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Back in the game: Phillip Fulmer and the rebirth of East Tennessee State football

Carl Torbush (left) and Phillip Fulmer (center) are ushering in a new era of ETSU football. (Courtesy ETSU athletics) Carl Torbush (left) and Phillip Fulmer (center) are ushering in a new era of ETSU football. (Courtesy ETSU Athletics)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The scenery is a bit different now, but Phillip Fulmer doesn’t mind. The former Tennessee coach still has a sizable corner office, one situated on the edge of a lake. But its view is in stark contrast with the one from Fulmer’s old workplace. There, at Neyland Stadium, 100,000 Volunteers fans used to look down on him on fall Saturdays.

Fulmer has had time to gain a new perspective on life. The onetime BCS champion has been a partner at BPV Capital Management for the better part of four years. He lends a hand to BPV’s business development team, which manages investment and retirement funds for clients. Yet a quick look inside Fulmer’s expansive office offers a window to his past. Signed Tennessee helmets and pictures decorate shelves along the wall. A framed Power T hangs just outside his door. People in the area still remember Fulmer as a veteran face of the SEC -- that’s why he often corrects fans when they stop by to chat.

“I’m certainly not retired,” said Fulmer, his BCS title ring on his left hand. “People ask me all the time, ‘How are you doing with retirement?’ I’m certainly not retired. I’ve got like three jobs it seems like.”

Fulmer may have multiple jobs, but until recently what he hadn’t done was venture back into football. But that’s changing. For the first time since his resignation at Tennessee in 2008, he is involved with a college football team, albeit not as a coach. He isn’t welcoming a new signing class or readying a roster for spring practice. Rather, Fulmer is helping East Tennessee State -- a school with an enrollment of around 15,000 -- resurrect a program that was disbanded in ’03 for financial reasons.

An FCS school, the Buccaneers will begin a new era as a member of the Southern Conference in the fall of 2015. For the past year, Fulmer has helped ETSU, which is based in Johnson City, as a consultant on everything from fundraising to the school’s coaching search. It’s a unique opportunity to channel the passion that once helped him build one of the SEC’s premier programs. As Fulmer tells it, it’s also a role he never expected to play at this stage in his life.

*****

Dr. Richard Sander faced a major challenge when he first took over as the Buccaneers' athletic director on Jan. 15, 2013. University president Dr. Brian Noland had approached Sander the month before; Dave Mullins, who had served as East Tennessee’s AD since ’02, was considering retirement, so Noland initiated a search for a possible replacement. Sander had previously spent more than two decades working as Virginia Commonwealth’s athletic director, but he had been retired since ’06 while consulting for various schools.

Noland was toying with the idea of rebuilding Buccaneers football. He mentioned the plan to Sander in passing, but little was set in stone. However, not long after the school officially hired Sander, Noland came to his AD with a directive: We’re bringing ETSU football back.

From his days at VCU, Sander boasted plenty of experience shaping successful athletic programs, as the Rams won 27 Colonial Athletic Association titles during his tenure. Still, this was entirely uncharted territory.

“Me being from VCU, we didn’t have football,” Sander said in a phone interview. “So I thought I needed to find somebody that knows football. Being in the state of Tennessee, I figured, who better than Phil Fulmer to help us start football?”

Sander had never met Fulmer, but figured he'd reach out. After an introductory call, Sander drove with Noland to Knoxville to meet the former Volunteers coach. The group sat for three hours and discussed how Fulmer could help. Fulmer, who admits to missing the game, realized this was a unique opportunity to get involved.

“Dr. Noland just showed tremendous vision and energy,” said Fulmer. “He was excited about the opportunity. He’d engaged his students and faculty already. He assured me that it wasn’t going to be done on a shoestring like it was before. It would be done first class.”

Of course, Sander couldn’t leave without gauging Fulmer’s interest in coaching. Fulmer had led Tennessee for 17 years -- and was a player and assistant before that -- but was forced out in 2008 after a second five-win campaign in four seasons. Still, he had won six SEC East titles and the ’98 BCS championship. In all, Fulmer went 152-52 as the Vols coach.

More importantly, however, Sander recognized Fulmer’s familiarity with the state. He was comfortable with East Tennessee and the Tri-Cities area, which encompasses Johnson City and nearby Bristol and Kingsport. Fulmer, who is 63, also wasn’t likely to use the Buccaneers as a stepping-stone to a better job.

Noland and Sander made a hard push to get Fulmer as their coach. They even met with Fulmer and his attorney for five hours on a second occasion. Looking back, Sander says he thought he’d sold Fulmer on the idea, but ultimately the coach declined.

“Even though it’s only two hours away, it’s still 17-18 hours a day,” Fulmer said. “I’d done that for 40 years. I’m not ruling out that that I’d ever do it again, but I have a partnership here at a very good business with people that I enjoy being around. My time is much more flexible than it used to be.

“I’m a high-energy guy. I like challenges. I like opportunities. That appealed to me in so many ways. But my number one priority is to enjoy my children, grandchildren and my wife, and I just didn’t think it was the right thing at the right time.”

East Tennessee State signed 47 players in the recruiting class of 2014. (Courtesy ETSU Athletics) East Tennessee State signed 47 players in the recruiting class of 2014. (Courtesy ETSU Athletics)

ETSU officially introduced Fulmer as a consultant to the football program in April 2013. The East Tennessee Student Government Association and the Tennessee Board of Regents had already approved a $125 increase in student fees to fund the program earlier in the spring. With Fulmer in the fold, the search for a coach began in earnest.

Thanks largely to Fulmer’s pull, ETSU received approximately 250 résumés from prospective candidates. This wasn’t a normal coaching search; the Buccaneers' next coach would have nearly two full years to shape the program before it played a single game. The school had no uniforms, no helmets, no anything. For more than a few applicants, that presented a tough situation.

“We had a couple of coaches who wanted to know, ‘How many notebooks am I going to have?’” Sander said. “They wanted a really structured plan of what were going to do. We really didn’t have that.”

Eventually, the group zeroed in on Carl Torbush. The former North Carolina and Louisiana Tech coach was an east Tennessee native and had recently retired after a stint as an assistant at Liberty under Turner Gill. He was living with his family in Sevierville, Tenn., an 80-mile drive from ETSU. Moreover, Torbush played his freshman season at Tennessee before transferring to Carson Newman College in the early 1970s. Fulmer was one of his teammates during that season with the Vols.

On the last week of May, East Tennessee’s baseball team was preparing to travel to Nashville for an NCAA regional tournament. Fulmer called Torbush and set up a meeting with Sander, who met with Torbush at a Cracker Barrel outside Sevierville. The two chatted for two hours, and a couple of days later, Torbush visited ETSU’s campus to meet Noland and other members of the administration. The coach also had one final meeting with Fulmer.

On June 21, 2013, a decade after disbanding the football program, East Tennessee announced Torbush as its new coach. ETSU felt like a home away from home for Torbush, but he says Fulmer deserves credit for his decision to take the job.

“The best thing that Dr. Sander and Dr. Noland did was get Phillip Fulmer involved,” said Torbush, who also coached against Fulmer as an assistant in the SEC. “He still has a great passion for the game. He would have been a great guy to be the head coach, but in this stage in his life, he didn’t feel like he wanted to go that direction.

"There’s no question I would not be here if not for Phillip Fulmer. The great thing is I don’t feel intimidated by Phillip. He’s a great ally. He can explain football-related things, so he’s a great arbitrator, if and when that needs to be.”

*****

Last month, Torbush inked the Buccaneers' first signing class, 47 player who will serve as the foundation for the program’s new era. FCS schools are allotted 63 scholarships per year, but because Division I-AA football is an “equivalency” sport, those 63 can be split into partial scholarships. Torbush expects that by the fall of 2014, he’ll have around 60 to 65 players on his roster, factoring in walk-ons and extra signees. He said his recruiting class in ’15 should be check in at around 40 players, too.

On Sept. 3, 2015, ETSU will debut against Kennesaw State at local Science Hill High, the alma mater of Steve Spurrier. But plenty of steps remain before then. Barring interference from the NCAA, East Tennessee plans to take part in club football this fall to break up the monotony of weeklong practices. Torbush must hire more assistants -- he currently has three -- and purchase uniforms and other supplies. The school is also fundraising for a new football stadium that Sander hopes will be ready by the ’16 campaign, one that would replace the Mountain States Health Alliance Athletics Center, which was built in 1977.

Most importantly, though, ETSU must reenergize its fans and alumni. That’s where Fulmer has played the biggest role. He frequently meets with potential donors and sells the future of the Buccaneers. His presence makes him an ideal fundraiser for a grassroots football program.

“I tell him he’s the ugliest rock star I’ve ever seen,” Sander said. “We’ll be going to see a corporate CEO, and standing in the lobby of an office building, probably 20 people will come up and say, ‘Hey, I remember this game and that game [at Tennessee].’ It’s just unbelievable the way he’s perceived in the state of Tennessee.”

It’s no surprise that Fulmer remains a Vols fan. He says he has a skybox at Neyland Stadium and has cultivated a relationship with current coach Butch Jones, whom he says is “absolutely the right guy” for the job. Fulmer isn’t subtle about missing aspects of coaching or what he was able to build in Knoxville. He says that he had a few NFL and college opportunities over the years, but added that he “would have probably gone right from UT to another place” if he wanted to coach again. For now, Fulmer prefers the simpler life.

Fulmer’s role with ETSU has become his latest passion. He looks forward to watching a game or two in Johnson City when the team takes the field in 2015. He knows first-hand the effect football can have on a community, and he wants that for East Tennesee and its players.

“I love kids,” Fulmer said. “I love football. I think it’s a really important part of our society. It teaches toughness, discipline, getting back on your feet when you get knocked down. [For me] some of it honestly is giving back or even giving forward, if you will. … This is a great outlet for me.”

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