The temperatures at Williams-Brice Stadium dipped into the 40’s Saturday night, but the hot seat under Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer is nearing an inferno.
And the scene that played outside of the Volunteers’ locker room following Saturday night’s 27-6 loss to South Carolina probably spoke more than anything said by the 17-year veteran coach or any of the players.
Fulmer’s youngest daughter, Allison, was in tears as several members of the Tennessee athletic family surrounded her and offered support. His wife, Vicky, stood nearby and greeted the many well-wishers that stopped by to give encouraging words. A comment was made by an onlooker that it looked more like the greeting line at a funeral instead of a loss at a college football game.
Fulmer was never directly asked about his future, but he did take a question about his ability to turn around a season in which the Vols can’t finish with a winning record for just the second time in his 17 years in Knoxville. Tennessee now is 3-6 overall, 2-5 in the SEC.
“I think enough has already been said, I don’t have to say too much,” Fulmer said. “Obviously we’re disappointed.”
After a pause of a few seconds, Fulmer continued like a man trying to keep his job.
“I think with time, we’ll be back on track. I’ve never had back-to-back losing seasons since I have been here. Usually when we have a bad one, it’s followed with a good one.”
It matters little to the Tennessee faithful what Fulmer has accomplished. He won the 1998 national championship, two SEC titles and seven divisional crowns. The Volunteers have finished in the top 10 nationally six times and finished in the top 25 13 times during Fulmer’s tenure. Fulmer has a career record of 150-51.
The speculation about Fulmer began last season before Tennessee won five in a row to land a spot in the SEC title game against LSU.
But this season the frenzy has reached an all-time high in Internet chat rooms, newspaper columns and radio call-in shows. Even though Fulmer signed a contract extension during the offseason, the speculation has grown with each loss. Tennessee is in shambles offensively and they have scored 6, 12, 14 and 9 and 6 points in the five SEC losses.
“Everybody is frustrated,” said Volunteers defensive end Robert Ayers, a Clio native. “Everybody is going to be frustrated when the season isn’t going the way you want it to. The leaders of the team and coaches are going to have to step up, especially the leaders of the team because the coaches have stepped up. We can’t let the leadership of this team fall.”
Arian Foster is one of those leaders hoping to keep the Volunteers on track. The senior running back said there are at least three games left in the season, and they have to make the best of what they have remaining.
“We don’t like to get involved in the coaches call,” Foster said. “Our job is to go out and play ball and win the games. We’re going to fight. We’re going to scratch, claw, bite do whatever we have to do. We have a lot of seniors and we’re going to try and go out the best way we can.
“If people are with us, they’re with us. If they’re not, they’re not. We’re going to ride with each other no matter what.”