New York–The last time August rolled around and Phillip Fulmer WASN’T getting ready for a football season, he was in the sixth grade in his native Winchester, Tenn.
“When this time of the year finally came I knew I was going to miss coaching,” said Fulmer. “I just didn’t know I would miss it this much.”
As a player, assistant coach and head coach, Fulmer has spent most of the past 40 years at the University of Tennessee. In 17 years as head coach, Fulmer had won 152 games, two SEC championships, one national championship (1998) and took the Volunteers to the SEC championship game five times, the last appearance coming as recently as 2007. But last November, as the Volunteers stumbled towards a 5-7 finish, athletics director Mike Hamilton informed Fulmer that the time had come to make a change.
“It was tough. I’m not going to kid you,” Fulmer said. “Given our track record, I certainly believed we could get things turned back around if given a chance. But that wasn’t what happened. I understand the business. I knew I was going to be fine.”
With his 59th birthday coming up on Sept. 1, Phillip Fulmer wants his friends to know he is fine. He was in New York this week getting ready for a new assignment as a college football analyst for the CBS College Sports Network. Fulmer and I did an SEC/Big 12 preview show together that will run on CBS College later this month. We also enjoyed a nice dinner out on the town where we had a chance to catch up on what he’s been doing since parting ways with Tennessee.
“My priest told me that I should take a sabbatical where I would rest, study, and pray and I took that to heart,” said Fulmer. “I did more fun things than I’ve done in a long, long time. We have a new grandson that I’m enjoying. I’ve enjoyed my family a lot more. I’ve gotten involved in an investment business where I’m a partner. The good news is that I don’t have to do anything. But it’s not in my DNA not to be doing something.”
Fulmer is set financially but he took the TV gig because he wanted to stay involved in the game and keep his face out there. He is very clear on this: If the right opportunity comes along, he wants to get back into coaching for the 2010 season.
“I absolutely want to coach again. I’m young and I feel young,” Fulmer said. “Given what we accomplished at Tennessee I still think we have something to contribute. We had a lot of success at Tennessee.”
But Fulmer also made it clear that he will only return to coaching at a school that is committed to winning championships.
“I think the commitment comes from the administration in terms of facilities, hiring the best possible staff and giving them the tools to succeed,” Fulmer said. “It would be silly for me at this point to go start up a program. Building new programs is very important work. But that is not what I want to do at this point.”
Fulmer is doing television to remain close to the game. He is also making his own personal tour to NFL camps trying to add to his knowledge base. When he left New York on Wednesday, Fulmer rented a car and drove to Albany where he attended the Giants training camp.
“People who know me know that I’m not afraid of change and to learn new things,” said Fulmer. “I’m not afraid to take a chance. We showed that went we went from (quarterback) Petyon Manning (in 1997) to Tee Martin (in 1998). They were both great players but had success in different ways.
“Of course that (willingness to try new things) probably bit me in the butt last year.” Fulmer was referring to his hiring of former Richmond head coach Dave Clawson as his offensive coordinator in 2008. The move was intended to create some new offensive wrinkles after the departure of OC David Cutlicliffe to Duke. It did not work and was one of the contributing factors to Fulmer’s ultimate dismissal at Tennessee.
Fulmer is very guarded when he discusses the new Tennessee coaching staff, led by Lane Kiffin. He believes that former head coaches are supposed to be like former presidents. You don’t talk about the new guy.
But in our show he did say this when asked about Tennessee: “In football, if you’re going to talk, you better be able to back it up.”
So Fulmer is going to work hard at television but have some fun. He’s going to learn as much as he can and if the phone rings in November and December and opportunity knocks again, he’ll have a decision to make.
“People who are close to me tell me I don’t have to do this (go back to coaching). It is a valid discussion,” Fulmer said. “Figuring all that out is what this fall is going to be all about. My plan is to enjoy it.”
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