KNOXVILLE — They poured into a room inside Neyland Stadium, defiant and emotional and unforgiving. There was Arian Foster, leading the applause with tears pouring from his eyes. There was Vladimir Richard, telling University of Tennessee officials that, no, they would not watch the news conference from the Wolf-Kaplan Center to make room for the media.
And for a moment, 30 minutes before an emotional Phillip Fulmer addressed the Tennessee family — his family — we got a peak at what he means to the program when we’re not looking. We saw the players on a week day, not in practice gear, expressing their emotions. This was not a Cullen Harper situation, the Clemson player saying Tigers coach Tommy Bowden “got what he deserved” upon his dismissal earlier this year.
“All players get out,” one player said when athletic director Mike Hamilton began to speak, walking out with his teammates, Foster leading the exit. “He ain’t got nothing to say to us.”
We can feel a bit introspective today, now that it’s over. Fulmer is gone at the end of the season. We step back and we reflect and we see the emotion and we remember Fulmer’s feats, and some of us can’t help but wonder: What did Tennessee just do?
Tennessee acted just like everyone else, moving along quickly in an age of instant gratification we helped create. We say goodbye to a good man in a business with so few of them. We say goodbye to a man who remained loyal to his school, didn’t get in trouble with the NCAA, won nine games per season and a slew of SEC East titles. He donated a million dollars to this university.
He never embarrassed the school. He never lashed out at fans. He treated people with respect. No, he did not win his usual number of games the last four years. He did not win an SEC title in his last 10 years. But he embraced the enormous challenge of recruiting at Tennessee, the long hours in the offseason on the road, and that’s where those vocal Tennessee fans dreaming of this day must take note: It will not be easy to replace this man.
Tennessee can embark on a national search for the most elite coaches only because Fulmer transformed the Vols into a national power. You can thank him for that.
But it will not be easy to find someone who wants to work all those hours on the road in addition to the growing number of booster functions and caravan tour stops. This is a difficult job. Syracuse fired Paul Pasqualoni when it thought the program was sliding into mediocrity. But mediocrity would be a blessing to Syracuse now.
Tennessee’s program is not mediocre. Sure, the 2005 and 2008 seasons were failures, and that cost Fulmer the job he loved so dearly. But we’re in an instant gratification society, so we forget that the Vols are defending SEC East champions and an Erik Ainge interception away from possibly winning the entire conference last year.
We forget he’s won 150 games and lost only 51. We forget he won 10 games in 2007, 2004 and 2003. We remember the colossal disappointment in 2005, and especially the embarrassing offense put on display this season with a first-year coordinator. And it was bad.
No one should forget that Fulmer loved the University of Tennessee more than anyone else in this state. You may feel elated at his dismissal and the excitement surrounding a coaching search. But don’t forget the passion Fulmer displayed for Tennessee and what he did Sunday-Friday for the players who, in some cases, sat two to a seat for 45 minutes Monday just to support their coach.
“That’s what we’re about,” Fulmer said when asked what the show of support meant to him, and those quivering cheeks finally lost the fight against full emotion and broke down. His eyes turned red. Foster started clapping, and his teammates joined him.
The scene was moving. There are a lot of people out there who wished for this day and will excitedly talk about the future. And sure, Tennessee lost a lot this season. The biggest one was Monday.