Wiedmer: Fulmer likes football futures of ETSU, UTC

Wiedmer: Fulmer likes football futures of ETSU, UTC

July 29th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Phillip Fulmer

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

You just don't coach football for 16 years at your alma mater, win a national championship and 70 percent of your games and not sometimes wish your stay had been longer.

So even though former University of Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer was ostensibly in town Monday evening to address all those collegiate golfers participating at the Choo-Choo Invitational at Council Fire, he freely admitted that he still misses running the Volunteers program.

Especially on this week of all summer weeks, with high schoolers returning to pads and their collegiate counterparts about to return to the practice field, the scent of freshly cut grass and the sound of popping pads certain to awaken dormant feelings.

"I almost try to block it out," Fulmer said. "But I miss it every day. Just not as much as I used to."

Perhaps that's because he's still deeply involved with the sport as a paid consultant to East Tennessee State as the Buccaneers revive their football program and return to the Southern Conference.

"We hope the community will still embrace it," Fulmer of ETSU's first game in more than a decade, which is scheduled for Sept. 3, 2015, against Kennesaw State, 401 days from today. "It's wholesome entertainment, great for [Johnson City]."

It's the ol' Big Orange boss's view of why football can be great at that level that should most interest University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football fans, who seem to be excited to have their old rivals return to the SoCon.

"We're really talking about playing games on Thursday night instead of Saturday, when you're butting heads with Tennessee," Fulmer said. "Why can't 15,000 people come out on a Thursday night to watch ETSU play UTC?"

They can. They just rarely have. But never before has the landscape of college football possibly conspired to benefit such former NCAA Division I-AA programs as ETSU, UTC and Samford.

With the Fat-Cat Five of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference all threatening to break away from the NCAA (at least in football) and form their own organization with their own rules, Fulmer believes that mid-majors such as the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA should be far more concerned about their futures than the Mocs and Bucs.

"I don't think ETSU and UTC will have a difficult time," he said. "But what does Tulane do? And TCU? And Memphis? And Middle Tennessee?

"That's why we're selling what we're selling at ETSU. It's really a more pure form of football. Maybe the purest is somewhere like Sewanee, where they don't give scholarships. But UTC and ETSU are more about using a scholarship, even a partial one, to get a college education. It's more the way college football used to be."

Taking a page from major league baseball, where new ballparks often are smaller than the ones they replace, Fulmer is encouraging ETSU to think quality over quantity when it finalizes plans for its new stadium.

"I keep pushing for something 10- to 12,000," he said. "I think you want it to be a tough ticket."

What he doesn't think is salvageable is the NCAA continuing in its current form, everyone playing by basically the same set of rules. Whatever changes ultimately are made in trying to keep the Fat-Cat Five entirely under the NCAA umbrella, Fulmer seems resigned to the fact that significant change is coming.

"I think it's going to happen to everybody," he said. "It's all about the haves and the have-nots. If UT can spend $5 million on a recruiting budget, why shouldn't they be allowed to?"

Yet even with the Vols' large amount of money, Fulmer also admits that perfect equality is a pipe dream. Referring to the Volunteer State's relative scarcity of high major talent as opposed to some SEC programs during his time at UT, he said, "We'd probably take 70 in-home visits a year. Schools such as Alabama, Florida and Georgia maybe made 30. That's why those recruiting budgets can become so important."

One thing he hopes current mid-majors such as MTSU, SMU and UAB won't be allowed to do is move their seasons to the spring, as the United States Football League once tried. Despite the USFL's relatively quick collapse (three springs and out), SMU coach June Jones suggested such a change in season as a way to combat the Fat-Cat Five dominating television networks and media outlets during the fall.

"That's pretty far out there," Fulmer said. "I think most people still want their college football played in the fall."

What's never far out there in the Tennessee Valley is UT football. Having spent most of the past six months rehabbing his recent knee replacements (emphasis on plural) at UT's facilities, Fulmer often has run into Vols boss Butch Jones and the current players.

"It's hard to win without great line play, and they're awfully inexperienced on both sides of the ball," Fulmer said. "But Butch has the right attitude and approach. Now he still has to win, but he's doing things the right way."

Many of Fulmer's former players blasted the two coaches who followed Fulmer -- Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley -- for doing almost everything the wrong way during a gathering this past weekend in South Pittsburg.

Asked if he agreed with what they said and the harshness with which they blasted Kiffin and Dooley, Fulmer simply said, "We're in a better place now than we have been."

With Fulmer around to help, so is ETSU.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.