Phillip Fulmer glad but 'too dang young'

photo Phillip Fulmer

KNOXVILLE -- Even after Tennessee fired him in 2008, Phillip Fulmer always assumed he would coach again.

"I absolutely did," Fulmer said. "I totally did. That's all I'd ever done, and I'd done it very well."

Four years later, Fulmer still hasn't returned to a sideline.

Though he hasn't closed the door on the possibility of a comeback, it seems less likely with each passing year. The latest signal of potential closure comes tonight when Fulmer is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, an honor that generally comes after an individual has completed his career.

Fulmer will join former Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum and 14 former players in getting inducted at a National Football Foundation awards dinner in New York. Coaches must have served at least 10 seasons and 100 games while posting a winning percentage of at least .600 to be considered for the Hall of Fame. Coaches under the age of 70 must have been out of coaching for three years.

Fulmer, 62, said it hasn't sunk in that he's about to become a Hall of Famer. After all, he's younger than most of the other Hall of Fame coaches were upon their induction.

"I'm graciously accepting it," Fulmer said, "but I'm too dang young."

The honor has provided him an opportunity to reflect on his career.

Fulmer, who lettered as an offensive guard at Tennessee from 1969 to '71, won nearly three-quarters of his games as the Volunteers' coach and posted a 152-52 record at his alma mater. He coached Tennessee's first three games in 1992 while Johnny Majors recovered from heart surgery, then took over the program for good at the end of the 1992 regular season and remained in place through 2008.

The Vols won at least 10 games in nine of those years, including a 1998 national championship and a 1997 Southeastern Conference title. They finished in the Top 25 in 13 of his 16 full seasons on the job.

"The consistency is what we were all about," Fulmer said. "We tried to surround the team with a family kind of atmosphere. We did it all together -- one for all, all for one."

The Vols went undefeated in 1998 and clinched the national title with a 23-16 Fiesta Bowl victory over Florida State. They won the title despite having to replace eight NFL draft picks and three first-round selections, including 1997 Heisman Trophy runner-up Peyton Manning.

"In a lot of ways, that team felt challenged because everybody didn't give them a chance to repeat as [SEC] champions or even have a really good team," Fulmer said. "I think they bonded. They worked really hard. To be honest with you, I probably had three or four other teams that were physically better than that team. It's just one of those things where the stars don't line up. You have a tough loss somewhere along the way and you didn't quite get it done, and that team did."

The national title capped a four-year stretch in which Tennessee went 45-5.

"I had a fantastic career at one school, which is unheard of," Fulmer said. "It being my school made it even more special."