KNOXVILLE — The latest twist in Tennessee's saga of a search for a new athletic director certainly is an intriguing one.
The possibility of former Volunteers football coach Phillip Fulmer becoming the university's athletic director gained traction this past weekend, and ESPN on Monday reported that Fulmer was a "prime candidate" to replace the outgoing Dave Hart.
When reached for comment by ESPN's Chris Low, Fulmer neither addressed the athletic director job nor ruled himself out as a candidate, according to the report.
"Since I was 18 years old, UT's best interests have always been my interest," Fulmer told ESPN. "I want what is best for UT. (New chancellor) Dr. (Beverly) Davenport has laid out a clear process, and we have to respect the time and her vision to complete that process."
USA Today also reported Fulmer's emergence as a viable candidate.
Tennessee's search process, according to USA Today, has been "murky at best and highly political," and now "a group of influential boosters have been working behind the scenes to help install" Fulmer as the new athletic director, the national newspaper said.
Hart announced his retirement last August after his attempts to extend his contract were denied.
Though he was 152-52 in 16 seasons with the Volunteers and guided them to the 1998 national championship and two SEC crowns, Fulmer has limited administrative experience, especially compared to David Blackburn, the UT-Chattanooga athletic director and longtime Tennessee administrator long believed to be the leading candidate to replace Hart.
Fulmer, fired as the Vols coach in 2008, endorsed Blackburn during a guest appearance on "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM last month.
"I love David, and he did a great job for me here, and he's done a great job for Tennessee and now UT-Chattanooga," Fulmer said. "He would want me to say that he's got a job right now that is very important to him, and as far as the process, I just want to help if I can or if anybody asks. I think David would be a good candidate.
"I'm sure there are other people out there, and the chancellor will have a lot to say about all of that, but I think David would be outstanding."
Fulmer worked as a consultant at East Tennessee State as it resurrected its football program, and recently he's had more interaction with university system president Joe DiPietro as part of the President's Council.
Last week Fulmer told The Tennessean he has enjoyed his involvement with DiPietro.
"They've got a (hiring) process in place," he said, "and I'm just anxious to see what that process brings."
The process often has looked confusing and dysfunctional. Tennessee denied reports it was hiring a search firm different from the one it has on retainer, and there have been conflicting reports regarding the timeline of a hire. Davenport won't officially assume her post until Feb. 15.
For months any talk of Fulmer becoming Tennessee's athletic director was far-fetched.
The Hall of Fame coach jokingly said fans who wanted him to be the athletic director were "pretty smart" during an appearance on the "Jared & The GM" radio show on ESPN 1025 The Game in Nashville last week.
Fulmer has remained a fixture around Tennessee athletics and soon could find himself in charge of them.
"We're at a unique time at Tennessee in our history," he told The Tennessean. "We've been through some really tough issues.
"Butch (Jones) has done a great job with the football team. I love (men's basketball coach) Rick Barnes and watching his kids play basketball. Talent-wise he hasn't had time to get it to where he wants it to be, but they play so hard and they're fun to watch. And I've known Holly (Warlick, the women's basketball coach) since she was a kid.
"To me this is a very important time in our history to not just creep back to the top but jump back to the top. And I think we have a chance to do that."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.