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With Vols slipping farther away from national title picture, Fulmer feels the heat

The bad thing about winning a national championship is it makes you want to win another one.

But the problem is that if the coach feels that way, multiply those yearnings by the size of the school's enormous fan base and then you're fighting an ever-growing monster of expectations.

Perhaps Vicky Fulmer knew this back in January 1999. Her husband, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, had just guided the Vols to the BCS national championship, capping a 13-0 season with a win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.

On a happy plane ride home to Knoxville from Arizona, Vicky made a stunning, but simple request.
"Look me in the eye and listen to me," Vicky told Phillip. "I want you to retire. It's never going to get any better than this. You've reached your goals. Let's move on and do something else."

Phillip paused, thought about it and replied, "Do you know any other job I can do that pays this well?"

Probably not. Nine seasons later, Fulmer is still coach for the Vols and his salary is $2.1 million on a contract that runs through 2013. He's 141-43 overall and 89-28 in the SEC with 14½ seasons on the job.

But as Vicky astutely predicted, it hasn't gotten better than that night in Phoenix.

Since then, the Vols haven't won an SEC title and have played in only one BCS bowl game.

With a parade of new coaches coming into the league, cutting off recruiting areas that Fulmer pillaged to build a string of powerhouse teams from 1994 to '99, it seems as if Tennessee is slipping a bit more from a national championship each year.

This year, even more so than in 2005 when the preseason No. 3 nationally ranked Vols finished 5-6, Fulmer's only losing season, the critics and wolves are gnawing at his door.

The Vols have won three straight games to climb to No. 21 in this week's BCS rankings, and they are now 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the SEC East. But the two losses -- 45-31 at then-No. 12 Cal in the season opener and 59-20 at archrival and then No. 3 Florida -- were horrific from several standpoints.

From sloppy tackling (22 missed tackles against Cal) to lousy punt coverage (both Cal and Florida scored on punt returns) to an offense with no running game, the Vols looked vastly inferior to their opponents.

So much so, that the media and fans opened a flamethrower on Fulmer, burning him with some undeniable negatives such as:
The Vols are 18-23 versus ranked teams since the '98 national championship season, and just 3-7 in their past 10 games against top-25 teams.
Fulmer is 4-8 against Steve Spurrier, 0-3 vs. Urban Meyer, 1-3 vs. Tommy Tuberville, 3-4 against Mark Richt and 1-2 against Nick Saban.
The Vols have gone eight years without winning the SEC, seven years without playing in a BCS bowl, five years without a final top 10 ranking, and twice since 2000 weren't even ranked in the top 25 at the end of the year.
For five straight years and seven of the past eight, Tennessee has had at least three losses, including two seasons (2003 and '05) with multiple losses to unranked teams. The Vols are 2-5 in bowl games since '98, all double-digit losses.

There's also the fact that since 2000, 14 new coaches have come into the SEC, and Fulmer has lost at least once to nine of them.

Some media members who have covered the Vols for more than 20 years, writers and broadcasters who like Fulmer personally and who have usually given him the benefit of the doubt, no longer think he can regain his magic.

Jimmy Hyams, who has covered Tennessee athletics since 1985, first for the Knoxville News-Sentinel and now as a sports talk show host at Knoxville's WNML-AM, said the Vols have had a dramatic drop-off in talent.

"When Fulmer was having his success [in the 90s], he would basically out-talent people on offense and defense," Hyams said. "He didn't need a lot of trickery. Now, the talent level has evened out and the thing that used to work when you had great players isn't working when you've got average to good players. Look at their front seven [on defense]? Who's their NFL players?"

It's ironic that Fulmer plays Alabama on Saturday, a team coached by former LSU coach Saban. Because it was Saban who denied the Vols their last great chance to get to the BCS title game in 2001.

All the favored Vols had to do was beat LSU in the SEC championship game, and they were off to the Rose Bowl to play Miami for the national championship. But the Tigers, despite losing starting quarterback Rohan Davey and starting running back LaBrandon Toefield during the course of the game, beat Tennessee 31-20.

Because of early defections to the NFL and lackluster recruiting, the Vols have never been the same.

It's no secret that because the state of Tennessee typically doesn't produce an abundance of Division 1-A blue-chippers, the Vols have to shop heavily outside the state.

From 1998 to 2002, the Vols had nine first-round NFL draft choices. In the past five drafts, Tennessee had just three players taken in the first round.

Why? South Carolina hired Lou Holtz in 1999, then Steve Spurrier in 2005. LSU hired Saban in 2000, then Les Miles in 2005. Georgia hired Mark Richt in '01.

All those coaches mostly closed the borders on their states, with the majority of the best high school players staying home. It forced the Vols to travel even farther for players, like getting two Clausen quarterbacks from California and current starting quarterback Erik Ainge from Oregon.

And as college football offenses have evolved into scoring machines using a variety of formations and hybrid systems such as the spread option, the Vols have basically stuck to their tried-and-true principle that offense is about execution, not schemes.

Try telling that to today's recruits, especially skill position players, who want to be in an offense where they get the ball in open space.

Fulmer's answer to his critics is to do what he's always done. Find the problems from week to week, fix them and live to fight another Saturday.
"I only deal with the stuff I can control," Fulmer said. "I understand the frustration, and it's good that people care. But I don't listen to stuff, because I don't worry about what I can't control. I'm working like I've always done. We're working hard to get back to where we want to be."

Tennessee's players aren't letting the criticism about Fulmer bother them.
"There's going to be people that want him fired, there's going to be people that want him to stay and there's going to be everybody else who are just Tennessee fans," Ainge said. "When you lose a game like that in Florida, everybody who thinks that is going to say that.
"If we had won it, they would have said give him a raise. The people that love him would have been the ones speaking out. We don't pay any attention to that."

But it's hard not to, even with the Vols playing better football lately. Since Tennessee's last SEC title in '98, the Vols' two main competitors for the East Division title -- Florida and Georgia -- have won a collective four SEC championships and a BCS national championship (Florida last year).
This season, South Carolina and Kentucky, forever the Eastern Division whipping boys, have two losses between them.

Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton isn't making any predictions on Fulmer's future. He's smart enough to let this thing play out, because the annual SEC race has a way of transforming heroes to goats back to heroes in a two- or three-week span.
"There's a lot of football left to be played this season," said Hamilton, who has been on the job as AD since 2003 and who made the enormously popular hire of Bruce Pearl as Tennessee's men's basketball coach two seasons ago. "People forget we still have a chance to win the SEC championship."

He's right. But Fulmer really can't afford to lose many more games, and the Vols don't need to finish behind South Carolina and Kentucky in the East, something that has never happened with the exception of Carolina finishing ahead of the Vols two seasons ago.

If that happens, even the staunchest Fulmer supporters, the ones who genuinely understand he's someone who has worked as hard as possible for his alma mater, may defect and join the voices screaming for new blood to lead the Vols' program.

So you've got to wonder.
After all these years in coaching, with a national title ring, enough money in the bank for him and his family to live comfortably for the rest of his life, why does Fulmer, 57, keep trying to resuscitate a program that is sailing farther away from the national spotlight?

Why doesn't he just spend his days riding his motorcycle along the country roads near his house in Maryville outside of Knoxville?
"I enjoy what I do," Fulmer said. "I enjoy the players. I enjoy the people. You take the ups and downs, and we've had a lot more ups than downs.
"My job is still about watching our players grow as young people. It's still about Saturdays in the fall, the practices, the recruiting. I don't want to coach as long as coach [Bear] Bryant did [38 seasons] or coach [Bobby] Bowden [42 years and counting] or coach [Joe] Paterno [42 years and counting], but I like very much what I do."

It's more than that, though. Fulmer loves his school. He's the last of a dying breed, the only SEC coach coaching his alma mater.

Since arriving in Knoxville as a freshman in 1968, Fulmer has spent 34 of his past 40 years on the Tennessee campus, with the last 28 coming as an assistant, offensive coordinator, interim coach and finally head coach. He and Vicky gave a $1 million donation to the university in late August.

"I understand the passion that people have for this program," Fulmer said. "I love the history of this program. There's not a better job for me."

Ron Higgins covers the Southeastern Conference for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.