It had to happen at some point, but that doesn’t make it any less strange.
For the first time in 30 years, Phillip Fulmer isn’t on the recruiting trail as a head coach or assistant at the University of Tennessee. Fulmer compiled a 152-52 record as head coach, which included 13 January bowl games and the 1998 national title, and he may have been college football’s best recruiter of the past generation.
“I liked recruiting and still like recruiting, and I like building relationships with guys and families and earning their trust and following through on that trust,” Fulmer said this past week. “The best recruiters that you had were not only your assistants but the players you had on campus who believed in what you were doing. They sold the program once you got them to campus. If we got them to campus, we had a chance.”
Despite working in a state with limited quality prospects, Fulmer amassed 14 top-10 classes in 16 opportunities and six ranked in the top five. Tennessee’s 1994 class of signees, which included quarterback Peyton Manning, lineman Jarvis Reado and receiver Maurice Staley, was a consensus No. 1, and the 2005 class headed by quarterback Jonathan Crompton, linebacker Rico McCoy and safety Demetrice Morley was tabbed No. 1 by Scout.com.
Tennessee’s 2000 (Casey Clausen and Michael Munoz) and ’02 (Gerald Riggs and Jason Allen) classes were No. 2 nationally.
“I don’t know if you could ever say he was the best because there have been so many coaches who did it well — Florida has gone from Ron Zook to Urban Meyer — but over a longevity period, I think you absolutely could,” Rivals.com national analyst Jamie Newberg said of Fulmer. “I would certainly say he was better than (Steve) Spurrier in that regard. To be successful at Tennessee, you’ve got to recruit nationally, and he did that well. Look where Casey Clausen was from. Or Erik Ainge. Or Donte Stallworth.
“I kind of equate Tennessee to Oklahoma. To be as good as Oklahoma has been all these years, do you think all their kids come from Oklahoma? They get a lot from Texas but also have to recruit on a national basis.”
Despite the growing attention and scrutiny recruiting continues to receive, Fulmer believes nothing has changed when it comes to visiting solid families or having some prospects trying to “hustle you.” He has too many recruiting stories to count but quickly named his most rewarding.
Jason Respert was a Parade All-American lineman from Warner Robins, Ga., whose college career nearly imploded on Jan. 29, 2000, when he was arrested and charged with attempted sexual battery and burglary while on his official visit to Florida. Georgia and Florida pulled their scholarship offers before he pleaded no-contest to lesser charges, and he eventually was cleared in court.
“There wasn’t even a nanosecond that Coach Fulmer turned his back on me,” Respert said. “He told me he knew me, and he was by my side no matter what. I almost lost it when he told me that.”
Said Fulmer: “Jason ended up a captain and played well. He’s coaching now and is a father doing super, and I just respect that man for overcoming all those adversities.”
In his 16-plus seasons as Vols head coach, Fulmer recruited against Spurrier, Bobby Bowden, Gene Stallings, Lou Holtz and Mark Richt. He battled Nick Saban and Tommy Tuberville at four combined SEC locales.
Was there one coach he most dreaded when it came to wrestling over a commitment?
“Not really, because when you left state borders, it was always tough,” Fulmer said. “There wasn’t anybody in particular necessarily, but you never liked it when a guy said, ‘I’m going to go visit Florida, Florida State, Miami and you.’ That usually wasn’t very good.”
The lone classes under Fulmer that didn’t retrieve any top-10 billing occurred in 2006 and last year. He admits Alabama and Florida “definitely have it going” right now with coaches who have energy and have created a dynamic that is appealing to prospects.
Fulmer has enjoyed some down time in recent weeks after assisting ESPN with its bowl coverage. He has possibilities in television and an investment company and isn’t ruling out returning to coaching. He isn’t putting a timetable on deciding his future, either.
Though he no longer has the job he loved for so long, Fulmer has been floored by recent receptions at the SEC title game, the Hall of Fame in New York and after speaking at the American Football Coaches Association convention.
“When your peers are very supportive,” he said, “that kind of validates everything.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...