Sunday, October 11, 2009

SEC coaching rivalries: Phillip Fulmer vs. Steve Spurrier, 1993-2001

It seems unlikely in the current climate of high-pressure SEC coaching that there will be another lifer who serves his alma mater for decades on end. Philip Fulmer was almost certainly the last of his breed.

Born and raised in Winchester, Tennessee in the south-central part of the state just across the Alabama state line Fulmer grew up in the very geometric center of the UT-Bama rivalry. Though Fulmer was quite talented enough as a prep lineman to earn high level interest as a college recruit there was only one choice for him and he would not be dissuaded. Fulmer matriculated at UT in 1968 and walked on to Doug Dickey’s team. His hard work and commitment to UT football earned him a scholarship and established him on the offensive line. He played on an SEC championship winning team as a sophomore in 1969 and an 11-1 Sugar Bowl winning team in 1970. The Vols lost only five games in Fulmer’s three years as a player. He loved Tennessee and he loved football. When he graduated he could only envision one career. Fulmer had to coach. Needless to say, when it came to his coaching ambitions there was, as always, only one school.

Immediately after graduating, Fulmer coached Tennessee’s freshman linebackers. After six years coaching various positions at Vanderbilt and Wichita State he returned to Knoxville as an assistant coach in 1980. He would serve continuously as a football coach at UT for the next twenty-eight years. Fulmer worked faithfully as an assistant to Johnny Majors, the legendry former Volunteer running back, from 1980 until 1992. Over half way into the 1992 season the University controversially let Majors go due to health problems. Feelings on the move ran high and at a difficult time for the school Fulmer was a wise and reliable choice as successor.

Apart from keeping the peace, Fulmer's mandate was simple: arrest the meteoric rise of upstart rival Florida. Majors' SEC championships in 1985, ‘89 and ’90 appeared to put the Vols back in the big time after decades of subservience to Paul Bryant's hated Crimson Tide. But in 1990 and ’91 a hot young head coaching commodity named Steve Spurrier arrived in Gainesville and immediately began turning UF into a football giant.

Fulmer worked every bit as hard as any rival to build his Tennessee program. He even began to do what no UT coach had done in decades by stealing recruits from the back yards of conference rivals. Some of the greatest Vols of the 1990s hailed from states that rarely if ever sent a coveted prep star to Knoxville before Fulmer. Jamal Lewis came from Georgia, Darwin Walker from South Carolina, Travis Henry from Florida, Tee Martin from Alabama. Fulmer even drew national talent from areas beyond the south, including the phenomenal receiver Peerless Price from right under Buckeye noses in Ohio.

While SEC rivals other than Florida suffered through periods of coaching mediocrity (Ray Goff and Jim Donnan at Georgia, Billy Brewer at Mississippi, Mike DuBose at Alabama, Terry Bowden at Auburn) Fulmer’s teams reflected his own consistent, methodical, efficient and unflappable style. His first full season in charge coincided with the SEC divisional split and new championship game format. From 1993 to 2001 Tennessee never finished lower than second in the SEC east. Seven of those nine seasons the eastern divisional champion won the conference. Almost every year during the 1990s Florida vs. Tennessee constituted a de facto SEC title game. And for all Fulmer’s effort, Florida generally won.

Fulmer faced Steve Spurrier as a head coach nine times. His unimpressive record of 2-7 does not adequately reflect his work and accomplishments as UT head coach. From 1995 through 1998 the Vols went an amazing 45-5. Three of those losses came against Florida. Tennessee fans hated Spurrier. As Fulmer steadily built his program during the mid-nineties around his most prominent recruiting coup, Payton Manning, the Vols dropped five straight to Florida. Fulmer’s first clash with the Gators came on the road in mid-September 1993. Florida was ranked 3-0 and Spurrier had yet to lose a home game.

For a man apparently able to accomplish whatever he desired Steve Spurrier behaved with more public displays of emotion than almost any southern coach before him. At one point drawing a 15-yard unsportsman-like conduct penalty for protesting a holding call too vigorously and flinging his trademark visor toward a referee. Such displayed seemed totally unnecessary. Freshman quarterback Danny Wuerffel threw for 231 yards and three touchdowns with apparent ease. The game remained close, finishing 34-41, but UT made crucial mistakes. On the opening kick of the second half return man Nilo Silvan fumbled and gave Florida only 30 yards to drive for a TD. After the game Tennessee receiver admitted to a reporter that the Vols could not get over the ‘big game’ hump. In contrast Spurrier was yet to lose to Georgia, Tennessee or Auburn in three seasons as head coach.

In the end it all came at once for Fulmer. He beat Spurrier and earned Tennessee’s first national championship in half a century all in the same year. Before the 1998 meeting Fulmer answered media questions about the Gators with chagrin, saying:

“We’ve lost three SEC games in three years but people only want to talk about Florida. I share their passion, but it gets frustrating.”

Quarterback Payton Manning, running back Jay Graham, and stand-out defensive end Leonard Little had all graduated. After five straight losses to UF and rebuilding after graduating such stars, few gave Tennessee a prayer. But the Vols did exactly what the situation called for, playing a careful, conservative game. Tee Martin threw only twenty times, completing a paltry seven for 64 yards – not Manning-like numbers to say the least. Fortunately senior receiver Peerless Price converted one of those completions for a twenty-nine yard touchdown. Senior linebacker Al Wilson was everywhere, forcing three fumbles – one from the quarterback in the backfield, one from a receiver in open space, and one from a running back at the line of scrimmage. Dave Cutcliff’s supremely organized offense put together 170 yards on the ground; much by a young back and future star named Jamal Lewis who gained 81 yards on 20 carries. But even giving up four turnovers the Gators still took the affair to overtime. The Vols were desperate and the atmosphere could not have been tenser. When Florida came away with nothing from the first overtime possession victory became almost palpable for the home fans. Neyland roared, but again victory seemed destined to slip away when the Vols lost ten yards on their first two downs. Fortunately Tee Martin remained calm and showed enough presence of mind to take a 14 yard rushing gain with Florida back in deep pass coverage. That gave his kicker a manageable distance for a narrow 20-17 victory.

The relief in Knoxville was so great that the difference felt so much bigger than one overtime kick. With the monkey finally off their collective backs the Volunteers sailed to a 13-0 year and claimed the first ever BCS championship crown. Fulmer's program continued to compete at the highest level of SEC play but if surpassing Florida was the ultimate measure of success, 1998 was an aberration.

Bear Bryant always said that the University of Florida was the one SEC school he feared could become a dominant power with the right coach. He never lived to see that coach take the reigns in Gainesville, though his Crimson Tide did face and beat him once as a player. That loss, by three points in Tuscaloosa as a sophomore, was one of only nine games the Gators lost in Steve Spurrier’s three seasons as quarterback. He was a winner, plain and simple. Even growing up in Johnson City, Tennessee, a small mountain town in the far north-eastern corner of the state, Spurrier’s extraordinary talents garnered national attention. He not only lettered in three sports, but starred on a national scale. In three seasons pitching for Science Hill Prep he never lost a game and led his team to two consecutive state championships. Somehow Spurrier was even better at football and earned Prep All-America honors as a senior.

Though he grew up in the heart of Volunteer country Steve Spurrier decided to accept Ray Grave's scholarship offer and matriculated at the University of Florida in 1963. Like all Florida coaches during the first nine decades of Gator football Graves never fielded outstanding teams. That his .685 winning percentage ranks as second amongst UF coaches in the modern era not called Spurrier or Myer significantly reflects the fact that he enjoyed the benefits of having Spurrier as a player three of his ten seasons.

Spurrier and Fulmer in more recent times

Spurrier was, and still is, an amusing blend of utterly old-school and assertively innovative. His three-sport letterman, all-American, small-town High School career and his dual contribution passing-punting exploits in football possess something of a 1930s feel. Late on in a home date against Shug Jordan’s Auburn Tigers on October 29th 1966 Spurrier famously waved off Florida’s kicker on fourth down and booted the game winning points himself. The Gators triumphed 30-27 and the next week Heisman ballots were mailed out to voters. With Florida then 7-0 and ranked ninth, a 27 of 40 passing performance for a then SEC record 259 yards probably tipped the balance in his favor. Punting six times with a 47 yard average and converting the game winning place kick can't have hurt, either.

Jordan had warned his Tiger team all week that with a wild-card like Spurrier in the backfield Florida might well attempt a fake field goal. As Spurrier waved his kicker off with time expiring Jordan told his players:

“You’d better hope this is a fake because Spurrier kicks this he’ll make it.”

That was Steve Spurrier. Things went his way. His talent seemed to always make the difference. But if his multi-sport home-town heroism and quarterback/punter role were old-school, his rushing yards out of a vertical passing offense were more futuristic than the other running quarterbacks of his generation, most of whom played from the wishbone. In three seasons at Florida Spurrier went 392 of 692 through the air for 4,848 yards and 87 touchdowns. He added 442 yards on the ground. For the mid 1960s those figures were extremely impressive. Great quarterbacks at Texas, Nebraska or Oklahoma were more likely to make 4,000 yards rushing and 400 through the air.

Spurrier’s talent-driven Midas touch continued into his coaching career. So too did his love of flashy, innovative offense. Beginning with one season as Florida quarterbacks coach in 1978 he moved through various college and pro jobs before taking his first head coaching position at Duke in 1987. Since William Murray retired in 1965 no Duke coach had achieved a better win percentage than .440 and a few 6-5 seasons constituted the high water marks of Blue Devil football. Duke had not been to a bowl since 1961 and had no ACC championship since 1962. In Spurrier's second and third seasons Duke finished 7-4-1 and 8-4, winning the ACC that latter year. The Blue Devils have not won a championship or had a coach better than .330 since. Spurrier was obviously a hot commodity and when Galen Hall’s tenure in Gainesville came to a tumultuous end amidst NCAA rule violation accusation mid-season in 1989 it was no surprise who UF named as successor.

In some ways Spurrier's coaching was old-school. He could be gruff and was often aloof with his players. He ran a very tight ship. But he was also outspoken and not infrequently made public inflammatory comments or jokes. He told students at a prep rally before playing Auburn in 1991 that a fire had ravaged the AU library and burnt all twenty books. He finished:

“The real tragedy is that fifteen had not yet been colored yet!”

That kind of cocky self-assurance brought a new era to SEC football. It came as quite a surprise from a man coaching at Florida, which had never won a championship of any kind prior to his arrival. Spurrier changed that in two seasons.

By the early 1990s the state of Florida had transformed from a sparsely inhabited swampy region with an unlivable climate into an economic hotspot with an exploding population. Young athletic talent was now plentiful enough to sustain winning college football programs. Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles and Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes made Florida the college football state of the decade in the 1980s and left the state’s flagship public university behind. Galen Hall recruited well against in-state rivals but couldn’t seem to coach those players up to the highest level. Spurrier took over Hall's squad and brought a confidence to Gainesville that affected a sea change. He brought Florida’s offensive up to Miami’s speed and Florida State’s aggressiveness. The Gators went 9-2 in his first season and topped the SEC standing but could not claim the conference crown or appear in any bowl because of NCAA probation. That mattered little. Florida fans only had one more year to wait. Junior quarterback Shane Matthews broke the SEC total passing offense record with almost 4,000 passing yards the next season and won the SEC officially for the first time ever.

Florida failed to win ten games only two times during Spurrier’s tenure. From 1990 to 2001 he went a staggering 122-27-1. His teams won six SEC titles and a national championship. He was named SEC coach of the year five times. After the conference split to two divisions in 1992 Florida failed to win the East Division only twice under Spurrier, coming second both times. Spurrier took UF to eleven straight bowls, winning six including two Sugar Bowls and two Orange Bowls. What he accomplished in a single decade as a coach during the 1990s can only be compared to Bear Bryant’s achievements in the 1970s and Bud Wilkinson’s run in the 1950s. That is hallowed company.

Florida's national championship did not come with complete ease. After the Gators romped to an unbeaten 12-0 record in 1995 they faced Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. 11 point victories over Auburn and Florida State had been UF’s closest wins by a considerable margin and blowing opponents out of the water had become routine. But on New Year's Day 1996 Tom Osbourne’s Huskers gave UF a taste of their own medicine in a lopsided 24-62 thrashing. Spurrier highlighted 1996 as the year for Gator redemption. Florida’s key players returned, led by Danny Wuerffel who had claimed both the Davey O’Brien and Sam Baugh awards as a junior the previous year. Off the field Wuerffel was humility incarnate. Quiet, unassuming, impeccably polite and deeply religious he lacked his coach’s cocky assertiveness. On it, he was more like his mentor. Though perhaps less flashy, he was equally unhesitant, ruthless, and intelligent as a down-field passer. Wuerffel was always crushingly reliable in the clutch moments. He claimed the Heisman trophy in 1996 - another sore spot for Volunteer fans who felt that Payton manning deserved the award in 1997 when he lost out to Michigan's Charles Woodson. It just seemed Tennessee c
ould never top Florida during the 1990s.

No game show cased Florida’s quick striking and potent offense like the 1996 trip to Neyland stadium. A close Tennessee-Florida game in Gainesville the previous year had gotten out of hand in the second half and ended 62-37. Tennessee players, coaches and fans salivated at the prospect of getting the Gators on their turf. The Volunteers worked for a year to prepare for thier chance at revenge, but once again the upstart rival refused to take come-uppance. Wuerffel threw four touchdowns to four receivers in the first twenty minutes while the Gator defense forced three turnovers in reply. UF led 35-0 almost before Tennessee fans could find their seats. So thorough was Florida’s whirlwind start and so total the trauma that even after Wuerffel finished only 11 of 22 while Manning threw for over 400 yards and closed the final tally to 35-29 the affair still had the feel of an unambiguous Gator rampage.

If there is one word to describe Spurrier’s teams it must be complete. They possessed everything on offense that he had shown in his own playing career: the gambler’s abandon combined with the expert’s skill; the pace and absolute shock-and-awe explosiveness; the innovation and disregard for the institutional habits of southern football. They also had a young guru as defensive coordinator whose confidence and productivity matched Spurrier’s own. Bob Stoops would go on to make a fine head coach himself in due course. For the time being, his punishing defensive style did more than enough to give Spurrier’s offenses room to work.

The Gators’ only loss in 1996 came in a 3 point nail-biter in Tallahassee. Fortunately for Spurrier, the Sugar Bowl committee invited FSU to face the SEC champion and gave Spurrier a second shot. The game quickly became personal after a Florida State player told reporters that the Seminoles had attempted to knock Wuerffel out of the game in Tallahasee. A public war of words ensued and in New Orleans January 1st 1997 the animosity was palpable. But the emotion and tension did not cloud Spurrier’s mind. He put FSU completely off balance with several new wrinkles. Firstly the Gators implemented a silent count with center Jeff Mitchell snapping the ball at his own discretion after receiving a ‘ready’ signal from his quarterback. Secondly, Florida ran almost exclusively from the shotgun. Wuerffel even scrambled 16 yards late in the third quarter for an uncharacteristic rushing touchdown. It seemed that every Gator produced the game of his life. Even punter Robbie Stevenson kicked for an average of 48 yards. Everything went Florida’s way. FSU couldn’t adjust and UF avenged a three point loss with a crushing 52-20 win. When Ohio State knocked off the Sun Devils in Pasadena later that day Florida had its national championship. Steve Spurrier, Florida’s chosen son had led the SEC’s perennial also-ran to the Promised Land in only six years. UF has never looked back.

Phillip Fulmer performed admirably as head coach in Knoxville at a difficult time. No other team even came close to matching Florida's records, offensive production, and championships. Fulmer's Tennessee teams did everything they could. But, as Bear Bryant prophesied, Florida's time had come.

Fulmer's pre-game talk from his last head-to-head UT-UF game vs. Spurrier

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