HOOVER, Ala. — Phillip Fulmer has been coming to SEC Media Days longer than any current coach in the league.
But this wasn't the Tennessee coach at the podium Thursday. Surely it was an imposter.
It looked like Fulmer, but it had to be a double. This guy sounded like a man who had been on a steady diet of humble pie.
A 5-6 season can do that to you. Sitting at home while everyone else is playing bowl games gets your attention. Losing to Vanderbilt for the first time in 23 seasons put the exclamation point on what had been an already distasteful season.
It was unacceptable to every set of orange-blooded eyes. Especially so for Phillip Fulmer, who has invested half his life in Tennessee football — as a player, assistant coach and head coach of a program that gave the school its second national championship.
Going 5-6 could prove to be a blessing in the long run. It was a classic wake-up call for Fulmer.
He put the Vols through more than 700 snaps in full-contact scrimmages during spring practice.
It was all designed to produce a meaner, leaner, hungrier Tennessee team. One that fans could re-connect with.
"Kids understand being at a school like Tennessee is a privilege, not a right," Fulmer said.
While Fulmer called last year an "aberration," he holds himself responsible. Having an Easy Street address requires hard work. You can never afford to slack off, to cut corners, to let things slip, on and off the field.
Sometimes you have to fall off your bike, skin up your arms and knees to realize where you were and where you are.
Fulmer became Mr. Fix-It. He read the riot act to players and staff alike.
Coaches will argue whether it is more difficult to climb to the top of the SEC football mountain or to remain there once you have achieved the goals.
Fulmer finds himself in position to settle that debate.
The Vols won a national championship in 1998, the pinnacle of his time at Tennessee.
"We worked like heck to get to that level," Fulmer said. "We have a handle on how to manage the expectations at Tennessee. We have, in a lot of ways, answered the bell from the off-season standpoint of not having the distractions that we had last year.
"It was a very untypical year for us from the standpoint of having a lot of things off the field that definitely took away from our season. It starts with accountability from us as coaches."
Losing to South Carolina and Vanderbilt spoke volumes of just how far and fast the Vols plummeted. Now, it's on Fulmer to repair the flat tire and get the Vols back on track. He knows whether you're on top, or scratching and clawing to get there, hard work and dedicated players are the answer.
It remains to be seen how much improvement will show on the field this season. The Vols open with a preseason top-10 program in Cal before tackling the usual dose of SEC heavyweights.
Fulmer should emerge a better coach because of what he endured last season. He has his best friend and trusted offensive coordinator, David Cutcliffe, at his side. He claims the Vols have a new attitude.
He knows what it means to be accountable. Now he has to show what he learned.