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Thursday, October 19, 2006
Fulmer staying even-keeled this season

By Chris Low
Special to ESPN.com

Since taking over full time at his alma mater in 1993, Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer has seen head coaches come and go in the Southeastern Conference at a blistering pace.

The number of changes was somewhere in the 30s when he lost count.

There were rumblings before this season that Fulmer, the dean of SEC coaches, might be next.

Phil Fulmer
Phil Fulmer has kept an even-keeled approach in his years at Tennessee.

Never mind that his .778 winning percentage leads all active coaches with at least 10 years of experience or that he has won a national championship and two conference championships. The simple fact is that 5-6 seasons don't play well on Rocky Top, especially when it's creeping up on 10 years since your last conference championship.

Fulmer, whose seventh-ranked Vols are one of the hottest teams in the country right now heading into Saturday's game with Alabama, shrugged off the talk last year that perhaps his shelf life as Tennessee's coach had all but expired.

Similarly, he shrugs off any talk now that the Vols (5-1, 1-1 SEC) are all the way back.

It's far too early to make that call, and Fulmer's the first to admit it.

"To me, one of the keys in this business is never getting yourself in a position where you think, 'Well, we've arrived. We've done all we can do,'" he said. "But you also can't ever get too down. We had a tough year last year, but we fought back.

"The truth of it is that you're usually somewhere in the middle. You're never as good as they say, and you're never as bad as they say. I think that's one of my strengths."

The slippery slope for college football coaches certainly isn't lost on Fulmer, but he ceased being amazed a long time ago at how quickly everything can change in this era of $60 million budgets, $2 million coaching salaries and ticket prices climbing well over $50 apiece.

He saw one bad season at Mississippi -- only a year removed from the Rebels sharing the SEC Western Division title -- do in his close friend and current offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. He sees what's happening to Larry Coker at Miami and is well aware of the unrest at Georgia right now.

"I just think it's very important to have the relationship with your administration and the feeling that everybody is supportive and calm," Fulmer said. "It doesn't matter whether you're in business or anything else. You're going to have your ups and downs if you do it long enough."

Those closest to Fulmer, 56, insist he has no interest in coaching well into his 60s. Maybe he'll go five more years, maybe six more, maybe even less than that. He's not offering any hints.

His wife, Vicky, tried to get him to quit after the Vols won the national championship in 1998.

"Her feeling was, 'It's never going to get any better than this,'" Fulmer recounted. "I don't think she really meant it. It was more, 'You've done all you can.'

"But I don't believe that. I think that we can win another national championship or two. We were close a couple of different times since then, 2001 especially.

"You just have to trust that you have the support of your administration and the people who count, and truly, there's going to be some that are never going to be pleased and satisfied, just like there's going to be some that will always support you."

As for Tennessee being all the way back, Fulmer's only concession is that the Vols are "back to playing good, tough football."

Whether they're back to being an SEC championship contender remains to be seen. The next four weeks will provide those answers, and the Vols still need somebody else to knock off Florida.

After Alabama's visit to Neyland Stadium this weekend, Tennessee travels to South Carolina on Oct. 28, returns home to face 14th-ranked LSU on Nov. 4, then travels to 15th-ranked Arkansas on Nov. 11.

There were some eyebrows raised in the Tennessee camp when the Vols debuted at 11th in the first BCS standings this week. Of particular note was that they were one spot behind California -- one of the two top-10 teams (at the time of the game) that Tennessee has beaten this season.

"That's questionable," junior quarterback Erik Ainge said. "But it's not my system."

All in all, though, he said this team's focus made the BCS standings moot at this point.

"Obviously, we'd like to be higher than we are, but that's how it goes," Ainge said. "If we keep winning, then that will all take care of itself. We know that."

The truth, at least in the short term, is that this season might be Fulmer's best chance to win another championship or to get the Vols to their first BCS bowl since the 1999 season, when they played in the Fiesta Bowl.

The passing game, which has been one of the most potent in the country this season, could be disassembled next season. Receivers Jayson Swain and Bret Smith are both seniors, and junior Robert Meachem is the best of the bunch and a surefire NFL prospect. At the end of the season, he undoubtedly will take a long look at coming out early for the draft.

Cutcliffe, too, is sure to attract some head coaching offers with the way he has resurrected the Vols' offense. He's not going to take a head job just to be taking one. The situation would have to be right, but he made it clear before returning to Tennessee this past winter that his preference was to be a head coach.

And if Cutcliffe leaves, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Ainge would consider his NFL options, especially if his finish to the season is as impressive as his start. He's seventh nationally in passing efficiency and already has thrown 14 touchdown passes.

Fulmer, the quintessential live-in-the-present coach, will deal with all those hypotheticals when and if they arise.

"That's just like the BCS," Fulmer said. "It's irrelevant right now. That's a strength that both David and I have, and most good coaches do, to block out the what-ifs and take care of the business now."

Make no mistake. That business is Alabama, which Fulmer is 10-3 against as Tennessee's head coach. This will be the 32nd game in the rivalry he has played or coached in. His overall record: 16-15.

In Fulmer's world, having grown up 10 miles from the Alabama border in Winchester, Tenn., and all but committed to Bear Bryant coming out of high school, there's no better rivalry in all of college football.

Nor is there a team he enjoys beating up on more than the Crimson Tide.

"Alabama is the game for him," senior offensive tackle Arron Sears said. "Alabama and Florida are the two biggest games. But with Alabama, there's some hate blood around that."

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.