Looking Back

A roller coaster history and Vols football coaches

Commentary

By Larry Bowers
Posted 10/11/17

I crossed paths with a number of University of Tennessee football coaches in my early sportswriting career.They came and went over a period of several years, until I stepped away from a regular diet …

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Looking Back

A roller coaster history and Vols football coaches

Commentary

Posted

I crossed paths with a number of University of Tennessee football coaches in my early sportswriting career.

They came and went over a period of several years, until I stepped away from a regular diet of sportswriting. Once again I’m wondering if the powers on “The Hill” are preparing to issue another ticket out of town.

Butch Jones’ tenure at Tennessee had been “acceptable” with a mixture of good wins and bad losses ... until a week ago. As the coach has a habit of saying ... the showing against Georgia was “unacceptable” — or worse.

I have never seen the Volunteers lose by 41 points. At home or elsewhere!

I am no longer as big a Big Orange fan as my son, or thousands of others in Tennessee who wear the orange-and-white as a way of life. For them, life is not enjoyable right now.

I am a fan, and pull for the Vols, but extremes have faded in my later years.

I have my memories of exciting games and performances over the years, but they do little to ease the sting of the recent debacle. There was little chance of a win, no points, and a minimum of positives. Quarterback Josh Dobbs is gone, and so is the offense. 

As one jokester said, “Jones has exceptional skills; he emptied the stadium in less than a single half!” 

Has Jones had his chance, and been found wanting? Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley never lost by 41, and it could have been worse. 

Is there a coach out there that can pull the Vols into respectability with a firm grip on their jerseys? 

Without quick and solid improvement, we may soon find out. This is the lesson I remember from my old days of covering Tennessee football.

The first UT coach I covered as a young writer was Bowden Wyatt in his final year with the Vols in 1962. It was memorable, although he registered a 4-6 record and exited after the season.

Near the end of that campaign, his Tennessee Volunteers upset top-ranked LSU, 14–13, by stopping a two-point conversion attempt by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon.

A high school friend, Paul Tilson, who played at Blount County’s Everett High School, stopped Cannon’s try short of the goal line for one of Tennessee’s greatest wins.  

Tennessee’s next coach, James Allen McDonald, improved on Wyatt’s previous year with a 5-5 mark, but still received his walking papers after a single season. McDonald was an Ohio State All-America selection as a player, and his chance for success in the South was probably limited.

Tennessee Athletic Director Bob Woodruff then selected one of his former players at Florida, Doug Dickey, to lead the Volunteers. Dickey had studied under Coach Frank Broyles at Arkansas, before coming to Knoxville.

Dickey had substantial success, and turned a so-so program around by guiding the Vols to two SEC football championships, high national rankings, a host of All-America stars and annual bowl game appearances.

He compiled a more than respectable 46-15-4 record during his six-year coaching stint at Tennessee. 

Tennessee’s next coach was William Raines "Bill" Battle III, who is the current athletic director of the University of Alabama. He was Tennessee’s coach from 1970 to 1976, and at the time the youngest college head coach in the country , at age 29.

Despite a 59–22–2 record in seven seasons in Knoxville, Battle was forced out after the 1976 season. This allowed Volunteer legend Johnny Majors to return to his alma mater after leading Pittsburgh to the 1976 national championship.

Majors had been a triple-threat tailback at UT in his playing days, one of the last schools to use the single-wing. He was an All-American and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1956. 

At Tennessee, Majors achieved success in the 1980s and early 1990s, winning three SEC Championships (1985, '89 and '90) but falling short of a national championship. In 1989, the Majors-led Vols followed a 5–6 season with a 11–1 season, the largest turnaround of the year.

Majors was forced to resign as UT’s football coach during the closing weeks of the 1992 football season. The Vols racked up a 5-0 record under interim coach Phillip Fulmer, a longtime Majors assistant, who steered the team while Majors was recovering from heart surgery. 

A strong contingent within the UT fan base believes that the Majors firing was the result of behind the scenes maneuvering on the part of Fulmer, Johnson, then-UT Athletic Director Doug Dickey and then-UT president Joe Johnson.

Majors had an overall coaching record of 185-137-10, and was 9-6 in bowl games. 

Fulmer served as head coach at Tennessee from 1992 to 2008, compiling a 152–52 record. He is best known for coaching the Volunteers in the first ever BCS championship title in 1998, defeating Florida State University. Fulmer was the Volunteers' 20th head football coach.

At the end of his tenure at Tennessee, Fulmer had the second-highest number of wins of any head coach in Tennessee history, behind Robert Neyland. Fulmer also was the third coach in Tennessee history to win a national championship. His 1997 and 1998 teams won consecutive SEC championships.

His ouster led to Kiffin, Dooley, and now Jones — and thousands of disappointed fans. Fulmer was recently selected as a special adviser to the university’s president.

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