One heck of a walk for Fulmer
The Vol Walk has been a pregame ritual for University of Tennessee football fans, players and coaches for 22 years.
But prior to the Volunteers’ contest with No. 1-ranked Alabama on Saturday, it was a different walk that drew fans anxious for something to celebrate about the flagging program.
Strolling briskly up the hill from Thompson-Boling Arena about an hour before kickoff, former UT coach Phillip Fulmer led members of his 1997 Southeastern Conference Championship team, among them Peyton Manning.
The crowd was on them in a flash as they marched to Neyland Stadium where Fulmer was to be honored prior to the game for his upcoming induction into the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, and the 1997 team hoorayed as Legends of the Game.
“We love you, Phil, we miss you,” fans called out, rushing between parked buses to get photos with cell phone cameras.
At least that provided them with some digital highlights. There were few others worth preserving in pixels from Tennessee’s 44-13 loss to the Crimson Tide, which was punctuated by the methodical march of Alabama’s offense and the Volunteers’ erratic play on both sides of the football.
It wasn’t that Tennessee didn’t have opportunities to shock the Tide or at least make them fret, but an inability to develop consistency on offense or defense for more than two or three plays at a time has become the defining characteristic of Derek Dooley teams. And Saturday’s outing was no exception.
Fulmer, the last UT coach to defeat Alabama, didn’t ignore a question about the program’s struggles since his forced departure, but he couched his answer in terms of an increased number of crimson-clad visitors in the stands.
“I was pleased with the reception Alabama fans gave us when we came onto the field,” Fulmer said. “There’s mutual respect there.
“There have been days when it was hard from them to get tickets, and we’ll get back to that some day.”
That day wasn’t Saturday, however, even though knocking off the No. 1 team in the country would have been, to use a well-worn Fulmer phrase, a heck of a signature win for Dooley.
Meanwhile, the Tide rolled, slowly at first, as if testing the mettle of the Tennessee defense and the much-ballyhooed combination of quarterback Tyler Bray and his talented receivers, but then with more confidence.
Down 23-10 as the second half opened, the Vols got a double break when a penalty negated what would have been a lights-out Alabama touchdown. The Tide then missed a field goal. But the Vols did what they often do – drove into their opponent’s territory only to stall on a short-yardage situation. This time fourth-and-1 (again).
Alabama then went up 30-10 on a 42-yard TD pass, and the game was essentially over when Bray was picked off in the end zone with 1:19 left in the third quarter to end another drive.
“I’m really disappointed,” Dooley said.
And he’s not the only one.
Dr. Leonard Butts is sports editor emeritus and currently tutoring writing at Pellissippi State. He wrote from Knoxville.