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100 Days of Vols #33 - Phillip "The Papa" Fulmer

The man who will always be Tevye to me.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

This is a very good time to remind everyone that these 100 Days of Vols posts are not ranked in any particular order. It's more of a campfire conversation with each of us claiming dibs on whatever pops into our minds first. If the entries were ranked, I would personally put this one much higher than #33 (although there may be a few who might put it lower because of Johnny Majors memories), and frankly, it deserves more and better treatment than I'll be able to give it today.

But Phillip Fulmer, whom I came to affectionately call The Papa, is one of the things I love best about Tennessee football.

Let's just start with his record as the head man: 152 wins and 52 losses. An undefeated season and national championship in 1998, 2 SEC championships, and 6 division titles. He reached the 50- and 75-victory milestones quicker than any other coach in SEC history, and he needed only 123 games to hit 100 wins.

Chances are it was Fulmer's hand on the wheel at the time of many of your most fond memories of Tennessee football. He was in charge for at least 35 of the 67 entries so far in this series. (Apologies for the "at least." It's a long series, as evidenced by the fact that I inadvertently posted on Butch Jones for the second time at #40 when Will had him right out of the gate.)

Will's done an entire series on the 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era, an absolutely fantastic list that I had intended on culling down to a few highlights but will instead just post the top 25:

  1. 1998 - Tennessee 23 Florida State 16 - The National Championship
  2. 1998 - Tennessee 20 Florida 17 (OT) -No Sir Ree
  3. 1995 - Tennessee 41 Alabama 14 - At Last
  4. 1998 - Tennessee 28 Arkansas 24 - Oh my goodness, he stumbled and fumbled!
  5. 1997 - Tennessee 30 Auburn 29 - A Ring For Peyton
  6. 2001 - Tennessee 34 Florida 32 - We Believe
  7. 2004 - Tennessee 30 Florida 28 - From Goat to Hero in Three Minutes
  8. 1996 - Tennessee 20 Alabama 13 - Turning The Tide
  9. 1992 - Tennessee 31 Florida 14 - In The Downpour
  10. 1998 - Tennessee 24 Mississippi State 14 - Surviving Upset Saturday
  11. 2004 - Tennessee 19 Georgia 14 - 12 Point UnderDawgs
  12. 1995 - Tennessee 20 Ohio State 14 - Eddie Who?
  13. 2007 - Tennessee 52 Kentucky 50 (4OT) - Sixty Minutes and Four Overtimes to Atlanta
  14. 2005 - Tennessee 30 LSU 27 (OT) - The Rally at Death Valley
  15. 2003 - Tennessee 51 Alabama 43 (5OT) - The Longest Third Saturday
  16. 2002 - Tennessee 41 Arkansas 38 (6OT) - A Six Overtime Heart Attack
  17. 2006 - Tennessee 51 Georgia 33 - The Perfect Fourth Quarter
  18. 2003 - Tennessee 10 Miami 6 - Kellen Winslow is a Soldier
  19. 1998 - Tennessee 34 Syracuse 33 - The Thin Line Between 13-0 and 0-1
  20. 1998 - Tennessee 22 Georgia 3 - No Jamal, No Problem
  21. 2007 - Tennessee 35 Georgia 14 - Backs to the Wall, One More Time
  22. 1998 - Tennessee 35 Alabama 18 - A Big Orange 100 Yarder
  23. 1992 - Tennessee 34 Georgia 31 - The Shape of Things to Come
  24. 1995 - Tennessee 30 Georgia 27 - Jeff Hall, Freshman from Winchester
  25. 2001 - Tennessee 45 Michigan 17 - And you can keep your stupid trophy

I met the guy once, back before I'd written one word about the program. I and my daughter, who must have been about four or so at the time were in line at one of the spring game Fan Days. I shook his hand and had him sign something. No big deal. But then he made a special attempt to talk to my daughter, holding his arms out to her and smiling a grandfatherly smile. She was too shy, and he was gracious at being left hanging, and we all went on our way. And I know that kissing babies is of the political aspects of the job. But it really didn't seem like a chore to him. Somehow it seemed like that was just who he was.

And I will be forever grateful for the moments and memories that his teams gave me as a fan. Heck, one of the favorite things I've ever done on this blog was a video tribute to The Papa based on Fiddler on the Roof that I would link to except that I had to take it down due to an anachronistic intellectual property licensing scheme that can't keep up with digital media. Sigh. (Somehow, it still lives at that link, though, if you're interested.)

Yes, the program found itself in a tailspin in 2005 from which Fulmer wouldn't recover. But even when he was let go, and I think no matter how you felt about him being let go at the time, I think you have to respect the man for what he gave us fans. Speaking for myself, I loved the guy. Watching his goodbye press conference and the way he conducted himself during a terribly difficult time still wrecks me.

Why did I call him The Papa? Well, I hadn't read this post probably since I wrote it back on November 3, 2008, but it really does sum up my feelings on Fulmer, even more now that it's five years later:

Tennessee Volunteer head coach Phillip Fulmer was just like Tevye. 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.

Well how about that.