By Steve Williams
Over his long football coaching career at the University of Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer seemed to have the knack for winning close games.
I went back and checked the results, and sure enough, that was the case.
In my research, I defined a close game as one decided by eight points or less. Most of us call that a “one score game” – when the outcome of a game can still change with one possession.
Fulmer’s won-loss record in such close contests during his time as the Volunteers’ head coach, which spanned 16-plus seasons, was 51-23, a 69 percent winning clip.
Fulmer was uncanny at taking the lead and then nursing it to the finish line. Some call that “knowing how to win.”
I admit Lady Luck sometimes has a hand in determining the outcome of a close game. Just ask LSU coach Les Miles or former UT coach Derek Dooley, whose Vols lost 16-14 to Miles’ Tigers in 2010 after they had already started their victory celebration.
Sometimes a coach can almost pull off a huge upset but come up just short like former UT coach Lane Kiffin did in 2009 when No. 2 ranked Alabama blocked a potential game-winning field goal to hold on for a 12-10 victory.
That oval-shaped ball can sometimes bounce just the right way, too, like it did for Billy Ratliff and Fulmer’s Vols against Arkansas in 1998.
Ten years later, Fulmer suffered his last close loss, a 13-7 decision to Wyoming. Lady Luck didn’t have anything to do with that one. It was all on former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton, who had informed Fulmer on the Monday before the game that the 2008 season would be his last at Tennessee.
Had things been different, that Wyoming game probably wouldn’t have even been a close game. But I digress.
As Butch Jones continues in his second season as head coach at Tennessee, I believe it is important to monitor how he fares in close games. It has long been said that the sign of a good team is being able to win close games. And behind every good team, you usually find a good coach.
Jones is in his eighth season as a college head coach. Going into last weekend’s game at Ole Miss, Jones’ won-loss record in close games was 18-16, a 53 percent winning rate.
Jones was 2-2 in games decided by eight points or less in 2007 at Central Michigan, his first season as a head coach. One of those defeats was a 51-48 decision to Purdue in the Motor City Bowl, which certainly isn’t such a bad loss for a NCAA Division 1 FBS member like the Chippewas.
Jones was 5-4 in close games in 2008, including a 37-34 win at Indiana, He guided Central Michigan to a 29-27 win over Michigan State, another Big Ten member, in the second game of 2009 and finished 3-0 in close games that year.
All told, Jones was 10-6 in close games his three seasons at Central Michigan.
In his three seasons at Cincinnati (2010-2012), Jones was 6-6 in close games. One of those losses was a 31-29 decision to No. 9 ranked Oklahoma in 2010.
At the midway point of his second season at Tennessee, Jones stood 2-4 in games decided by eight points or less.
In 2013, Jones’ Vols held on for a 31-24 win over South Alabama, lost 34-31 in overtime to Georgia, posted a 23-21 “signature win” over South Carolina and fell at home to Vandy 14-10.
Jones’ second UT team boosted our hopes despite a 35-32 loss at Georgia, then deflated us again with a 10-9 setback at Orange and White checkered Neyland.Stadium.
Just for the record, Dooley went 3-7 in close games in his three seasons at Tennessee (2010-12), including a 10-7 loss at Kentucky that brought the 2011 season to an embarrassing end.
Kiffin was 1-3 in close games in 2009 but did coach the Vols to a 30-24 overtime win at Kentucky.
I also was interested in seeing how former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors came out in games decided by eight points or less. As it turned out, he was 39-26-8 (they still had ties then) in his 16 seasons at UT (1977-1992).
Like Jones, Majors faced a tough rebuilding job when he took over at UT. And get this – Johnny was 2-7-1 in close games his first four years, before going 6-0 in nip-and-tuck battles in 1981.
Fulmer’s cupboard of talent (he had helped recruit much of it) was nowhere near empty when he became UT’s head coach. But apparently, it took him a little time to learn how to win close games. He was 3-4 in his first three seasons, including a 17-17 tie with Alabama in 1993 that the NCAA changed to a forfeit win for the Vols.
Later on, Fulmer enjoyed two remarkable four-year stretches in close games, going 16-2 from 1995-1998 and 15-4 from 2001-2004.