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Thursday, September 17, 2009
On Rocky Top by Clay Travis
Today's comments by former football coach Phil Fulmer, indicating that he's still upset about how he was let go as the head coach of the Vols last year, got me to thinking about a book I read recently. One that detailed everything that happened last season.

The 2008 football campaign is one that most University of Tennessee fans are eager to put behind them and forget about. It started off with great promise, only to see it all coming crashing down in a manner of weeks, leading to a free fall that saw the Vols drop from defending SEC East champs to the termination of long-time coach Phillip Fulmer.

When writer Clay Thomas agreed to write a book chronicling the season of the 2008 UT Volunteers football season, he had visions of a trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game and possibly the chance to celebrate the 10th anniversay for the 1998 national title by competiting for another one. Instead, what he got was the story of a season in turmoil and a program at a crossroads. And all of that is chronicled in his new book, "On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era."

Thomas' chronicle of the 2008 season from a fan turned journalist perspective is a fascinating one. It may be hard for a lot of UT fans (myself included) to relive the horror that was last year. Thomas has some fascinating insights in the book, including one that stated he felt more comfortable in the stands, pulling for the team than he did on the sidelines watching as things unfolded. He also examines some of the aspects of the passionate fans--both himself and others--wondering if they know how the players view the games they play each Saturday and the impact what they say and how they act have on the players. Thomas talks to Arian Foster and his family at several points in the unfolding narrative, looking at how Foster entered the season with the chance to become the leading rusher in UT history and ended the season as a goat of sorts and possibly having his chances for an NFL career go up in flames.

But make no mistake that the focus of this book is Fulmer. Fulmer began the season as the dean of SEC coaches and was facing a crossroads. Despite making it to the title game three times in a decade, the Vols hadn't won an SEC title since 1998. He was also bringing in a new offensive coordinator, who was told he would be the next guy with Fulmer decided to retire in a few years.

And then the season began with a road loss to LSU and quickly spiralled out of control, leading to the moment when ahtletic director Mike Hamilton felt the time had come to replace Fulmer. One interesting chapter shows two boosters and their views on Fulmer and why he should be either allowed to stay and given time to right the ship or why he should be removed as head coach. Both sides have some interesting arguements and, in the end, it comes down to a decision of whether to go with your head or your heart in keeping or firing Fulmer. Hamilton looked at the bottom line with declining attendance and the lack of a bowl game on the horizon and made the call.

The chronicle of what happened is peppered by personal observations by Travis, wondering whye he cares so much about the team and its successes or failures. He also examines the growing trend of bloggers and Internet chat rooms, discussing not only Fulmer but also the players and their impact. And, along the way, Travis litters in some history of the Vols--not only their history as a team, but his own moments that defined him as a Vols fan.

Oh and he calls Urban Meyer a midgit wrestler, too. Pure gold, if you hate all things Florida.

The book weaves in stories of the impact Fulmer had both on the field and and off it. And it also makes you wonder if UT didn't sell out the last little bit of its old soul and that of the old SEC to try and become a national powerhouse by hiring Lane Kiffin.

If you've a UT fan, this is a must read. But I think the story and observations go deeper than that. If you're an SEC football fan or a college football fan, this is essential reading. The questions about the cost and price of winning and being a national powerhouse are shaking as well as the implications of the new hires at various schools around the SEC. Travis argues that a part of the identity of the South was lost when Fulmer was fired becuase he truly was one of the last of the old guard who attended the school he coached at and cares passionately about the program beyond the wins and losses. Again, read the chapters on the trainers or the man who drives the equipment to and from road games to see how Fulmer was more than just the guy who coached the team on Saturday afternoons and how great a loss his firing truly will be to the UT program long term.

Travis asks some hard questions and offers no easy answers in the book. But if you want to really get inside the program and understand a bit more of all that went on last year, then this is a must read.

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 9/17/2009 03:00:00 PM | |
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