University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer. File photo.
KNOXVILLE — Speculation has swirled for weeks, and it’s sped up the past few days.
But as of Tuesday night, there was no concrete evidence to support anything other than Phillip Fulmer’s desire to coach the University of Tennessee football team for the foreseeable future.
Fulmer said Tuesday afternoon that he wasn’t aware of any plans for his removal. No one has gone on the record to refute that claim.
Attempts Tuesday to contact UT president John Petersen and athletic director Mike Hamilton were unsuccessful.
“As far as I know, I’ve got good support from everybody concerned,” Fulmer said. “There is a trust and relationship that’s long term there.
“Everybody’s got everybody’s best interest at heart. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Hamilton, who had been considered an accessible official in many media circles, has generally avoided reporters for several weeks. There have been exceptions, including an interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel two weeks ago and a text message to ESPN.com on Tuesday to deny rumors of a recent contract buyout meeting with Fulmer’s agent, Jimmy Sexton.
But Hamilton’s intentions have become clear. As one UT spokesperson said Tuesday, he is “just not going to discuss this” in a public forum.
Fulmer, who speaks with the media six days per week during the season, doesn’t have that luxury.
“I’m not a dog that barks and then runs into the house, or anything like that ... or barks from inside the house,” Fulmer said. “I’m going to do my job, and work at it, and do it the right way. That’s all I can do. There’s only so many hours, and there’s only so many things you can fix at one particular time.
“I can lay my head on the pillow at night and know that I’ve done, and I’ve done it right, and I’ve had a lot of success doing it. Would I have done things differently, if I had a crystal ball? Sure I would, looking at a couple of things.”
Asked for some specific regrets, Fulmer said, “Things (offensive coordinator Dave) Clawson and I have sat down and talked about that we probably would have done differently, a little bit.
“Or something in the kicking game, you know — all those things,” Fulmer added. “But there’s no reason to talk about that.”
Fulmer answered questions for nearly 30 minutes Tuesday afternoon in Neyland Stadium’s media center. Most of his assistants dropped by as well, although senior wide receiver Josh Briscoe and sophomore quarterback Nick Stephens were the only two players to show.
The universal focus for coaches and players, Fulmer said, was on Saturday’s SEC game at South Carolina (5-2, 2-3).
“You try to focus on the objectives, rather than the obstacles,” Fulmer said. “Every day, you go to work to try to figure out how to win a football game. So much of what is ‘chattered’ — as you called it — out there other places is misinformation that you don’t even bother paying attention to.
“My charge is to run a clean program, and I’ve done that; it’s to teach young men about life and leadership and academics, and I think we’ve done a very good job of that; and then to win a lot more games than we lose, and we’ve done that.”
Not this season, they haven’t.
“In the short term here, it’s not nearly where anybody wants it to be, starting with me,” Fulmer added. “I’m just going to go to work and do the very, very best that I can for Tennessee people, and the Tennessee family, and the administration, and whoever.”
UT started in the season in its customary place, ranked in every major preseason Top 25 poll.
The Vols (3-5, 1-4 SEC) lost the season opener at UCLA, though, and there have been few stops on their slide. The latest setback came Saturday night, when they lost 29-9 to second-ranked Alabama and watched thousands of fans file out of Neyland Stadium throughout the second half.
Fulmer, a Tennessee native and former UT captain, has a 150-50 record as the Vols’ head coach. His winning percentage is third nationally among active major NCAA Division I coaches with more than 10 years of experience, but UT hasn’t won an SEC championship since 1998.
The Vols are 83-39 (51-26 SEC) since January 1999, when they defeated Florida State in the first Bowl Championship Series national championship game.
UT is 27-19 (15-14 SEC) since the start of the 2005 season.
Fulmer, who has lived in the Knoxville area and been associated with the UT program all but six years since 1968, said he didn’t think most people knew how much his alma mater’s success meant to him.
“But in the big picture of things, should they?” he added. “This program is much bigger than me or much bigger than anybody, any individual.
“Nobody wants the best for it more than I do. That’s the reason I focus on the objectives that we have, and the work, and things that I can do something about.”
Defensive coordinator John Chavis — a former Vol who has worked with or for Fulmer since 1989 — staunchly defended his boss and close friend.
“I look at a man that has won 150 ballgames and done some things at the university that hadn’t been done before, and done it with class — certainly the way it’s supposed to be done,” Chavis said. “I couldn’t be any prouder than to be working for Phillip Fulmer right now, or any point during that time.”
Fulmer said his narrow-minded approach will put his team in better position to win games, something he said would calm everyone’s nerves.
“A good win Saturday, finish up well, then everybody’s got a better feeling,” he said.