HEAD COACHES NEWS CONFERENCE - Tennessee Coach Phillip FulmerOpening Comments: “We are very excited about being here. We are appreciative of the SBC Cotton Bowl and the hospitality that is always there. Every year that we have been here this is one of the best host groups that we have had the chance to be around. The city of Dallas is a great place to visit and we have enjoyed that here this week.
“Congratulations to Dennis (Franchione) and Texas A&M on their success. Our team is very excited about playing in this football game. We have had a good week of preparation here. Preparation went well in Knoxville. We are looking forward to a very exciting football game.”
On Reggie McNeal and comparisons to other quarterbacks you have played against: “He is all that Dennis (Franchione) said and more in that that he is a defensive coordinator’s nightmare. They do a great job of multiple formations and running the option out of most of those formations. They make you accountable for the quarterback, the pitch, the option pass and all of those things. The system is a lot of what they do that allows them to be successful. I would have to go back to 2000 and the Kansas State quarterback (Jonathan Beasley) being as multiple as a threat. I’m not sure we have seen somebody in quite some time quite like he can be.”
On feeling when Coach Dennis Franchione left Alabama and the SEC: “Dennis and I had two good games. We had two great football games. Dennis brought immediate stability. His teams at Alabama, as they have at Texas A&M, play really hard. I have been in the conference 12 full years. We are the only team that hasn’t turned over at least once. I think I quickly figured it up one day and told our local guys that there have been 21 head coaches in the SEC in my time at Tennessee that have been fired at other schools. When Dennis left I was happy. I was happy that he left.”
On secondary strengths and weaknesses: “We started the year with two big concerns that was at quarterback and in the secondary, particularly at safety. The quarterback position has somewhat worked itself out with the infusion of the freshmen and them doing so well. Here at the end with Rick Clausen, who I think is a great story in what he has been able to accomplish.
“The secondary, we really haven’t come to fruition with that yet. We made a lot of progress particularly I thought in the middle part of the year. We played much more consistent back there. We moved Jason Allen and then played the two freshmen. We had to suspend Brandon Johnson for the season that put us back in a stint a bit. Roshaun Fellows had to battle through some injuries at different times. The two freshmen corners have played very well at times. At times they have played like freshmen. It has been a struggle for us. Jason Allen has been the one consistent back there for us. He leads the Southeastern Conference in tackles. If he had stayed at corner, he would have been an outstanding corner. We have the one good player and around him we are still working at consistency. They have one of their biggest challenges of the season coming up in the ball game with the passing attack and the ability to run the option and all the perimeter game that Texas A&M does.
“We have had good work and preparation. I certainly think they understand their challenge. Our goal for the season has been to put it all together at one time. Early in the year the offense was kind of doing well and the defense was finding its way as a very young group. Then in the middle of the season our defense played extremely well. Offensively we were kind of finding our way through injuries and finish games like we wanted to. And then at the end of the season, the offense picked it back and the defense had some struggles at the end of the season. I think in parts of the SEC Championship Game, especially the third quarter, we played as a team. Hopefully we can pick up where we left off.”
On UT Secondary Coach Larry Slade and his coaching job this season and whether some missed recruits had something to do with secondary problems: “Most of the time when you have issues, you have either missed (on recruits) or you have had injuries or something like that at any position. Larry has done a good job. Last year we had three defensive backs that made NFL rosters. Rashad Baker, Jabari Greer and Gibril Wilson all made up a very solid secondary along with Jason Allen at corner. That was really a strength for our team last year. Our defense by nature puts a lot of pressure on the secondary with the coverages that we play, particularly the amount of man coverage we play and what we ask our safeties to do in support and being able to cover. A couple of guys didn’t develop like we had hoped or as quickly as we had hoped. They will in time. As I said, we had a suspension that set us back a little bit. To answer your question, Larry has done a good job. Sometimes our best jobs are done in the years that you struggle. This staff as a whole, with this football team, I have been really happy with what we have been able to get out of it collectively as a staff and the players.”
On UT quarterback Rick Clausen and how surprised he was to see him succeed down the stretch: “I was really happy. I was really happy for Rick because of the type of person he is and how unselfish he has been. I know how badly he wanted the opportunity. You look at the whole picture of the thing and he played behind Casey (Clausen) in high school So he really only had one year of being a quarterback on a good team in high school. Then he chose to go to LSU because he didn’t want to be behind Casey again. Of course then he transferred to Tennessee.
“I think Rick has validated himself. I’m proud for Rick. I’m obviously very proud of what he has done for our football team too. The intensity that he has kept through all of this and the interest in our team (has been good). We sat down in the preseason before we made the change and he said ‘Coach those freshmen are really going to be good, I understand.’ Now we have gone full circle and he is the guy. I’m really proud of Rick. Hopefully he can finish up this season well. He will be right there in the mix competing to help us next year.”
On why this has been a fun team to coach and what the difference between a fun team and a team no fun to coach: “It’s been a fun group of guys. I think a lot of it is because their youthful enthusiasm. We are playing a good number of young guys that are learning every day. As a coach, you like that. It’s a nice mix of older guys and their leadership, Kevin Burnett, Jason Allen, Tony Brown, Parys Haralson and Michael Munoz have all been outstanding leaders for our team. Our senior and junior classes stepped up from the standpoint, when they go to practice it is time to practice. It has been productive. Each day you come off the field most of the time, you feel like we made some progress today. When you play, you play hard. There have been very few, if any, off the field significant distractions and those kind of things. It has been a fun group. They have a smile on their face. They walk by on the practice field and they pat you on the rear. You have good conversations about other things off the field. It has been a fun team that way. Winning as many close games this year against the teams we played, obviously that made it fun as well.”
On what try to accomplish in non-conference scheduling: “From our standpoint, the conference dictates a large majority of our schedule. Non-conference wise, like Dennis, even though I have been there a long time I have had very little say. Coach (Doug) Dickey was my athletic director and he was my coach. So he just walked in and said we are going to play these guys by the way. (UT Athletic Director) Mike (Hamilton) and I have more conversation about future scheduling. It is so far out; we are eight to 10 years out. We might have some influence. We are going to play intersectionally, UCLA or Miami, Notre Dame or those kind of folks because we have to. It helps us I think from a recruiting standpoint because we do go a lot of places. It helps us from a national prestige standpoint to play those kind of teams. There are plusses to that and there are minuses to that. If you hit the team at the wrong time it can be tough or it can be really rewarding. Last year we beat Miami at Miami and it was a big win for our program.”
On experience in bowl games and adjustments made in bowl games: “Much the same as Dennis (Franchione) said, when you have this much time there is a temptation to add and do other things. We did play an SEC Championship game so we an additional week preparing for a game that wasn’t spent on Texas A&M. With our youthfulness in a lot places, we have tried to work a lot of fundamentals. In Knoxville, we took 25 or 30 minutes after practice and almost made it a mini spring practice to use the time for the younger players that hadn’t played a lot. That was a focus. As multiple is Texas A&M is on both sides of the ball, especially on the offensive side, we wanted to the best we could want to cover our bases with what we did and in the process added a few things that can give us a play. Usually in a game like this, three or four plays can make a tremendous difference. There are basically two fairly even teams. There are not a lot of new things from our standpoint, but we tried to make sure that the things that we have had in and things that we do Ð we do well.”
On playing Texas A&M in Texas and the feel of a road game in the Cotton Bowl: “We certainly respect that we are in Texas. The Cotton Bowl is traditionally a bowl for a Texas team so to speak. We are taking on the visitor’s role We have played pretty well on the road the last two years. We piped in the crowd noise yesterday to practice. We expect it to be loud. We are a three-point underdog in the game I think. I don’t pay much attention to odds, but that tells you something. I think our team is excited about the challenge we have.”
On what would be the one thing you would change about college football: “Having a good friend at Ole Miss (David Cutcliffe) having gone through what he has gone through having one of the best eras in Ole Miss’ recent history and being fired, I think we are headed in the wrong direction. All of us as coaches understand that Saturdays you got to win. I don’t think that the gentlemen at Notre Dame did anybody any favors by saying that Tyrone Willingham did everything right from Sunday to Friday. His players GPA’s were way up. He hadn’t had any off the field problems. He just didn’t get it done on Saturday. That is the bottom line and the truth. We all understand that. I know Dennis (Franchione) feels the same way because I have been around him enough in committee meetings and different things around we are bringing young people from adolescence into manhood. That is very much a part of our job as well. Three years or one bad season that seems to be the trend with (Frank) Solich, (David) Cutcliffe and (Tyrone) Willingham. That is a bad message out there. Impatience, I guess. I have a unique situation at Tennessee. I don’t pretend for one minute that if we didn’t do well that I could be on that list as well. At least I know that, from an administrative standpoint, those other priorities, the social development, and the academic development even the spiritual development side of a young man is important to the longevity of a program. I believe that if you had a couple tough years for one reason or another, tough years would be defined differently at different schools. It is just a travesty to me. We all understand that. You just have to win.”
On proposal to have a committee choose teams for BCS Championship Game: “I haven’t really read up on it or kept up on it that much to really comment on it. I suppose whatever system we have at the beginning of the year, I think most coaches would agree with this, if we know it on the front end whatever happens during the course of the year we all have to live with. I know (Auburn coach) Tommy Tuberville is having to live with that right now. We go through the process. We have been the benefactors of the system at the beginning in 1998 when we won the national championship. Going back to 1995 with the whole alliance thing, we ended up the No. 2 team in the country and were not quote in the alliance. We have been on both ends of the stick from that standpoint. As long as we vote on the front end, I can live with whatever we say.
“I also want to comment on what Dennis (Franchione) said about the scrutiny of the votes. I’m trying to do our association (American Football Coaches Association) a favor and a service when they ask me to vote. To put it out there weekly to be scrutinized in another way, particularly when several of the teams that we will play are in that group of people, I’d rather not vote than go through that, personally.”
On plans for team celebration of New Year’s: “We might celebrate around dinner. That is about it. We have a very early wake up in the morning because of the time of the game. Maybe the next night they can pretend it is New Year’s.”
On benefits of starting a veteran quarterback like Texas A&M with Reggie McNeal: “I think all of us at the beginning of the year, if you return your quarterback, your odds of doing well are significantly increased if he has been a productive player like Reggie McNeal has been. It solidifies not only the offensive team, but the entire team in that you know that your strengths are with your team. You also know what your weaknesses are. You work to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses when you have a veteran quarterback.
“Any adjustments as far as the week of the game or halftime adjustments are much easier with a veteran quarterback. Even when they come to the sideline, you can make quicker adjustments. I know all year long, (Offensive Coordinator) Randy Sanders has done a tremendous job with our young guys and even with Rick (Clausen) to some degree of staying within the realm of what they can to do and understand as far as protection and those kind of things. That is always a challenge. With a more veteran player you can be more flexible.”
-- 69th SBC Cotton Bowl Classic --