Phil Fulmer Stepping Down From Tennessee At The End of the Season

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the immediate aftermath of Tennessee's 27-6 loss to South Carolina, for the first time all season Phil Fulmer didn't tell his team not to quit. He talked for only a few moments, barely above a whisper, and then led the team in prayer. We all dropped to one knee and took the hand of the men on both sides of us. In the prayer, Fulmer asked for strength when confronted by obstacles we did not understand. Then we all stood and the team began to prepare for the flight back to Knoxville. A few players raged against their teammates and the loss, but Fulmer pulled them aside and whispered to them in the alcove of the visitor's locker room. A few moments later the players' returned and were silent. Phil Fulmer sat massaging his knees for a few moments before he went outside to face the media. When he left the locker room his youngest daughter, Allison, was waiting for him in the hallway. She was already crying. So was Fulmer's wife Vicky. There were only a few people in the bowels of the stadium, but all of them gave the two a wide berth. As has been the case for most of his career as coach, Fulmer was the consoler, attempting to improve the mood of his distraught daughter. The final word had not yet arrived (that would come after a meeting on Sunday with athletic director Mike Hamilton), but the decision was self-evident: Phil Fulmer's career as head coach at UT was over. Still later that night, well after midnight, as he emerged from the locker room Coach Fulmer took aside the driver of Tennessee's equipment big rig, Charlie Harris, "Be safe, Charlie," he said, "be safe." Fulmer has been like this for most of his career, aware of everyone associated with the UT program. "He tells me all the time," said Charlie on Thursday night as we drove the pads, helmets, and sundry other equipment to the South Carolina game, "that if I don't make it we can't play." As a result, like many around him, Charlie Harris would take a bullet for Coach Fulmer. As we drove through the South Carolina night early Sunday morning and began the climb up into North Carolina, Charlie Harris stared out into the looming mountains, "Whatever happens, Coach Fulmer is a damn fine man." The press conference is planned for 5 eastern when the official announcement will come. But after 201 games as head coach during which time he ran up a record of 150-51, won a consensus national title in 1998 with an undefeated team, won back-to-back SEC titles in 1997-1998, and became the second winningest coach in Tennessee football history, Fulmer will finish out the 2008 season and slide into the Volunteer sunset. In the end Fulmer did what was best for the university, a place he's spent 34 of the past 40 years of his life since arriving in 1968 as an offensive guard on the football team. Instead of a protracted struggle or public fight, Fulmer stepped aside. The team, at 3-6, is in danger of losing more games than any Tennessee football team in history (no team has ever lost more than 7). Now come the final three games of an era. Phil Fulmer ended his preseason speech at the annual Big Orange picnic in July by saying, "Let's go win a championship." In the end the failure to win an SEC championship since 1998 (with title game losses in 2001, 2004, and 2007) spelled the end. In leaving, Phil Fulmer is the final capstone on an era of SEC football. When he was hired in 1992 SEC football was still a regional pursuit; it wasn't unique that Fulmer had grown up in the state of Tennessee and attended the university for college. Now things have changed, there isn't a single coach born in the state in which they coach and none of the 11 other SEC coaches are graduates of their school. A regional pursuit has gone national. Shortly before the Alabama game kickoff, Phil Fulmer stood in front of the dry-erase board and jotted down game notes. Finished, he turned around and walked over to me, "You picked a hell of a season to write a book, son," he said. In the end, as with most things in his career, Fulmer was right. Sources: Tennessee Volunteers coach Fulmer to step down [ESPN]