Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer was quietest of all that night. He and his wife of 17 years, Vicky, declined party invitations and ate a late dinner with another couple at a Scottsdale restaurant. These are heady times for the 48-year-old Fulmer. It's at last becoming widely known that his winning percentage of .857 (66-11, excluding bowl games) is best among active coaches. Coach of the year awards have been piling up in his office like phone messages. Tennessee has signed him to a new contract worth more than $1 million per year through 2004. There are fresh signs that his program's top-level success will have legs. Coveted New Jersey high school quarterback Chris Simms, Phil's son, has said he will sign with the Vols. Yet Fulmer has struggled to embrace his varied riches. "I'm not very good with personal satisfaction," he said before the Fiesta Bowl. "I'm trying, but I'm not naturally good with it."
In turning Tennessee into a champion, Fulmer had an invaluable asset: the six-foot, 238-pound Wilson, who seemed to scare his teammates into succeeding. He rose from his seat during halftime of that 1997 SEC title game and berated the most celebrated of his teammates, calling for Manning and All-America middle linebacker Leonard Little to step up their play. He threw chairs and wept openly. "It was an incredible moment" recalled Manning last week. "It's hard to be a vocal leader in college. It gets embarrassing to stand up and speak. I'm a huge fan of Al Wilson's. He's got talent, and he's got a look in his eyes. We need him on the Colts right now."
Wilson, who made nine tackles on Monday, came to the Vols as a big-time recruit from Jackson, Tenn. Tennessee was doubly lucky: Wilson nearly went to Notre Dame, and he nearly chose to pursue boxing instead of football. Working under trainer Rayford Collins at the Jackson Boxing Club from age 11 to 14, Wilson showed uncommon gifts in the ring. "He could see punches coming," says Collins. "Incredible peripheral vision. You see it on the football field, too." He quit boxing when an older club member died in the ring of a head injury. "Al could have been a very good fighter," says Collins.
After three good years at outside linebacker, Wilson moved to the middle for his senior season. "He's been as good as or better than Leonard [Little] was," said Vols defensive coordinator John Chavis last week. Wilson was the reason a solid but not dominating Tennessee defense never folded. On Monday night junior cornerback Dwayne Goodrich intercepted a pass and returned it 54 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. Even in the four games Wilson missed with shoulder and groin injuries, he was seen—and heard—every day. "He's got this high-pitched, loud voice, and it goes right through your ears," says sophomore safety Deon Grant.
The voice is a memory now, the soundtrack to the Vols' highlight film.
In a narrow stadium hallway near the Tennessee locker room, Fulmer stood among his gathered family members. His was not an easy pull to the top. A former Vols' offensive lineman (1969-71), Fulmer replaced Johnny Majors after the 1992 season, only to have Majors and some prominent boosters accuse him of causing Majors's downfall. Fulmer was guarded and suspicious for years thereafter. "There was an awful lot of 'Who is this guy?' going on," he said before the Fiesta Bowl. "I felt I had to prove myself every day, and I was careful about what I said." He worked long hours and watched his back.
Much changed this season. Vicky and Phillip talked about their relationship, about how it works best when they spend lots of time together and about how Phillip used to take their three daughters, Courtney, Brittany and Allison, out for pancakes on Friday mornings when they were younger and how the girls, aged 12 to 15, are getting old so fast. "Phillip started to say no to things that weren't necessary," said Vicky. He loosened up. It was a delicious by-product that his team benefited from his more relaxed demeanor. The Vols played looser. They beat Florida. Won the SEC. Won the national title.
On Monday afternoon Fulmer told his players a story that reflected his newfound approach. "The vice president [Tennessee native Al Gore] is going to be there tonight," he said. "The governor is going to be there tonight. But never mind all that. I got a call today from Ace Clement [a member of Tennessee's national championship women's basketball team], and she told me to tell you guys that the Lady Vols are behind you." There was laughter. Tension was broken.
In the final seconds on Monday night, Fulmer's head filled with memories. He thought of his father, James, who worked two jobs his entire adult life and died in 1989, and of his 73-year-old mother, Nan, who still lives in Winchester, Tenn. "So many people help you get here," said Fulmer. The air was thick with cigar smoke. A championship trophy sat nearby on an orange storage crate. Fulmer wrapped both arms around Vicky and held her as though the night would never end.