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Stewart Mandel college.football.mailbag

Only in the SEC

Overzealous 'Bama fans keep Fulmer away from conference's media day

Posted: Tuesday July 27, 2004 11:48AM; Updated: Tuesday July 27, 2004 12:17PM
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  Phil Fulmer
Phil Fulmer is having to handle plenty of heat in the SEC.
Bob Rosato/SI

Well, I guess I've got to return that helmet and flak jacket I purchased. I was all set to follow around Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer at Wednesday's Southeastern Conference media day -- albeit from a safe distance of at least 20 yards -- but now it turns out he's not attending. (He'll appear via teleconference.)

As you may have read, officials were concerned about Fulmer's safety at the event in Birmingham, Ala. Most other conferences' media days take place in virtual anonymity, but the SEC being the SEC and its followers being, well, a tad bit nutso, fans often stake out the lobby of the hotel for a potential glimpse of the coaches and players. There was concern about what might happen if an angry 'Bama fan found a way to come in contact with Fulmer -- not to mention vengeful lawyers handing out subpoenas.

What a fascinating scene it would have been had Fulmer attended. In case you're unaware, Fulmer has been considered persona non grata in Alabama ever since it was revealed he assisted the NCAA in the investigation that ended in major sanctions for the Crimson Tide. You see, in Southern football culture, cheating is nowhere near as deplorable as ratting someone out.

Forget Alabama's bumbling leadership, failed coaching hires or that one of its boosters, you know, paid $200,000 for a recruit (Albert Means); many Tide fans -- not to mention the delusional lawyers who are trying to depose Fulmer in their suits against the NCAA, claiming it conspired with Tennessee to help bring down 'Bama's program -- blame their entire plight on Fulmer, and they have the conspiracy theories to prove it.

"[Fulmer] hated Alabama's glory and tradition and ability to recruit the best players," former Tide walk-on Mike Flax writes in his 2003 book Crimson Slide. "To blackmail the Crimson Tide, to please Philip (sic) Fulmer and gain a measure of revenge, Tennessee bosses allegedly paid Milton Kirk -- [Means' assistant coach in high school] -- $25,000 to talk to the NCAA and aid their investigation of Alabama."

In other news, the mystery JFK gunman jumped out from behind the grassy knoll and shouted, "Look at me, look at me!"

You can tell Fulmer's getting pretty annoyed with the whole thing. In the past, he's politely defended his actions but declined to elaborate. After finding out Monday, however, that he wouldn't be able to do a simple thing like attend a media gathering and discuss his team's 2004 prospects without getting subpoenaed in a frivolous lawsuit, he lashed out.

"As one of several coaches contacted by the NCAA regarding these serious violations by a small group of boosters, my response was honest, in line with our code of conduct, and the right thing to do," he said. "Rules were broken, an investigation proved it, those who broke the rules admitted their guilt, and a university paid the price. There are a few people who cannot accept the truth, so they file lawsuits hoping the truth will go away."

Fortunately for Fulmer, both his team's Alabama and Auburn games are in Knoxville this season. Eventually, however, he's going to have to cross state lines, and when he does, I want to be there -- standing at least 20 yards away.

Don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but, what happens if teams with tough schedules (Georgia, Michigan, FSU, Miami, etc.) end the season with one loss, and West Virginia goes undefeated after facing a very soft schedule in the weakened Big East? Who plays for the national championship?
 
--Jeff Hubert, Burlington, Ontario

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You're not getting ahead of yourself -- I had this very same conversation with someone at ACC media days. Such a scenario will be a real litmus test of what kind of regard the voters hold for the new Big East.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Georgia finished undefeated, Michigan and Florida State both went 10-1, yet the Dawgs somehow finished third in the BCS standings. There'd be universal outrage, correct? However, suppose the only undefeated team in the country at the end of the season was Southern Miss. If Miami and Oklahoma made the national title game each with one loss, instead of the Golden Eagles, there'd be some outrage, but for the most part people would consider this credible because Southern Miss didn't play as strong of a schedule.

So the question is, would a West Virginia team that goes undefeated in the watered-down Big East be considered closer to Georgia in the first scenario or Southern Miss in the second one? Will the Big East still be regarded as one of the major conferences or more like Conference USA? My guess, admittedly without knowing which -- if any -- Big East teams might rise up this year, is the latter.

The only thing more fun (and premature) than preseason polls are preseason Heisman predictions. That being said, who is your Heisman favorite and Heisman darkhorse?
 
-- Miles, Cedar Falls, Iowa

Would you believe this is the first time all offseason I've gotten this question? First of all, preseason Heisman pecking orders have become completely meaningless considering the past two winners, Carson Palmer and Jason White, were nowhere to be found on them. You need at least some name recognition coming into the season, but whether or not you're being pumped for the Heisman is moot.

Of course, that doesn't mean we can't have some fun with it. I'm of the belief that these things go in cycles, and after four straight years of quarterbacks winning it, we're long overdue for a running back. My favorite, based purely on track record, is Kansas State's Darren Sproles, but he may struggle to duplicate last year's success without the help of QB Ell Roberson. For a darkhorse, how about LSU's Justin Vincent, who looked like a superstar in the making in the SEC and national title games and only now will be playing his first full season.

The Big 12 wants to expand the season and play 12 games instead of 11. But we can't have a national championship game because it would make the season too long? Uh, help me out here, Stewart.
 
--Mark Guszak, Lampasas, Texas

Your confusion is understandable, and I'm sure a lot of people felt the same way when they heard the news last week. What you have to understand, however, is you're dealing with two distinctly different sets of decision makers. For commissioners and athletic directors, adding a 12th game is a no-brainer. They're the ones responsible for the financial health of their respective entities, so of course they want the extra revenue such a game would generate. And if it were up to them, believe me, we would also have at least a "plus-one" championship game, if not a mini-playoff.

It's their bosses, the university presidents, however, who are opposed to anything that might extend the season. They deal not in the business side so much as the academic side, and, following the directive of NCAA president Myles Brand, look at this as an opportunity to show they're not willing to further corrupt the "integrity" of college athletics solely for commercial gain -- never mind that we've already gone so far down that road that any attempt to curb it is almost comical. It's the presidents who will ultimately determine whether the Big 12's proposal will fly, just as they've already put the kibosh, at least for now, on the plus-one national title game.

That battle, by the way, may not be over after all. Early indications are that ABC is not too keen on the BCS' five-bowl, equal-opportunity model. The BCS commissioners have said all along the new model was contingent on the marketplace supporting it. Believe it or not, after all the haggling and compromises, the commissioners could wind up going back to the presidents and saying, "Hey, I know you wanted us to work this out, but we're all going to lose our shirts if you don't let us have that plus-one game." Stay tuned.

Do you agree that Wisconsin's new defensive coordinator, Bret Bielema, will be this year's Bo Pelini? In other words, the next young assistant coach to make a splash as the next great coach because he revitalizes an underachieving defense?
 --Adam Loewy, Dallas

I'm not nearly as sure about it as you seem to be, but yes, it's a fair analogy. One of the great mysteries of recent years has been the demise of Wisconsin's defense. While most people associate the Badgers' 1998 and '99 Rose Bowl teams with Ron Dayne, the defenses were also spectacular. The past few years, however, despite the presence of several top-notch players like Alex Lewis, Anttaj Hawthorne and Jim Leonhard, have just been brutal. Youth had a lot to do with that, however. Maybe with seven returning starters, Bielema, who was very highly regarded at Kansas State, can finally get the unit to play to its potential. If so, look out, because you know the offense is going to be productive with workhorse running back Anthony Davis returning.

On a related note, you can't exactly be thrilled if you're Nebraska, which replaced one-year wonder Pelini with Kevin Cosgrove -- Bielema's predecessor at Wisconsin.

I would feel a lot better about the AP and Coaches' polls comprising two thirds of the BCS formula -- as they now do -- if they did not poll until the first week of October, when we have actually seen the teams play three or four games. The preseason polls now take on more importance than ever before, because a team ranked in the 10-20 range may win all of its  games and move up only a few spots because of the prejudices built into the preseason polls. What is your take on this?
 
--Michael R. McKenna, Port Orange, Fla.

Actually, I think too much is being made of this possibility. Look at where some of the recent national champions started in the preseason polls: LSU (2003), 14th; Ohio State (2002), 13th; Oklahoma (2000), 19th. If you beat highly ranked teams, the pollsters take notice. The only way your scenario would possibly come to fruition is if three major-conference teams went undefeated. Chances are, the team that started lowest of the three would be unable to pass one of the other two. That hasn't happened yet, though, and even if it did, no one would be happy no matter what the rankings system was. The poll flaws of more concern to me are: a) that when a team loses tends to take on more importance than whom it lost to, and b) that pollsters are generally lazy and tend to blindly move teams up and down without actually considering whom that team played and/or how it performed.

Since Gary Barnett is in total denial of any wrongdoing, do you think there is any chance President Bush will put him on the ticket and dump Dick Cheney?
 
--John Garth, Athens, Ala.

I'm Stewart Mandel, and I approved that question.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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