Six months in, Phillip Fulmer 'invigorated' by 'second chance to finish well' at Tennessee

Former Tennessee head coach, Phillip Fulmer, is seen an NCAA college football game between Tennessee and South Carolina Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE - As Beverly Davenport and Phillip Fulmer approached a podium adorned with University of Tennessee logos, applause rang out around the room, and for a moment, the underlying circumstances hardly seemed to matter.

As the clapping ceased, Davenport's words brought a quick reminder of just how conflicting the moment was. Friday marks six months since the scene unfolded on campus.

"This hasn't been an easy process for any of us, and I want you to know that I regret deeply any hurt that has been caused," said Davenport, the university's chancellor at the time.

Fulmer, a revered former football coach and player for the Volunteers, was there to be introduced as the university's athletic director. Had he been appointed to the role nine months before, that would have been a moment of bliss for most of the Tennessee faithful.

But with a coaching search gone awry on the heels of the football program's first-ever eight-loss season that culminated with the sudden replacement of John Currie as athletic director that morning, Dec. 1 was a day of mixed emotions at Tennessee.

photo Former Tennessee head coach, Phillip Fulmer, is seen an NCAA college football game between Tennessee and South Carolina Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

"Tough time," Fulmer said this week on The Paul Finebaum Show as he reflected on the circumstances that brought him back to a prominent position at his alma mater. "Tough time for our university. Certainly a different series of events. But I stepped in, and I think things are calmed."

Half a year after one of the most tumultuous stanzas of recent Tennessee sports history, the prevailing sentiment - or at least the company line - is that Fulmer has indeed defused the chaos.

"What Coach Fulmer has done is kind of calmed the ship," men's basketball coach Rick Barnes said during the Big Orange Caravan's recent stop in Chattanooga. "There's a calmness that we have right now, and I think a lot of it has to do with him and the fact that he was a coach."

Fulmer's first order of business was to hire football coach Jeremy Pruitt, and Fulmer has been clear the program he once led is his top priority as athletic director.

He has also hired a new volleyball coach, Eve Rackham, entered negotiations for contract extensions with Barnes and women's basketball coach Holly Warlick, been open to discussing major facilities projects at Neyland Stadium and the baseball program's Lindsey Nelson Stadium and landed a four-year contract of his own.

Through it all, he has touted a message of unity, even as drama has continued outside of the athletic department with the ousting of Davenport as chancellor. The university continues to grapple with the chancellor transition, a new structure to the Board of Trustees and persistent rumors that university president Joe DiPietro will soon retire.

But within the athletic department, where most of Currie's executive staff hires have remained in their positions even after his dismissal, Fulmer said "we're taking care of our business."

"I saw it at its very, very best with president Joe Johnson and (former athletic director) Doug Dickey and myself and Pat Summitt and Bruce (Pearl)," Fulmer told Finebaum. "We were all there just doing our business. They trusted us and we trusted that they were going to do everything they could to support us, and we had great success. Somehow, we got off track. We're looking forward, not back. Learn from mistakes but go forward. I'm pretty excited about where we are now."

A university, Fulmer noted, is just brick and mortar.

"It's the people in it that matter," he said.

Fulmer's relationship with Pruitt is arguably his most important. Fulmer has never been an athletic director before and Pruitt never a head coach. But the two have found common ground while adjusting to their new roles.

"Looking at it, there's one thing about it," Pruitt said. "Coach Fulmer loves Tennessee. Me and him are both pulling in the same direction. For me, shoot, it's a great advantage for me to be able to sit down and take things from him. I have no ego. We both want the same thing, so it's really good."

Six months ago, as Fulmer was introduced and spoke of turning around the football program, Pruitt was Alabama's defensive coordinator. Six days later, he was named coach of the Vols.

Now, with the initial storm calmed, Fulmer is looking ahead. There are more storms on the horizon that will need to be navigated.

Perhaps the new coach will struggle, or perhaps he will perform so well Fulmer must fight to keep Pruitt at Tennessee.

Time will tell. But Fulmer told Finebaum he feels "invigorated" to tackle the impending challenges just as he did in 1993, when he took over as Tennessee's head coach. That tenure ended after the 2008 season, when the Vols finished with a losing record for the second time in four years.

"I get a second chance to finish well," Fulmer said, "and I want to do that for me and my family, but also for my university."

The circumstances that made Fulmer head coach were not idyllic. He took over for Johnny Majors as Majors recovered from heart surgery, and the transition sparked some division. But one of the best eras of Tennessee football came next, and Majors remains a beloved figure in the program's history.

The events that brought Fulmer to power this time were even more unusual. But six months in, Fulmer is weathering the storm, just as he did in 1993. He is working to "get the culture right," he said.

"I do think God has a plan," Fulmer told Finebaum. "In the end, hopefully we'll get it right. A couple years from now, I'll tell you whether it's exactly right. But I can tell you at this moment in time, we're on a good path.

"I'm excited. And I think our people are excited."

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