Mark Wiedmer: Phillip Fulmer still loves the Vols

Mark Wiedmer: Phillip Fulmer still loves the Vols

October 25th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer is inducted into the college hall of fame before the game against Alabama Saturday at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

Former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer is inducted...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Like everyone else in Big Orange Country these days, Phillip Fulmer has heard the noise surrounding the Tennessee football program he led for 16 full autumns.

He's heard that third-year coach Derek Dooley is on his way out. He's heard that Jon Gruden - a UT grad assistant when Fulmer was still an aide to Johnny Majors - is about to replace Dooley.

(Heck, Wikipedia even had Gruden already coaching the Vols in a Wednesday afternoon bio. That statement was later removed.)

He's even heard support from many corners that if he hadn't been forced out in 2008, the Big Orange program would be far closer to the elite level he established through the 1990s rather than the 21-24 record it has posted since Fulmer was dismissed.

"It's difficult to ignore," he said a few minutes before he addressed the YMCA Prayer Luncheon at the Chattanoogan on Wednesday. "Of course, during most of my time there we were on the other end of the spectrum, we did so well for so long."

But regarding this season, Fulmer said, "All Derek can do is to keep trying to improve from week to week. They've played some pretty tough teams so far, some of the best in the country. You just hope they can get a few wins here now, become a respectable football team by the end of the year and win a bowl game."

His own sterling career record of 152-52-1 with one national championship, two Southeastern Conference titles and five BCS level bowls difficult to ignore, Fulmer has already been linked to potential openings at Arkansas and Kentucky within the SEC.

"I haven't been contacted by anyone," he said. "I'm enjoying the work I'm doing now [NorthShore Management, an investment firm involved in everything from real estate to document shredding]. But you never say never. If the right kind of opportunity came along, I'd certainly consider it."

Fulmer wasn't much interested in discussing how seriously Gruden might consider leaving his Monday Night Football gig at ESPN - which reportedly pays the former Super Bowl-winning coach in excess of $4 million a year -- but he did praise Gruden's work as a grad assistant in 1986.

"Jon was a great GA," Fulmer said. "A very bright guy. Very enthusiastic. Very energetic."

But Fulmer seemed more interested in talking about Dooley and the state of the program when he replaced Lane Kiffin in January of 2010, a mere two weeks before national signing day.

"Derek came in facing a lot of issues," he said. "He started with a pretty short stick. It had turned into a mess."

Until last week's 44-13 loss to Alabama, Dooley appeared to be making progress. But then the Tide rolled, the Gruden rumors went nuclear and everything seems to be pointing to a coaching change, perhaps before Saturday, since a UT win at nationally-ranked South Carolina with Dooley still in charge would open the door for him to finish 9-4 after a bowl, a record surely good enough to end talk of termination.

"What this program needs," Fulmer said, seeming to support Dooley, "is some continuity and stability."

Perhaps that's why Fulmer spoke so fondly of his 1994 team at the YMCA luncheon, recalling how those Vols started 1-3 for a second-year coach but finished 8-4, thoroughly whipping Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.

"I called that team together after we lost at Mississippi State to go 1-3," he said. "I asked them who they were going to listen to. The media, which was saying they couldn't play a lick and we couldn't coach a lick? Their moms and girlfriends who were telling them it was everybody's fault but their own? Or were they going to listen to their coaches and turn this thing around?

"We won seven of our last eight, and that became the foundation for maybe the greatest run in UT history (45-5 with a national title over the next four years)."

Maybe Dooley will last long enough to oversee that kind of run and maybe he won't. But if this teams rallies to win its final five regular-season games - beginning Saturday at South Carolina - it wouldn't be surprising to hear the current UT coach tell a future YMCA luncheon that these 2012 Vols became his favorite team.