CollegeFootballNews.com 20th Anniversary Top 20 Coaches
Who were the top 20 coaches since CFN started in 1998? No. 12 Phil Fulmer, Tennessee
CFN Era Top 20 Coaches: No. 12 Phil Fulmer, Tennessee
CollegeFootballNews.com is turning 20 this season, so we’re looking back on the greatest players, games, coaches and more since we first kicked things off back in 1998.
Wins and losses are certainly a part of it all – okay, a massive part of this – but it’s also about who came up with the biggest coaching performances over the long haul. Consistency matters, championships matter, and personality plays a role, too.
Who are the 20 coaches who defined college football since 1998?
One note, accomplishments before 1998 don’t count, other than when it comes to a coach’s legacy and overall status.
Phil Fulmer, Tennessee (in CFN era 1998-2008)
There was a time when Tennessee was a true superpower.
Johnny Majors was able to win three SEC titles from 1985 to 1990, but in 1992, he was out as the Vol head coach in the middle of the season and in stepped Phil Fulmer, who moved up from offensive coordinator into the top job, winning the final four games.
The program took off from there, winning 54 games and an SEC championship in six seasons, helped by Peyton Manning and a whole slew of future NFL starters.
And then Tennessee finally broke through, going 13-0 in 1998 with a national title.
Unfortunately, as good as Fulmer and Tennessee were from then on, Florida became even more dominant. Alabama and LSU rose up, and while the Vols won four SEC East titles, they couldn’t win another SEC championship.
Winning the national title, though, set the expectations at the highest of levels – and they weren’t unreasonable.
Year after year, Fulmer fielded some of the nation’s most talented teams, and he won nine games or more in six of his final ten seasons, but he could never get back over the hump.
Even so, after getting bounced out after a 5-7 2008 campaign, he left as one of the most successful coaches in Tennessee history with 152 wins, two SEC titles, and a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Biggest Moment: 1999 Fiesta Bowl
In the first ever true BCS Championship – there was a thing called the BCS Alliance before this – Tennessee got through a rocky performance against Florida State to get Fulmer his national title and the school’s sixth national championship.
The Vols caught a huge break facing Florida State’s clear No. 2 quarterback, Marcus Outzen, with star Chris Weinke having been knocked out for the season earlier in the year. Even so, the Seminole defense was able to keep the game close after Tennessee’s Dwayne Goodrich picked off Outzen for a score and a 14-0 first half lead.
Only up 14-9 midway through the fourth quarter, Tennessee was finally able to break through with Tee Martin finding Peerless Price for a 79-yard score. With a late field goal tacked on for a 23-9 lead, the Vols were able to hold on after an Outzen touchdown run in the final minutes.
All Tennessee had to do was wind down the clock and get out with the win, but a Travis Henry fumble gave the Noles one more shot. The Tennessee defense came through again with another interception to seal the win, and Fulmer had his title.
Phil Fulmer’s Best Season: 1998
Tennessee had a talented team returning, but it lost Manning from the 1997 squad that won the SEC Championship and got to the Orange Bowl.
The 1998 season looked like the national title dreams might be over before they could even get rolling, as Donovan McNabb and Syracuse cranked out a massive fourth quarter for a 33-31 lead in a wild shootout. But a key throw from new Tennessee starting quarterback Tee Martin led to a last second field goal for the win.
Pulling games out of the fire would be a theme for the season.
The Vols finally broke the Florida hex that Manning couldn’t, with Jeff Hall hitting his second-straight game-winning field goal – with this one coming in overtime – and the Gators missed their try to give Fulmer and Tennessee a 20-17 win.
The defense took over from there, allowing just 19 points over the next three games – including allowing just a field goal in the 22-3 win over a terrific Georgia team. At 7-0, there Vols were on a roll with most of the tough parts of the schedule behind them.
And then Arkansas came to town.
The Hogs hadn’t beaten anyone with a pulse other than an okay Alabama, but they were 8-0 and looking to make a huge national statement. They were very, very close to doing it.
Arkansas had a 21-3 first half lead, but the Tennessee running game took over to get back in the game. Down 24-22 late, the Vols needed a miracle, and they got it when Hog QB Clint Stoerner tripped – known as the “Stoerner Stumble” – leading to a fumble, and one last life.
A Travis Henry touchdown in the last minute gave the Vols a 28-24 win, and the dream season marched on.
After the scare, getting by Kentucky and Vanderbilt wasn’t a problem, and beating Mississippi State 24-14 in the SEC Championship finished off the regular season 12-0 to go off to the Fiesta Bowl and the national championship.
Phil Fulmer’s Worst Season: 2008
Fulmer survived a hot seat after a 5-6 2005 season with a 19-8 record over the following two seasons, but the 2008 team never took off.
The Vols lost to a bad UCLA team to start the season, got stomped by a national title-level Florida team, and lost to Auburn in a 14-12 fight for a 1-3 start.
Things didn’t get much better.
There were wins over Northern Illinois and Mississippi State, but losing three straight – including to a bad Wyoming team at home – ended any hope of going bowling. Fulmer was told he’d be let go at the end of the season.
Fulmer finished on a positive note with wins over good Vanderbilt and Kentucky teams to close out 5-7.
CFN Era Coaching Record: 98-41 in 11 years
College Football Hall of Fame, inducted in 2012
1998 SEC Coach of the Year
1998 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year
CFN 20th Anniversary lists compiled by Rich Cirminiello, Pete Fiutak, Phil Harrison & Russ Mitchell