Fifteen months ago Phil Fulmer trudged out of Neyland Stadium, his Tennessee program reeling, his team humiliated.
Vanderbilt – the Volunteers' longtime in-state patsy – was dancing around Knoxville after a 28-24 victory that sent UT toward its final 5-6 record, the worst in Fulmer's then-14 seasons.
Fans were giving it to Fulmer from the mountains to Memphis, the memories of the 1998 national championship fading like the foliage in the Smokies. Suddenly a program that for more than a decade seemed unstoppable was in trouble, and Fulmer himself was sitting on a hot seat. And a 2006 recruiting class that finished in the second half of the SEC didn't help ease fears.
"The wheels came off," Fulmer admitted.
He said that from his office earlier in the week, before the fax machine started humming Wednesday with national letters of intent from more than 30 top prospects, including five five-star recruits according to rivals.com.
That's good enough for the Vols to wind up with the No. 2-ranked recruiting class nationally, according to most analysts. Only white-hot Florida, riding the wave of its national championship, is consistently considered better.
When you couple that with UT's nine-win, bounce-back season, it's pretty clear the Vols are a long way from that sorry afternoon against Vanderbilt.
"We put the wheels back on in a big way," Fulmer said. "I think everybody is recognizing that. We had an exciting year. We're fighting right back where we were."
You never know with these recruiting rankings, with game footage and media accounts of high school stars overmatching opponents. Some pan out, some don't. But ask just about any coach in the country, and he'd rather be sitting where Fulmer is than the alternative.
The story here is how the Volunteers rebounded. Fulmer made immediate changes on his staff and refocused on finding great talent. The one-time UT offensive lineman didn't just dig in against criticism. He used it as motivation to be better.
But that's easier said than done. Fulmer, 56, had hit a stage of his career, a point in life, where so many great coaches begin to slide, where even strong programs fall apart.
Being a college football coach is a brutally exhausting and competitive job. It's the reason so few make it past 15 seasons at one place – Fulmer is the dean of SEC coaches – let alone find a way to ramp up things.
When you've been around the block a number of times, there aren't a lot of new tricks, not a lot of new friends to make, just a lot of fresh, energetic new coaches to compete against.
And once momentum swings against you, as it had with Fulmer, few recover.
"We're very excited about this class," Fulmer said. "We filled some needs we needed to fill immediately, some guys who are rated very highly and outstanding on tape. And I think we also have a good core group of guys we can work with and develop."
The stars will get the headlines here, and Tennessee signed a bunch of them Wednesday. There is defensive back Eric Berry out of Georgia, linebacker Chris Donald out of Tennessee and defensive end Ben Martin from Cincinnati, all rivals.com top-20 national recruits.
Then there is junior college stars Kenny O'Neal, a wideout from California, and Brent Vinson, an athlete out of a prep school in Virginia.
Basically, Tennessee aggressively went all over the country and dragged kids back to Rocky Top.
"We always start with it is a great university to sell," Fulmer said. "It is still the winningest program over the last 75 years in the country. People don't realize that. [And it's] certainly one of the winningest teams in the Southeastern Conference during my time here. We have exciting style of play on both sides of the ball.
"There are some dynamic young people in this class that bring speed and athletic ability, and a couple of defensive linemen that look like they have a chance to be very good players."
Fulmer will spend Thursday barnstorming the state, hyping up the recruiting class. He has booster functions set in Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis, a few hundred people at each stop.
"It's a big circus," he said.
He'll be staring out at plenty of people who began to doubt him in fall of 2005, plenty of people who understandably wondered about the direction of the program, who wondered whether Phil Fulmer should remain the head coach in Knoxville for much longer.
There won't be much to wonder about now.
- Phil Fulmer