Phil Fulmer to Michigan fans: ‘I didn’t conspire to punish Wolverines on final 1997 vote’

Phil Fulmer isn’t one to forget an old grudge, even 20 years after the fact. But the former Tennessee Volunteers football coach reiterated recently to Land of 10 that the 1997 Michigan co-national champions weren’t some target of vengeance. Or a political or personal agenda.

And as to the fan theory that your ballot was the one that helped to sink the Wolverines’ shot at a consensus national title two decades ago?

“No, I don’t think that happened,” Fulmer said of Michigan. “I don’t even remember. If I’d [conspired] against them or something, I would remember. I didn’t do that. I didn’t even know it was an issue.”

Yet it remains something of a sore spot among Wolverines faithful, even as the 1997 national co-champions are being honored this weekend at Michigan Stadium during the unbeaten Wolverines’ showdown with Michigan State.

Michigan, 12-0 that year, wound up splitting the 1997 national crown with 13-0 Nebraska, with the Wolverines sitting atop the final AP poll and the Cornhuskers tapped for the title — by a nose — by the coaches. The Huskers routed Fulmer’s then-No. 3 Volunteers 42-17 in the 1998 Orange Bowl, a day after Michigan topped Washington State in the Rose Bowl, 21-16.

The split title, and Fulmer’s alleged role in it, remains a raw nerve — one that got rubbed the wrong way again in 2014. Former Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr revealed during a public appearance in March of that year that he’d been told the final coaches poll showed two ballots had voted the Wolverines No. 3, and one listed them fourth.

“I was extremely bothered by it,” Carr said in an piece that recounted his appearance. “And I still am.”

Coaches’ ballots weren’t public then, but some fans — especially Michigan fans — have presumed Fulmer, who voted in the 1997 poll, to have turned in one of the aforementioned ballots that rankled Carr.

They’re presumed motives, too. Was it a favor to then-Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, whom he admired and who was retiring after the 1998 Orange Bowl? Retribution for the Wolverines’ Charles Woodson edging Vols quarterback Peyton Manning for the Heisman Trophy?

Fulmer dispelled such conspiracy theories, noting of the unbeaten Wolverines that, “shoot, they were one of the best in the country.

“I enjoyed Lloyd, too. I probably actually knew Lloyd somewhat better than Coach Osborne, as far as personally.”

But Fulmer also considered Osborne a mentor, going back to when he was a young assistant at Wichita State from 1974-78 and enjoyed the chance to pick the brain of the Huskers’ coach at any opportunity.

‘I probably actually knew Lloyd somewhat better than Coach Osborne, as far as personally.’

— former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer on ex-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr and the 1997 national championship split

“We went up [to Lincoln] a couple times as a staff,” Fulmer recalled. “He kind of took a liking to us and said, ‘Come when you want.’ So I had a chance to see him quite a bit. I just really admired him.

“I really wish he’d waited a couple weeks to retire until after the season, because his team was off-the-charts, played really great.

“He wrote me a letter afterward, a really sweet letter, congratulating us on a great season and how great the fans were. And [he] said, ‘It won’t be long until you win yours.’ ”

Actually, it wasn’t long at all. The Vols turned in their own 13-0 campaign the next fall, knocking off Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan 4, 1999, to win the first-ever Bowl Championship Series national title game.

“Coach Osborne was very much a guy that I looked up to in the coaching world,” Fulmer said.

“[Bo] Schembechler, Osborne, [Bobby] Bowden, [Joe] Paterno, when you got to conventions, those were the guys you wanted to meet or bump into or listen to lecture. There [were] a lot of other guys, but those guys were really bright.”

Still, Carr’s irritation was understandable, given the math. The final point tally in the 1997 coaches poll had the Big Red edging the Wolverines by just four points, 1,520 to 1,516, and on first-place votes, 32 to 30. A first-place vote was worth 25 points, a second-place vote 24, and on down the line.

Fulmer told reporters immediately after the Orange Bowl loss that he would vote Nebraska No. 1 in his final ballot. The rest, he assures Michigan fans, is water under the bridge. Not bile.

“I’d have liked to have been helpful against Nebraska,” Fulmer chuckled.

The post Phil Fulmer to Michigan fans: ‘I didn’t conspire to punish Wolverines on final 1997 vote’ appeared first on Land of 10.

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