It is the fickle nature of the coaching profession that one can be fired from his dream job and a few years later, without coaching another game, be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Phillip Fulmer’s 152-52 record, nine 10-win seasons, two SEC titles and one national championship in 17 years as Tennessee’s head coach weren’t enough to save his job through a dismal 2008 season, but the same record was enough for the National Football Foundation to vote him into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
“It does validate what we accomplished,” an appreciative Fulmer said this week.
He will be among 24 former college football players and coaches enshrined in the sport’s Hall of Fame on Wednesday night at the Omni Hotel at CNN Center — the first enshrinement ceremony to be held in Atlanta, where the Hall of Fame’s future home is under construction and scheduled to open in the fall of 2014.
You can debate whether Fulmer deserved to be forced out as the Volunteers went 5-7 (3-5 SEC) in 2008, just his second losing season and one year removed from a seven-point loss to eventual national champion LSU in the SEC Championship game. But one thing is certain: Things have been rocky post-Fulmer for the Vols, now on their third coach since firing him and a winner in only two of their past 16 SEC games.
“It’s been disappointing that we’ve gone through what we’ve gone through, and I certainly have to take part of the responsibility for having a bad season,” said Fulmer, who still lives near Knoxville and attends most Tennessee home games. “I have said it a hundred times: I truly believe we would have turned it around and certainly expected the opportunity to do that. And when (the opportunity) didn’t happen, that was disappointing.
“But that’s the nature of the beast, and all those people who were part of that (decision) aren’t there any more, either.”
Fulmer didn’t agree with the decision in 2008, and he clearly doesn’t agree with it five years later.
“I was 21 games away from coach Neyland’s record, and I would have loved to have had a chance to get that,” he said, referring to Robert Neyland’s Tennessee record of 173 victories. “But life goes on. Even though it hurt, in a couple of years you get over it. And I’m doing fine, my family’s doing fine.”
Fulmer, 62, describes a nice life on a 50-acre Maryville, Tenn., spread in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. He is a partner in a capital-management firm in Knoxville, working mostly in business development and finding that “people still return my calls.” He enjoys serving as a consultant to East Tennessee State as that school prepares to relaunch its football program in 2015.
Tennessee fans treat him well “everywhere I go,” Fulmer said, although he conceded, “The ones that are glad I got fired probably wouldn’t come up and say anything.”
For Hall of Fame voters, Fulmer’s record of 123-31 (79-19 SEC) in his first 12-plus seasons as Tennessee’s coach — including a four-year stretch of 45-5 capped by winning the first national championship of the BCS era in 1998 — obviously overshadowed a 29-21 (17-15 SEC) record and two losing seasons in his final four years. The voters made a statement by putting him in the hall in his first year of eligibility, a rarity for that electorate.
He will be enshrined with a group that includes coaching colleagues Jimmy Johnson and R.C. Slocum, former Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski (who played his last college game for California 39 years ago), 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer and four players already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Dave Casper, Art Monk, Jonathan Ogden and Art Shell).
One cool morning early this week, Fulmer felt a coach’s internal clock signaling the fast approach of another football season, although each year moves him further from thoughts of coaching again.
“You never say never, I guess, but I really made a conscious decision to enjoy my children and grandchildren instead of someone else’s,” he said.
Fulmer, a Tennessee native who played on the Vols’ offensive line in 1969-71 and served as a Tennessee assistant for 14 years, is optimistic the program will turn things around under Butch Jones, its third head coach in five seasons. Lane Kiffin went 7-6 (4-4 SEC) in one tumultuous season before bolting for USC. Derek Dooley went 6-7 (3-5), 5-7 (1-7) and 5-7 (1-7) in his three seasons before being fired.
Fulmer said a recent comment by Jones resonated with him. “He said, ‘We’re not trying to build a tradition here at Tennessee. We’re trying to get it back.’”
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