After Phillip Fulmer wrapped up his post-practice interview session on Oct. 31, 2000, the tape recorders clicked off and the small talk began. The story of the day was the firing of Alabama coach Mike DuBose, and one reporter cracked a joke at the Crimson Tide staff's expense.
"That's not funny," Fulmer said. "Think about all those families. It's never good when a staff gets fired."
Every time I have to write or read about another coach getting fired, I remember Fulmer's words. On Monday, as Fulmer fell on his sword to save the program he loves, they echoed at full volume. All those husbands will have to find new jobs. All those families will have to pull up roots and go elsewhere.
The shame of it is that it had to be done, and it probably would have been better for everyone concerned had it been done sooner. All the success Fulmer brought to the Tennessee program in his first 10 years allowed him to bank a fortune in career capital, but he'd made too many withdrawals the past six years to go out on his own terms. After Saturday's 27-6 loss at South Carolina, Fulmer's final check bounced.
Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, who signed off an on inexplicable contract extension for Fulmer this past offseason that will cost the school as much as $6 million to buy out, probably should have made this move three years ago after Fulmer's team embarrassed the school off the field with a spate of arrests prior to the 2005 season and then fumbled on the field, going 5-6. Hamilton should have noticed the dip in recruiting. He should have seen the degree of difficulty rising in the SEC Eastern division. But Hamilton, who took over for Doug Dickey in 2003, didn't have the power to make that move in 2005. Fulmer had the 1998 national title and two SEC titles on his mantle. He also had the unflinching support of several influential donors. And it wasn't like he was going to fire himself.
This once-proud program reached this state, in part, because people were loyal to a fault. The big-money folks stuck with Fulmer long after the rank-and-file fan base had given up on him. Fulmer kept certain assistants on staff despite an obvious need to upgrade. Unfortunately for everyone in orange, elite-level college football is one of the few worlds in which loyalty can be a character flaw.
Had everyone been a little more heartless, they would have forgotten Fulmer took Tennessee from a regional power to a national one in only a few years after the 1992 coup that left Johnny Majors -- who may have tried to come back too soon from open-heart surgery -- jobless and placed Fulmer in the big chair at his alma mater. They would have forgotten Fulmer brought Peyton Manning to Knoxville. They would have forgotten Al Wilson and company striking gold in the Arizona desert nearly 10 years ago. They would have looked not at the records -- even after that 5-6 season, Fulmer went 19-8 the next two years and won the 2007 SEC east title -- but at the fact that the Volunteers haven't been relevant on the national scene since 2001.
In fact, Fulmer's last great win came Dec. 1, 2001, when he took his team to Gainesville to play a game postponed by the Sept. 11 attacks. In the locker room before kickoff, Fulmer told his players about captaining the 1971 Tennessee team that went 99 yards to beat the Gators in Gainesville. Tennessee was about to play the team Steve Spurrier considered his most talented ever at Florida. No one gave the Vols a chance -- except Fulmer. "Those guys put their jocks on just like you do," Fulmer said. "Those guys like the same girls that you guys like. Everything's the same. It gets back down to who wants to win it the most."
Tennessee went on to beat the Gators, 34-32. That set up an SEC title game matchup against LSU, a team the Vols had thrashed in Knoxville earlier that season. But LSU had a second-year coach named Nick Saban, and Saban made adjustments. Tennessee, a win away from playing Miami for the national title, gagged away that game.
The Vols haven't sniffed a championship since.
By the time Tennessee limped to the finish in 2005, the Vols had been out of the national spotlight for four years. Hamilton could have tried to convince Fulmer to retire with most of his legacy intact. By that point, Florida had hired Urban Meyer. Mark Richt, after five seasons at Georgia, had that program humming, and he had managed to close the Atlanta-area pipeline that had supplied Tennessee with many of its better players. Spurrier, 7-2 against Fulmer while at Florida, had returned to the SEC at South Carolina. The only major change the Vols made? Fulmer forced out offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who had replaced David Cutcliffe after Cutcliffe left in late 1998 to coach Ole Miss. In typical Tennessee fashion, that move came about three years too late.
Making matters worse, the days of recruiting nationally were coming to an end. The best programs stocked their teams with the best players the region had to offer. Unfortunately for Fulmer, Tennessee never has produced a wealth of prospects. Its most talent-rich city, Memphis, is closer to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Alabama than it is to Knoxville. So Fulmer had to go elsewhere to find players, and those players didn't grow up dreaming of running through the shapes formed by the Pride of the Southland band.
This season, as the Vols slid further into the abyss, coaches from other schools pounced on Tennessee's recruiting class members. Tampa (Fla.) Gaither High running back Jarvis Giles, the rare recruit who wants to leave the Sunshine State to play college ball, stuck with the Vols through the downturn. But on Monday, when he got the bad news from first-year Tennessee running backs coach Stan Drayton, Giles realized he needs to examine his choices.
"Pretty much, [Drayton] told me to look at Option B," said Giles, who plans to enroll at his chosen school in January. "He didn't want me to get caught up in this mess." For Giles, Option B is either South Carolina, Clemson or Boston College, with the Gamecocks holding the edge.
Giles said he would stay in Tennessee's class if Drayton keeps his job, but that's a big if. The easy choice would be to hire Cutcliffe, who, after leaving his second term as the Vols' offensive coordinator to take over at Duke this season, has done a fabulous job. That might allow defensive coordinator John Chavis and defensive line coach Dan Brooks, two fantastic longtime assistants, to stay aboard and provide continuity. Of course, Tennessee officials may opt for a complete program reboot. That probably would mean a young, ferocious recruiter such as former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin -- he had a great recruiting reputation as a USC assistant, and heaven knows he'd enjoy being his own general manager -- or Minnesota coach Tim Brewster.
The reboot may be the best option now, because links to the past may engender expectations of a rapid rise back to national prominence. With an SEC east schedule and an annual date with Saban's Alabama team, that isn't going to happen. Tennessee's next coach will need time to rebuild.
Meanwhile, Fulmer will step down with his legacy severely tarnished. The former Vols offensive lineman brought his program to the pinnacle of college football, and for that he deserves every honor the school can bestow upon him. But Hamilton and Tennessee's decision-makers let Fulmer down when they continued to reward his past and failed to consider that he might not have been the best choice for the program's future.
Fulmer was correct. It's never good when a staff gets fired. He deserved a better sendoff than this, but his own stubbornness and his bosses' refusal to act earlier made Monday's sad scene the only logical conclusion.