Former head coach Phil Fulmer greets referees at halftime of the Tennessee homecoming football game in Knoxville in mid-November, 2015.

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Perhaps you've heard the words before. Something along the lines of "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

To that notion, perhaps former University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer's supposed dislike for new UT athletic director John Currie has been overstated and maybe it hasn't. That's probably best left to the two of them.

Nevertheless, that line about friends and enemies seemed worth repeating following Tuesday's announcement that Fulmer has been hired as a special adviser to school president Joe DiPietro and that the Hall of Fame coach's areas of interest will include community, athletics and university relations.

And whether Currie had anything to do with that olive branch — he was quick to give the credit to DiPietro during Tuesday's news conference — it is yet another example of his savvy and leadership skills that he publicly embraces the return of Fulmer to the Big Orange fold, whatever the AD's private reservations may be.

Understand, this is the same Fulmer who refused to answer reporters' questions at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquet just south of this city on the day it was announced Currie would be the UT athletic director. Nor did he attend Currie's introductory news conference.

This is also the same Fulmer — whether the oft-repeated rumor is accurate or not — who supposedly lobbied for the AD position in early winter as a way possibly to stop Currie from getting the job, since Currie had been an assistant to former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton when Hamilton fired Fulmer during the 2008 regular season.

And DiPietro's new $100,000-a-year assistant didn't immediately go all warm and fuzzy on Currie when asked about his strengths as an AD, answering, "Ask me that question in a year."

In referencing Currie's reaching out to him, Fulmer wryly observed, "We all grow and mature, right?"

So it may still be years before these two men write each other personal notes on the backs of Christmas cards or wrap each other in a bear hug following a huge UT athletic achievement.


Fulmer's wounds from being fired by his alma mater after leading the Volunteers to a 1998 national championship still appear not to have completely healed. The return of Currie is a fresh reminder of that dark time.

Whether he meant to or not, Fulmer seemed to underscore that lasting pain when he said of the past decade or so of Big Orange mediocrity: "We've been through so much. Unnecessarily, in my opinion," before quickly adding, "in my biased opinion."

And it would be easy to argue for that belief on many fronts, beginning with his firing in 2008. Had Fulmer been given one more season to right a struggling program, neither he nor that fairly sizable portion of the fan base who still believed in him might have loudly grumbled if he'd been let go the following year for again failing to meet expectations. Or perhaps he would have returned the Vols to the SEC title game, as he did the season before he was fired.

Either way, as he has proven time and time again, no one loves UT more than Fulmer, and had he been unable to turn it around following a reprieve, he might have gone far more gently into retirement.

But that didn't happen. Then Lane Kiffin fled after a season for Southern Cal. Then Derek Dooley was cut loose three years after that. Though Butch Jones has done far more good than bad over his four seasons succeeding Dooley, Volniacs are again restless for more than a mid-level bowl bid.

If Fulmer can do anything as a UT alum with a national title under his belt and 70 percent winning rate, it's to let the Big Orange Nation know that Jones — assuming the Vols don't collapse this season — is on the right track.

Or as Fulmer told reporters Tuesday, "Butch has got us close."

But what most needs to happen is for the UT athletic family — administrators, coaches, boosters, rank-and-file fans — to draw close, to truly be "One Tennessee," as former AD Dave Hart pushed all concerned to become.

And that's certainly where both DiPietro and Currie strongly sense that Fulmer can be invaluable.

"Phillip has been a tremendous asset to the University of Tennessee both on and off the field for more than 40 years," DiPietro noted in a prepared statement before the news conference.

Said Currie afterward: "This furthers the example of leadership that (Fulmer) provides."

Cementing that belief, the old coach with the new gig said, "Everybody has to pull in the same direction. I can help that."

But Currie's willingness to accept that help from a man many within the Big Orange Nation have considered his enemy is yet another example of the leadership the new AD is providing for a once-proud program sorely in need of a new direction.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at