering the criticism that has come down on Butch Jones after his repeated gaffs in the Oklahoma and Florida games, but if anyone knows about coaching football at Tennessee, it's Phillip Fulmer. The only real criticism that Coach Fulmer gave to Butch in the entire interview is that he said he would have gone for two instead of kicking an extra point against the Gators, but honestly, that's a given.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that Coach Fulmer said in the interview was this when asked how to deal with a team after crushing losses like Oklahoma and Florida:
"I look back at my favorite football team. It was a team that went through something like this in 1994. It laid the foundation for what turned out to be the best year in Tennessee football modern history. And I think we're going through something like that right now with the couple of tough losses that we've had here."
If you don't remember what happened in 1994, it was Coach Fulmer's second full season as the Vols' head coach and they started out 1-3. Due to multiple injuries, Vol legend Peyton Manning started as a true freshman in a losing effort against Mississippi State in the 4th game of the season. The team ultimately finished 8-4 only losing to Alabama for the remainder of the year. Then in 1995, the Vols finished 11-1 and beat Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl.
Maybe that is what's happening with this Tennessee team right now. Perhaps these are the growing pains you have to go through to get to the top. Hopefully Coach Fulmer is right and this just the beginning of something great at Tennessee.
We'll know soon enough about the fate of this team but if you're feeling down right now about the state of Vol football, you can at least take solace in the fact that one of the greatest coaches in school history said it's all going to be alright.