On Saturday, November 29th 2008 the rivalry between the University of Alabama and Tennessee Volunteers came to an end. It was the day Phillip Fulmer patrolled the sidelines in Neyland Stadium for the final time, ending a long career in Knoxville.
Every great story has two key components: a hero and a villain.
Fulmer took over the job, amid plenty of controversy, replacing the legendary Johnny Majors. However, he cured the controversy with the best antidote known to coaches: winning. Not only did he win, he won in grand fashion, eventually winning 152 games, just 21 behind Robert Neyland, the man in which the Volunteers’ stadium is named.
Adored by Tennessee fans and hated by Southeastern Conference foes, Fulmer was an icon. He won on a national title, he won on the recruiting trail, and he won the games against his biggest rivals. For years it seemed like Fulmer could not be stopped until his stranglehold on the SEC east started to slip.
Following a 10-4 season in 2007, Fulmer suddenly lost his touch to torch rivals, dropping games to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Vols dropped a late season match up with Wyoming, a game that would cost Fulmer a shot at a bowl game. Then, just like that, the support was gone.
For Alabama fans, in the 90’s and through his final days, there was no coach hated more Fulmer. He was the one who sold out Alabama to the NCAA in the Albert Means case, putting the Crimson Tide in front of the barrel of the death penalty. Alabama fielded teams plagued with shortcomings, results of scholarship restrictions and poor recruiting.
For Crimson Tide fans, the program that was built into one of college football’s elite was being destroyed right before their eyes, in large part because of Fulmer’s deeds. The despise Alabama fans carried, made it that much sweeter when the Tide reigned supreme.
In 2007, a 7-6 season was made better after a 41-17 demolition of the Tennessee Volunteers as Alabama fans let Fulmer know he was public enemy number one in Tuscaloosa, raising one finger as his team ran in and out of the tunnel. The feeling was magnified in 2008 when Alabama was back on top, ranked second in the country, and again dominated Tennessee to the tune of a 29-9 victory in Neyland Stadium.
The 3rd Saturday of October will always be a traditional game for Alabama and Tennessee. However the day Phil Fulmer left, the rivalry ended as the key component was missing. Alabama had lost its villain and Tennessee lost its hero.