When a coach runs a program for 17 years in a "talent-poor" state that wins a national championship, wins 150 games total, has one of the best tenures in SEC history, and gets noted for building up the "USC of the '90s", he has produced one of the greatest coaching tenures in the roughly 120 years of organized college football.
Let's take a trip down memory lane and talk about our favorite parts of Fulmer's tenure. Set aside all the negatives, all the snarks, all the humor, etc., for now; I'd like to see what everybody will remember as Fulmer's high points.
As a Wyoming-raised kid, I first picked up interest in the Vols in the mid-90s when the Manning era really got Tennessee on national TV. In all of the early shots of the UT program (the Vol Navy, Neyland Stadium, the Power T, etc.), the first thing that really impressed me was the overall classy feel of the program and fanbase. Things just felt like an honest, down-home culture that I could relate to. Fulmer was merely a coach at that phase; I had no reason to think one way or another about him.
As I followed the team for a bit, Fulmer struck me as a very good coach who, probably due to a lack of on-air charisma, did not get the ESPN love that coaches like Spurrier, Bowden and Osborne were receiving. The program had a bit of a stodgy presentation on TV, but nothing of any actual negative value was ever displayed (unlike the era of the Criminoles, Miami's camouflage gang, etc.). After the '98 championship and the '01 near-miss, the program then went into a tailspin where the players were too full of themselves based on the accomplishments of their predecessors. At first, it appeared that Fulmer was following Bowden's path of no resistance, but recent events have shown otherwise:
Fulmer is a coach who genuinely loves and cares for his players. He may allow a rogue player to hang on for too long, but only because he knows what happens to dismissed players: they go home. Home (in the community sense) is where their troubles usually started, and home is where their troubles would immediately resume if they leave. If they can just manage to graduate and straighten up, they can turn their life around and escape the death spiral that their home communities would have them ride.
Because Fulmer loves his players, they love him. How many coaches would receive a letter of support in the local paper from 40-ish former players? How many coaches would see the all-time superstar QB come on the sideline of a conference game during his team's NFL bye week to show support? The bond between Fulmer and his players is very real and very rare. Win-loss record aside, this is my favorite memory of Fulmer; I just wish more coaches would care about the lives of their players as much as Fulmer does.
Later on, I plan on opening threads up for other angles of tribute (hence the "Part 1" in the title). Nothing's really set in stone right now, but I will say this: warm up your Farking and Icanhascheezbuger-ing skills.