Fortune Deals Fulmer, Vols A Winning Hand

Robert Meachem

In the immediate aftermath of arguably the biggest one-day talent grab in the history of UT football, Phillip Fulmer didn't gloat before the assembly of former doubters, but he did glow like a man flush with fortune.

The analogy he used to describe the series of signings that featured four previously uncommitted Parade All-Americans, was like the feeling a poker player gets when he's on a winning streak. It's a state of grace in which one is sure the gambling gods are smiling upon him and he can't lose.

To expand on that analogy, Tennessee's signing day hot streak was like drawing four cards to an ace and ending up with a royal flush. Prior to Wednesday, the Vols had but one Parade All-American in the fold with another, Eric Young, very iffy and three others — Turk McBride, Bret Smith, Robert Meachem — who never indicated UT was a favorite.

Fulmer and company were battling in-state Arkansas for Smith, in-state Oklahoma for Meachem and NCAA 2002 National Championship finalists Ohio State and Miami for McBride. It was a grueling gridiron gauntlet for even the most prolific of recruiters, while a realist would recoil at his chances.

Coach Fulmer didn't even pretend that he knew it all along. Instead, he admitted to a sleepless night before signing day, one filled with worry over what the fax machine would, or wouldn't, bring the next morning.

Such apprehension is understandable, considering the hands dealt to UT's football program in recent months, including: an NCAA investigation, a devastating run of injuries, a series of one-sided setbacks, the worst bowl performance in school history and the most disappointing start to a recruiting campaign in the highly successful Fulmer Era.

However once the fax started humming, it was clear the worm was turning for Tennessee football. First defensive lineman Anthony McDaniel, a native of Columbia, S.C., flew the Gamecocks' coop and signed with Tennessee. Then McBride, possibly the best defensive end the Vols have signed since Sean Ellis, fell UT's way. Once Young's scholarship papers announced his impending arrival in Knoxville, Tennessee's good fortune had already exceeded expectations, but the hot streak was just beginning.

Next can confirmation that stellar wide receiver Bret Smith was joining UT's All-American parade. However Smith would later admit that even he wasn't sure where he would sign when he arrived at Warren High School on Wednesday morning. His best friend RoShaun Fellows didn't know Smith's choice until after the papers had been signed in the privacy of the head coach's office. But when it came time to reveal his decision to the public, Smith did so by putting on a Big Orange cap which lay beside one of Razorback Red.

Tennessee's coaching staff had pretty much written Smith off as a loss as communication between the two dwindled in the final two weeks before signing day. They interpreted Smith's unavailability as evidence he had settled on staying in state, while Razorback staffers experienced the same thing and decided he was going out of state. It turned out that Smith was simply tired of talking about and wanted time to himself.

By now, it was clear Tennessee was on a roll and Fulmer could allow himself believe Alabama offensive tackle Aaron Sears might reject Auburn, where his brother had played, in favor of Tennessee. Sears did just that, giving the Vols a rock-solid rebuilding block for an offense line in disrepair.

Pieces of a scrambled pre-signing day puzzle were falling into place with an eerie sense of order. Even the defection of Cincinnati defensive end Raymond Edwards to Purdue failed to defuse the gathering momentum. It was the Vols getting off the mat in the closing minutes of a big game as a packed house roared its approval. Instead of Casey Clausen leading the two-minute drive, it was Phillip Fulmer directing a comeback to the clamor of keyboards and chatter of radio, building in a crescendo as a Big Orange Nation communicated a growing state of excitement.

When junior college run stuffer Zarnell Fitch broke a commitment to Arkansas to accept a scholarship from Tennessee, the defensive picture was complete. Here was a proven 300-pound performer who could stalemate blockers and free UT's deep fleet of lightning linebackers to strike and destroy.

Then just when it seemed like the day couldn't possibly get better for Tennessee, there came the biggest surprise of all, as Booker T. Washington High School star receiver Robert Meachem defied conventional wisdom and signed with Tennessee. Here was perhaps the most physically gifted pass catcher in the Class of 2003 choosing UT — a Tulsa native leaving Oklahoma, telling the Sooners later.

Fulmer drew his king of diamonds on the last card and had his royal flush — the losing streak was over and the Volunteers were back.

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