POOR PHILLIP FULMER. He just can’t seem to win.
Armed with a new contract and assurances from the Tennessee athletics administration that he is the Volunteers coach for the even longer haul, Fulmer must have anticipated a cordial meeting Thursday with the SEC media. Mostly, no questions about job security.
Then he arrived at The Winfrey Hotel with another problem. Internet reports had Fulmer being served a subpoena to testify in a former Alabama booster’s lawsuit against the NCAA.
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“I have not seen that. I have not seen a subpoena,” Fulmer said. “As I said to all the other groups, this is not the place for that kind of thing. There are great fans that have great passion about the Southeastern Conference that are not interested in that kind of (baloney), and I would have some other choice words if there weren’t so many cameras in here.”
So, it appears Fulmer was served a subpoena, one he avoided two years ago by not attending SEC media days. This time, the news went out nationally and was certain to provide another cloud around Fulmer, the kind that consistently shrouds the fact that he is one of the top coaches in SEC history.
That generally is the way it goes for Fulmer, the dean of SEC coaches as he enters his 17th season, and the leader among his fellow head coaches when it comes to never quite satisfying their fan base.
As recently as this past February — two months after Tennessee appeared in its seventh SEC championship game under Fulmer — a prominent Knoxville newspaper columnist called for Fulmer’s head. The thinking was that Fulmer’s lack of discipline with his players should cost him his job.
Five months later, Tennessee responded by giving Fulmer a seven-year contract that will pay him an average salary of nearly $3 million over the length of the deal. Fulmer’s previous contract paid him about $2 million annually.
In typical Fulmer fashion, even the new deal should have come with an asterisk. Despite ranking seventh all-time in wins among SEC coaches with 147, Fulmer’s annual salary will rank seventh among the current league coaches.
Fulmer always falls short in the respect department, from media members to fans. He is the Lloyd Carr of the SEC, taking over for the former Michigan coach as the one who can never do enough.
Never mind that Fulmer’s 1998 Tennessee team did not lose in 13 games and claimed the national championship. Never mind that his clubs have won seven divisional titles and two SEC championships. Never mind that nine times his Tennessee teams have won at least 10 games in a season.
Fulmer is 27 wins shy of sitting atop Tennessee’s all-time list, and there have been some pretty fair coaches along the way. Among those Fulmer would surpass in wins are Robert Neyland, Doug Dickey, Bill Battle and Johnny Majors.
Yet, to hear Tennessee fans talk, one would believe Fulmer has never been the man for the job. They do not seem to care that Fulmer is a Tennessee native and a Tennessee graduate. They dismiss the idea that at age 57 Fulmer can position his program to challenge for national championships.
At least for the past five seasons, Tennessee fans have wanted new blood, someone who can bring new dynamics to the program. They look around the league and see fresh faces such as Mark Richt of Georgia and Nick Saban at Alabama and Les Miles at LSU and begin to think maybe Fulmer has passed his prime.
Instead, they get the grandfatherly Fulmer who looks at the situation from a broader perspective.
“I think sometimes it’s just natural, somebody’s been at a place for a long time, you take them for granted a little bit possibly, or you like the newness of things,” Fulmer said. “I’m really, really appreciative of the contract and the support that (athletics director) Mike (Hamilton) and our people have given us.
“That’s got us headed in a very, very good direction from a recruiting standpoint, from a stability standpoint... . I am proud of the fact we’ve done it right. When you talk about APR, those kinds of things, we’ve been right in there as good with things that people really understand and appreciate.”
The problem is that Tennessee has not won an SEC championship since 1998, lost in a huge upset for the title to LSU in 2001 and fell flat in 2005 when Fulmer suffered his lone losing season.
Along the way, his program has never served NCAA probation. It has encountered discipline problems, but probably no more than most other SEC schools. Fulmer’s teams annually challenge for the SEC East championship, and they fill 102,000-seat Neyland Stadium for every home game.
What more can Tennessee fans possibly ask of Fulmer?
Fulmer believes it is the vocal minority that clamors for his job or fails to recognize his many successes. He said he attended a barbecue dinner Wednesday night when he was approached by a booster who followed Tennessee’s struggles in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
“Hey, coach, don’t let them bother you,” Fulmer recalled the booster saying.
“Who is ‘they’?” Fulmer responded. “Ninety percent of the people are very positive about what we’ve been able to do.”
It is that 10 percent that screams loudest, though.