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Fulmer: a Vols vet transformed

To most of the college football world, he appears a little goofy all dressed in orange, the shirt hanging over his pants, the headset covering his ears and the look of indifference on his face.

Phillip Fulmer never gives that pained expression of anguish, never unloads his frustration on a quarterback for his all of his kingdom to hear, never sends his cap into orbit from the sideline.

Steve Spurrier he is not, although the two had been compared for an obvious reason.

Spurrier had Fulmer's number, and it was becoming a bit of a bother to most of Tennessee.

For all of Fulmer's success over the past six years at the University of Tennessee, there was that nagging problem of Spurrier and the University of Florida.

The Gators had defeated the Volunteers five straight times, four times denying Tennessee the opportunity to play for the Southeastern Conference title, let alone the national championship. If that wasn't bad enough, Spurrier had this way of sticking the needle in and ridiculing his rival to the north.

It could start to give a coach a complex.

But Fulmer kept at it, never giving up, always pushing his team to overcome. Lost in the despair of all those losses to the Gators was a pretty good record, one that was overshadowed by the pain of defeat.

"You go about your business to be the best you can be," Fulmer said. "If I have a strength, that's it: I go to work and do it every day to the best of my ability. Hug their necks when they need it, kick their rears when they need it.

"I think we've done well, regardless of what anybody nationally might have to say. We had to get over the hump with Florida. If you were searching for one thing, that was the hump. Other than that, we've done just about everything."

Now, the Vols are a burgeoning powerhouse. They take a 12-game winning streak and the No. 1 ranking into Monday night's game against No. 2 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl with their first national championship since 1951 at stake.

This season, the Vols defeated the Gators for the first time since 1992, when Fulmer was interim coach. Fulmer did it with a roster seemingly depleted, one that lost quarterback Peyton Manning and 13 others to the NFL. But it is clear that the Volunteers don't rebuild, they reload. Five solid recruiting classes will do that. And the effort has been rewarded; Fulmer has a 66-11 record and the best winning percentage (.857) among active coaches.

There is no secret formula, Fulmer said.

"It's simple: we've recruited well," Fulmer said. "We've coached them real hard. We run a tight ship, disciplined. And we let the players play. There have been a lot of peaks and valleys, but that's as simple as it is."

Steve Peterson, athletic director at Pittsburgh and the former UT associate athletic director, calls Fulmer "a tireless worker, a great recruiter and a great football coach."

"Phillip is as tireless or relentless as anybody I've ever seen. That's the way he coaches. That's the way he recruits. That's the way he approaches everything.

"A lot has been made of how a guy like (Kansas State coach) Bill Snyder works and responds to detail, but I don't think anybody does any better than Phillip. I think he relates very well to his players, gets a lot out of his players. And then he lets his assistants coach. That's usually the sign of a great coach."

Fulmer wears Tennessee orange from head to toe, but it is in his blood as well. A native of Winchester, Tenn., Fulmer attended UT, where he was an offensive linemen from 1968-71. During his career, the Vols were 30-5 and won the 1969 SEC title.

Since then, Fulmer, 48, has spent just five years away from the school, as an assistant coach at Wichita State and Vanderbilt. He returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 1980.

"The best way to describe Phillip, in my opinion, is that he's the proverbial offensive lineman, even as a coach," said David Cutcliffe, Fulmer's former offensive coordinator, who recently accepted the head-coaching position at Mississippi.

"Look at offensive linemen. They're going to have a great work ethic. They're generally unselfish people who don't care who gets the credit."

Fulmer never wandered far from his roots, which makes for a nice match in the land of Rocky Top. The people of Tennessee like the fact that one of their own wanted to stay at home, play at their school, then coach their team.

But that doesn't keep them from criticizing, and there was plenty of howling when Fulmer couldn't beat Spurrier. Fans believed the talent level of the teams was equal, so the deficiency, they reasoned, must be in the man who runs the program.

"It's like in the Civil War General Grant would get a lot more credit if it weren't for Lee," ESPN analyst Beano Cook said. "Fulmer would get a lot more credit if it weren't for Spurrier."

The fact that several of the defeats were ugly only made matters worse. Fulmer was referred to as a blockhead. Some fans made fun of his waistline. Not even Fulmer's three daughters, ages 12-15, were spared at school.

That's why this season's 20-17 overtime victory over Florida was huge.

"It was a feeling of contentment and relief," said Fulmer's wife, Vicky, who grew up in St. Petersburg and met her future husband at a coaching function in town. "That was real special for me. You're relieved and gratified you got by a very strong football team. We were able to control our own destiny."

Before this season, Vicky Fulmer made a pact with her husband: He would try to make it home for dinner more often, enjoy his career and his family at the same time, and learn to relax.

And it seems to have worked.

"I think he was more himself going into the season," she said. "He was more confident, more self-assured, more in control.

"He puts his heart and soul into this program, and I think this is just an accumulation of the last seven years. With Peyton (Manning) came a lot of great athletes. Success builds success. What you're seeing is something that will be here for years to come. It's not a fluke that Tennessee is No. 1."

Five of Fulmer's six teams have won 10 games and three have won 11. The Vols are three days from winning their first national championship in 47 years, from joining the elite. They have an oral commitment from one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the country, Chris Simms, along with several others.

And not so suddenly, Phillip Fulmer looks pretty good on the UT sideline.

Winningest active coaches

(Minimum five years in Division I-A, record at four-year colleges only. All records before this season's bowls.)

Coach School Record Pct.

Phillip Fulmer Tennessee 66-11 (.857)

Joe Paterno Penn State 305-80-3 (.790)

R.C. Slocum Texas A&M 95-26-2 (.781)

Steve Spurrier Florida 112-31-2 (.779)

Bobby Bowden Florida State 292-84-4 (.774)

LaVell Edwards Brigham Young 243-90-3 (.728)

Paul Pasqualoni Syracuse 102-42-1 (.707)

John Cooper Ohio State 177-74-6 (.700)