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There is no college football team more zealous and competitive than the University of Tennessee Volunteers
When Clay Travis, acclaimed author of Dixieland Delight, decided to spend the 2008 season up close and personal with UT football, he—and every other college football aficionado—thought he was in for a rollicking ride with one of the leading contenders for the national title. After all, when the Vols kicked off the season on September 1, the defending SEC East champions were ranked 18th in the country. As head coach Phillip Fulmer prepared for the game, he reflected upon a coaching career that included an astounding 147 victories, two SEC championships, and a national title. With 34 years at UT under his belt as both a player and coach, the Tennessee native had just signed a contract extension that projected to keep him at the university long enough to become the winningest coach in program history.
But when the Volunteers lost their season opener and the losses continued to mount, it became clear that 2008 was going to be a season on the brink for UT football. By December, the team had suffered its second-worst season ever, and Fulmer, the most beloved and recognized man in Tennessee, had been fired.
Based on exclusive interviews with Fulmer, UT athletic director Mike Hamilton, university boosters, team personnel, players and their families, and fans, On Rocky Top recounts in vivid detail how a season of promise tragically ended an era of college football. Enlivening the narrative is a diverse cast of supporting characters, including 65-year-old "Good Time" Charlie Harris, who has driven the UT big rig for almost 10 years; star running back Arian Foster, a fifth-year senior striving to become the all-time leading rusher in Volunteer history; and multimillionaire booster John "Thunder" Thornton, who defended Fulmer till the end.
A lifelong Volunteer fan whose grandfather played for the team during the 1930s, Travis reports from the locker room to the sideline, and has created a fascinating and loving chronicle of an impassioned state, a celebrated football culture, a beloved coach, and the sensational collapse of a once-mighty juggernaut.
The Granddaddy of Them All
In 15 minutes it will be football time in Tennessee. Even though the Volunteers are 2,176 miles from Knoxville's Neyland Stadium in the visitors' locker room of Los Angeles's Rose Bowl. In a quarter of an hour 87 of the players currently gathered in front of an easel with General Robert Neyland's 7 Maxims of Football etched onto it will pour out of the long corridor beneath the stadium and enter the fading light of a California September afternoon. But now, in these final moments before the 2008 football season commences, the teammates congregate in a semicircle of folding chairs while student managers circle the room yelling out, "Gatorade, Pedialyte, water, drink up!" The student managers, undergrads at the University of Tennessee who work 30 to 40 hours a week with the football team, are wearing orange shirts and holding brightly colored bottles of liquids aloft in their hands. The Tennessee Volunteer players are clad in their road uniform of orange pants and white jerseys, orange numbers on their backs catching the locker-room lights when they move. They sit with heads bowed, their large padded shoulders and enormous bulky legs appearing to swallow the flimsy chairs. The players wait, bathed in the soft overhead lights of the visitors' locker room, for their coach to arrive. Other than the calls of the training staff, the Rose Bowl locker room is completely silent.
Coach Phillip Fulmer is in the corridor outside the locker room, huddling with his assistant coaches. Fulmer is a Tennessee legend, in his 16th full season as the Vols' head coach. With his ponderous lower lip that extends just a bit past his smaller upper lip, the full-stomached heft of an aging offensive lineman, a slightly sunburned face, a graying and balding head that is generally covered by an orange Tennessee cap, and a unique ability to use the word heck as subject, verb, and exclamation, Fulmer is a Southern football coach direct from Hollywood central casting.
Having won the Vols' second consensus national championship in 1998, breaking a 47-year-long championship drought, Fulmer recently signed a contract extension in the 2008 offseason that pays him nearly $3 million a year. Since that 1998 championship season, Fulmer's teams have not won an SEC title, losing three times in the SEC championship game in 2001, 2004, and 2007. This recent championship failure hangs around the stolid former UT offensive lineman's neck, an albatross of past expectations unfulfilled. Still, Fulmer has a street named after him outside Neyland Stadium, Phillip Fulmer Way, and he's just 27 wins from passing General Robert Neyland, who led the team for 21 years, to become the all-time winningest coach in UT football history.
Fulmer is wedded to the University of Tennessee in a way that few coaches have ever been connected to their schools. He's spent 34 of the past 40 years of his life at Tennessee. From 1968 to 1971 Fulmer played as an offensive guard on the football team, arriving as a 6' 1" 198- pound linebacker who believed he might become a dentist one day. He won an SEC title as a player in 1969, and was 30-5 during his three-year career (freshmen were not eligible then). Upon graduation, he worked his way up in the coaching ranks, with 5 years spent at Wichita State and 1 year at Vanderbilt. In 1980 he became an assistant coach at Tennessee under Head Coach Johnny Majors, and 12 years later, in 1992, he was named the 20th head coach in University of Tennessee history. Since that time he has amassed a career record of 147-45 (.766), which, on a percentage basis, makes him the winningest coach in college football with 10 or more years under his belt.
But Fulmer's connection to the university is not just individual. All four of Fulmer's children, his son, Phillip Jr. (39), and three daughters, Courtney (25), Brittany (23), and Allison (21), currently a senior, attended the school. In 2007 Fulmer and his wife of 26 years, Vicky, donated $1 million to the university, half to the athletic program and half to academics. He's the most recognizable man in the entire state of Tennessee ... and there isn't a close second.
He's also the dean of Southeastern Conference coaches, and in his 16 seasons as UT head coach, he has seen the SEC evolve from a spirited regional pastime into one of the most profitable enterprises in American sports. In 1992, when Tennessee hired Fulmer, three other rival coaches in the SEC had played for and graduated from the schools they coached: Georgia's Ray Goff, a former quarterback; Ole Miss's Billy Brewer, a former quarterback; and Florida's Steve Spurrier, a former quarterback as well. What's more, five additional SEC coaches played for or coached under Alabama's Bear Bryant: Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State, Danny Ford at Arkansas, Gene Stallings at Alabama, Pat Dye at Auburn, and Curley Hallman at LSU. In 1992 the only school in the SEC with a coach born outside the Southeast was Vanderbilt. SEC football was still a regional game, a sport played and coached by men of the South. Lots of men of the South. Since 1992, Fulmer has outlasted 46 head coaches at the 11 other SEC schools.
Now, as 2008 commences, Fulmer is the last of the regionalistsâthe only coach in the SEC to be born in the state where he coaches or to graduate from the school he coaches. Less than a month ago the SEC inked the most lucrative television contract in the history of collegiate conference sportsâESPN and CBS agreed to pay a whopping $325 million a year to televise league athletic events. With this money has come a newfound national prominence for the SEC. In fact, this very game, UT's season opener against UCLA in the Monday Night Football slot on ESPN, is a made-for-television contest. ESPN was able to get both universities to change their already-announced schedules to fit the telecast. Tennessee bumped back their opener against the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) to September 13 and UCLA rescheduled their opener with Fresno State. Now both teams have the television stage entirely to themselvesâthe final game of the opening weekend of college football. This is no surprise; television owns college football. As UT athletic director Mike Hamilton said back in early April when the change was announced, "The opportunity to play unopposed on national television against such a quality opponent as UCLA was something we couldn't pass up." Hamilton couldn't pass it up because 85 percent of UT's athletes come from outside the state of Tennessee. And potential recruits are first exposed to the UT program through television events such as this one.On Rocky Top
Excerpted from On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era by Clay Travis
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