Wiedmer: Phillip Fulmer takes responsibility, likes UT Vols coach Butch Jones

photo Phillip Fulmer

Phillip Fulmer knew the question was coming.

You just don't blame the gradual but steady decline of the University of Tennessee football program you oversaw for 16 years on the school's presidents and athletic director and not expect questions to be asked.

So even though Fulmer made his way to the Walden Club on Tuesday night to help raise money and interest in East Tennessee State's just-revived football program, he knew his comments from this past weekend about UT's brass would encourage further explanation.

"I understand it's been a topic of conversation in Knoxville," he said with a tiny smile. "So let me clarify something. I know I was responsible for both the good and the bad because I was the head coach. I know I had responsibility.

"My point was that after President [Joe] Johnson and Coach [Doug] Dickey (UT's athletic director when Fulmer was hired) retired, things were different. And [current UT AD] Dave Hart is still fighting some of those same battles."

What Fulmer was quoted as saying last weekend at SEC BeachFest in Gulf Shores, Ala., was a little stronger.

"What happened to us basically was our leadership," he said of his two losing seasons in his final four years on the job from 2005 to 2008 after winning the first BCS title game in 1998.

"We had four presidents in six years. We ended up with an athletic director (Mike Hamilton) that wasn't prepared for the job. ...When you have a great president and a great athletic director and you replace them with substandard people that have no idea, what do you expect is going to happen? We [the football coaches] didn't get dumb or lazy all of a sudden. There were obviously some things that were different."

Fulmer supporters no doubt will rightly point out that none of the folks he singled out is still with the university.

Others would just as assuredly say that what became most different -- other than the departure on two occasions of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe (who never assisted on fewer than eight wins in a season during his years with Fulmer) was that the school got tougher on academics and discipline in the wake of the Linda Bensel-Meyers scandal at the dawn of the new millennium.

No longer able to recruit players on athletic prowess alone, UT became somewhat average. After averaging 10.2 wins and directing teams in two BCS bowls in his first seven seasons, Fulmer averaged 8.4 wins and reached no BCS bowls in his final nine years.

Given his statement that he took responsibility, Fulmer was asked if there was anything he'd change.

"Not really," he said. "Now I'm sure I'd change something in each of the 52 losses we had. There are always things you'd change about those. But as for everything else, if I said something it might sound like I was throwing somebody under the bus. So I'll keep that to myself. But I'm very proud of what we accomplished there."

What Fulmer hopes to accomplish now is to build ETSU into a FCS football power after a 10-year absence from the sport. Hired as a consultant by ETSU president Dr. Brian Nolan, Fulmer already has helped in the hiring of Knoxville native Carl Torbush as the head coach, watched students approve a $125 activity fee to help fund football and seen the school approve plans for a new stadium.

"Dr. Nolan is a visionary guy," he said. "I had no intentions of doing this. I was happy with my business and my family. But I love the athletic world and I thought I could help."

Said Dick Sander, the former UTC basketball player and current ETSU athletic director: "Phillip's given us instant credibility. He's a difference maker. Carl keeps trying to get him to take the [NCAA] recruiting test so he could help us get players."

Countered a grinning Fulmer: "If I'd wanted to do that, I would have taken the head coaching job myself."

What he most likes doing these days is hanging out with his five grandchildren, ages 9 to 1.

"I missed so much with my own kids," he said. "I was there a lot, but I'm there almost every day with these little ones. My 5-year-old grandson J.P. caught his first trout the other day. It was probably about this long (one foot), but when you ask him, he'll say it was this big (three feet), so he already understands the rules of fishing."

Fulmer didn't have much to say about UT's new gray uniforms other than this: "If they beat Florida in them, they should probably wear them every game. Now I'm a traditionalist, but the bottom line is that it's all about winning and recruiting. If those uniforms help you recruit, those recruits might help you win. It's that simple."

What is less simple is his relationship with the school where he spent nearly 40 years of his life as a player, an assistant coach and the head coach.

He'll tell you he likes new coach Butch Jones. A lot. He appreciates how Jones has reached out to the former players and coaches, including himself.

But entering the fifth autumn since he last coached the Big Orange, Fulmer still can't bring himself to watch a UT practice, even at Jones's invitation.

"It's still a little too hard for me to watch right now," he said.

Whatever their feelings for their former coach, most UT fans surely would admit that the program's been hard to watch since Fulmer left, regardless of his degree of responsibility for that decline.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.