The first thing I think of when I think of Phillip Fulmer isn't some Fulmerism or fark, it's a moving image of him intervening on the sideline with an angry Jason Witten in 2001, who was storming his way to the bench after something like his third key dropped pass against rival Florida. Fulmer didn't pounce on him, didn't chew him out, and didn't even drill him with a disapproving scowl. Instead, he grabbed Witten, hugged his neck, and spoke what appeared to be words of encouragement directly into the earhole of his helmet. His message, we later learned, was exactly what it looked like: "Keep your head up, Jason. You're going to be fine, and we're going to need you."
This is the reason they don't generally let fans on the sideline. Those clad in orange in the stands and watching at home were ready to rip Witten's helmet off head and all after he'd squandered yet another scoring opportunity. Yet there was Fulmer, building yet another young man into an NFL talent with honor, integrity, and character. Right in the midst of an all-important struggle against a hated rival, with everything on the line, Fulmer was first and foremost growing young boys into men.
Because that's what he was all about. The 2008 Tennessee media guide puts it like this:
Yet Fulmer’s most cherished responsibility centers around the teaching and guidance of young student-athletes. He has built Tennessee football on a platform of “Family First” – something UT’s players and coaches say is this program’s greatest attribute. And while his on-field accomplishments – like advancing the Vols to the 2007 SEC Championship Game and claiming 10 wins for the ninth time in 15 full seasons – have obvious allure, it’s the personal relationships that register most sincerely for Tennessee’s native son.
Despite numerous attempts to define him otherwise, that is Phillip Fulmer. It's why his coaching staff was the epitome of stability for so many years, why John Chavis struggled and failed earlier this week to contain the sobs when saying he had no regrets at turning down multiple opportunities to coach in the NFL because all he really wanted was to work for a guy like Phillip Fulmer. It's why players from all over the nation have come to a town of 180,000 people to play in a stadium that seats 106,000. It's why, when the Grim Reaper was knocking at his door last year, his former players bought a full page ad in the local paper to publicly show him support. It's why his current players refused to make room for members of the media at the forced resignation press conference so that they could sit front and center, so that their coach would see them and not some unfeeling camera when he looked up from his tear-stained notes. He'd been there for them, so now they would be here for him.
While he was training thousands of young men into adulthood through the vehicle of organized football, Fulmer was also providing millions of fans like me some of their most fond memories. You remember all of those games in 1998, when the team marched through time to a perfect season and the first BCS National Championship, right? Fulmer gave us that. You remember the 2001 game against Florida, when everything was on the line and Travis Stephens ran over, around, through, up, down, and on the Florida Gators? You remember the six overtime win over Arkansas in 2002, which was finally completed some time Sunday morning with Witten standing in the end zone and pointing to the sky just before being buried by the remainder of his team? You remember taking that South Florida swagger and stuffing it down Miami's throat in 2003? How about the five overtime victory over Alabama in 2003? Or James Wilhoit running around the field screaming his head off like a little kid after making good on his chance at redemption against the Gators in 2004? Even the Season of Which We Do Not Speak included the Rally in the Valley, when Fulmer gave Rick Clausen — The Rudy of the New Millennium, Nobody’s All-American — his chance at redemption, which led to one of the greatest comebacks in Tennessee football history.
Around here, we've been calling 2008 the Season of Constant Sorrow. It's really not just the losses and the difficulties the team has experienced on offense. It's the fracturing of the fanbase and the end of an era for a good man who simply could not find any peaks among the valleys this time around. But even the divided fanbase had to be moved by Fulmer's announcement that this season would be his last:
That scene spurred a wide range of emotions not only from his players, but also from fans in the blogosphere, who said it was everything from sad to heartbreaking to near torture to treasonous. For me, seeing the backs of all of those players' heads just brought that image to mind again of Fulmer encouraging Witten on the sidelines. For Fulmer, the winning was important, but it was always secondary to the tradition of growing young men into adults. I know I've said this several times already in this space, but I can't get the idea out of my head that Phillip Fulmer is just like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof:
Yes, coach Fulmer was The Papa, a guy who'd been hugging history and tradition so tightly that it had become both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. He had voluntarily assumed the role as the proverbial salt of the earth, the individual charged with preserving the way things were, the guy who was constantly reminding his peers of the good old days, the paternal old crank who, whether you wanted him to or not, took it upon himself to shield and protect you from the decomposition that too often follows forgetting where you're from.
Yeah, that was him, bucking and bridling and otherwise resistant to any change that threatened to intrude into his cozy corner of the community. Yet he was also the guy who, after undoubtedly hashing things out by way of a conflicted internal monologue, ultimately acquiesced to the inevitable with an endearing civility you had come to expect from him.
No, he will never, ever be comfortable with any change, much less this. He will bristle and cajole and attempt to convince you that you are in error, but in the end he will gracefully allow you to choose your own way. And like any good parent, teacher, mentor, or leader, his countenance may falter as he watches that which he has reared now make its way into the wilderness without him, but he will console himself with hopes and prayers that his relentlessly gentle admonitions to choose rightly, to choose Tradition and Honor and Character, have taken root in the next generation.
Some remember Phil
For the past couple of years
And forget the good.
Me? I barely know
Of Manning, the Golden Age
of UT football.
I will always see
“And pandemonium reigns”
When I think of thee.
It seemed destiny
When “he stumbled and fumbled”,
We held the crystal.
Seek Phil’s legacy
In the eyes of his players
Game Ball goes to Phil.
I said it yesterday in the Thanksgiving post, but I'll say it here again. Thank you to The Papa, Chief, and the coaching staff and players, for risking failure, for taking up the yoke of stress so that the rest of us can shed it for a few brief moments during the week and a few hours on Saturdays in the fall. Tomorrow will be the last game in your storied career as head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. It will be Phillip Fulmer Day.
And as it should be, you will have the final word at home.
|Offensive line, linebackers coach||Wichita State||1974-1978|
|Regional Coach of the Year (AFCA Region 2)||1993|
|National Coach of the Year (FWAA, AFCA, The Sporting News, Maxwell Football Club)||1998|
|SEC Coach of the Year (Coaches, AP)||1998|
|State Farm Eddie Robinson National Coach of Distinction Award||1999|
|Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame||2001|
|Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame||2008|
ACHIEVMENTS AS TENNESSEE'S HEAD COACH